Call it a regeneration of soul and soil. That’s what students, faculty, and professional staff are calling Roots of Justice, a recently launched, MiraCosta College initiative supporting the formerly incarcerated through gardening.
Not only are the formerly incarcerated students taking part in the most down-to-earth endeavor you could find by raising everything from arugula to fennel and butternut squash, but they’re also connecting with industry experts and developing pathways to possible careers while taking lessons from their past to serve as mentors at two continuation high schools in Vista.
Indeed, while students in the program are paid minimum wage for up to 10 hours each week for their services, they are harvesting much more out of Roots of Justice than a modest paycheck. To Manny Rodriguez, who is enrolled at both at MiraCosta College and California State University, San Marcos, the biggest windfall is in mentoring students at Major General Raymond Murray High School in Vista.
“By being supportive, by sharing my story, by trying to keep history from repeating itself, I’m hoping to impact our future,” said Rodriguez, who spent more than 15 years in federal prison on drug-related charges. “There are a lot of analogies between life and gardening. If you give a plant the right environment, it’s going to grow and it’s going to blossom. The same goes for individuals. If you support an individual, put in the time, put them in the right environment, they’re going to grow. They’re going to flourish. Plus, there’s just something about working in a garden. It's a place where you can clear your head.”
Not everyone involved with Roots of Justice has been formerly incarcerated. Katherine Hidalgo, co-president of the campus Sustainability Club who has her sights set on transferring to UC Santa Cruz before embarking on a career in ecology and evolutionary biology, got involved because the program’s mission spoke to her. “Being able to work with other students in seeing the importance of sustainability and our environment is rewarding,” she said. “You’re reaching a younger generation. You’ll hear kids saying they didn’t think there was a place in higher education for them until they were exposed to Roots of Justice.”
Roots of Justice is the brainchild of Associate Professor Kathleen “Kat” Soto-Gomez, who teaches in the Sociology Department and secured a local $50,000 Strong Workforce Program grant to help fund the initiative, which involves the MiraCosta College Horticulture Department, the Sustainability Club, Retention Services, and the Transitions Scholars Program that provides support for students impacted by incarceration.
“It’s been really powerful to see the impact this program has had in such a short time,” said Soto-Gomez.
Job training is among the impacts.
“We seek to improve the employability opportunities for a population that represents multiple racial, ethnic, age, and gender disparities by providing a culturally relevant and affirming approach to job training and career pathway exploration,” states the local Strong Workforce project application. “Creating a pathway for formerly incarcerated students to enter the regenerative urban gardening industry will give them viable employment opportunities.”
Roots of Justice germinated after a talk by Christopher Burroughs, a formerly incarcerated individual who transformed his life when he enrolled at MiraCosta College, was a catalyst in creating the Transitions Scholars program, graduated with honors, and transferred to San Diego State University, where he’s majoring in sustainability while growing a nonprofit called the Garden 31 Community Initiative.
“I was speaking at a MiraCosta College Umoja graduation ceremony in 2020, it was during covid, so it was on Zoom, but I was talking about my experiences – incarceration, substance abuse challenges, and Garden 31. Kat was listening in on the event. She reached out a couple weeks later and asked if I could do something like Garden 31 at MiraCosta College,” Burroughs said. “It was a no-brainer for me: MiraCosta College, formerly incarcerated students, gardening, it was a perfect fit.”
Roots of Justice launched in the fall of 2021. Students plant seedlings in five, 6-by-3-foot garden beds and a couple 10-by-8-foot triangular planters. Other plants are grown in Horticulture Department greenhouses.
The program’s initial crop included bouquets of flowers for a graduation ceremony for Mana, a MiraCosta community serving Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students.
“There’s an energy that flows through us that also lives in plants,” said Burroughs, in explaining the appeal and calming effects of gardening. “It’s rejuvenating. In addition, watching something as it grows, watching a plant blossom after you’ve nurtured and cared for it, is rewarding. I enjoy helping people build communities so they can live their best lives. My medium is agriculture and gardening.”Said Soto-Gomez: “Our students are growing in agency, confidence, and tools for coping with stress. I really didn’t realize when we started how much healing this would provide our students.”