Lead by Example
Erika Cuellar, Co-founder of Alma Backyard Farms, studied education at Loyola Marymount University and didn’t necessarily end up going into a traditional classroom because she worked at Homeboy Industries in the kitchen of Homegirl Café, and now sees the farm as her new classroom. CEF was able to spend some quality time with a past CEF recipient and discuss the many reasons why she believes being at a Catholic school and having special programming for the students, is what she’s really interested in.
“It’s this sort of ‘radical education in love’ at the farm, that brings light to the truth that God loves us regardless of who we are or what we’ve done. Being able to share that through the work and through this space, makes it all worth it!” – Erika Cuellar
Q: When I read your bio, it seemed that the integrity and financial viability of the mission were important to you, so I wanted to see what your thoughts were on creating the mission and keeping that mission alive.
A: “I think the creating opportunity piece is a really big part of what we do and why we do it. Los Angeles County has the largest number of parolees in California. A lot of these folks are coming into our neighborhoods in Los Angeles after spending time in jails and prisons. There’s this common thread of wanting to give back, and this desire to want to be a part of something that comes to life. We’re a space that allows for that to happen in a way where it’s not so much this “us and them” culture, but it’s really the fact that they’re a part of the fabric of society. This urban farm and all of our sites are built by folks who were incarcerated, their fingerprints are all over every aspect of our work and they are the ones beautifying the neighborhood, feeding people, creating that opportunity for others. So, it’s not this approach where they just get to show up and be a part of a little piece, they are interwoven into the entire mission of Alma. Often times people say, ‘why here?’ and I say ‘well, WHY NOT’. That’s the very reason why we do it here, because it doesn’t exist here. ‘Why does it have to be so beautiful?’, and my answer again is ‘well, why not?, these lives are just as deserving as any other lives.’ We have this craftsman look since Richard is a carpenter and I think that beauty really does inspire and it allows for people to leave this place feeling better and feeling like their lives are valued and that they can be more open to other opportunities.”
Q: Was the statement of “Reclaiming lives, repurposing land and reimagining communities” just some sort of creative fun you were having with words or how much does it actually weigh on the mission as well?
A: “I think it weighs on the mission a lot. It was intentional and we definitely put some thought into it. I think that we forget that we are connected to each other and we forget that we are connected to the land and so the “RE” just puts emphasis on the fact that we’re trying to remind people that this is an important part of our existence. We are connected to each other and through our food, and it’s the only way that we will create equity and opportunities for everyone. I think in part it’s because our approach is shoulder-to-shoulder as leaders in the organization. Richard and I are very ‘hands-on’ and so our hands are harvesting, our hands are preparing the land, our hands are digging, our hands are building the land, we’re teaching folks and we’re working with folks, and that’s a big part of building community… that you’re starting literally from the ground up and in the ground. I think that this space has this kind of energy about it, sort of like the spirit is alive here! The folks feel it and the spirit is alive here and I think that people feel good and they get excited about this work.”
Q: Pragmatically speaking, I wanted to see if there is a key in the interlocking of the chains, amongst the public, the students, the board of directors? I feel like there’s something very special about having all of these important pieces.
A: “We are a small unit, and we kind of operate like the NAVY SEALS! We’re this small group of very skilled individuals who go in and execute, and then onto the next mission – it’s the capacity to be able to move from one thing to another is what helps us get through. We know that the land heals and that connecting to the soil allows for opportunities to redeem yourself and build opportunities for others. Urban farming is the means to bring people together and we feel like we’re that stepping stone for them. We give them that feeling of coming home and the moments they witness the children interacting in the space or they witness community members and their joy over the vegetables that they now have access to. It’s these sorts of exchanges that help people feel like ‘I’m home and now a part of this’. We also are able to then hire some of our volunteers through our social enterprise, which grows and sells food on-site to the community at super-affordable prices and we also sell to restaurants at market rate, which helps to subsidize some of the services that we provide for free. Folks get to plug into the build-outs of the farms, the distribution to some of the local farmer’s markets and earn an honest dollar and continue to be a part of Alma.“
Q: Actively through programming and seeing the children engage here, despite them not seeing the whole world and having years of experience, what do you feel is the main component of having students at such a young age interacting with Alma and in turn having Alma in a Catholic school?
A: “I think the big component is that we’re developing environmental stewards. It’s not just for fun or for the snack… but what we’re striving to create is environmental stewards who are going to continue to take care of our common home, right, just like the call that Pope Francis has, and that has to start at a young age. You know, right now we are facing this crisis, of not knowing as adults, how to take care of our common home. We believe strongly that if we are able to teach children how things grow and how crucial dirt is to our existence in creating habitats, then we’ll be able to develop the palate in the kid at an early age, but not just the palate for food but the palate and appetite for change and what they can do about it. It’s amazing to see when kindergarteners pause at the little trash bin stations and they’re holding their item and they are curious about which bin it goes in! “Is it trash, compost or recyclables?” This is amazing because something is starting to develop in that child’s mind where everything is not trash. Compost has so many overtones with our lives, especially the lives we work with. What we put in compost is often what would get thrown away, it’s forgotten and it’s seen as worthless, but actually it’s the same very thing that brings life to everything we do here! It’d be great if we can do this in so many more neighborhoods. You just can’t get enough of this…There’s never too many urban farms or gardens!”
Q: Having Alma carry a strong sense of service and Catholic values within its ethos, must be such a remarkable sense of pride every time you come to work. Knowing that you can expand anywhere, but that fact that you chose to establish this farm here and be a prominent fixture for the students here at St. Albert the Great, is outstanding! Wouldn’t you agree?
A: “I don’t think we’d go into public schools, no. I think working with Catholic schools is more of what we’re interested in. Again, we’re not trying to only go into schools, we’re just blessed that St. Albert has so much land. There isn’t land like this available in schools and, if there is, they’re raising money to put another building down. There’s not a lot of land available for us to continue doing this but it is a very special thing that we can do it in a Catholic school. Having grown up in Catholic schools myself makes it even more impactful. If it wasn’t for the Catholic Education Foundation, my parents wouldn’t have been able to put us through Catholic school. I’m one of five, and my family moved here right after the riots. When I was growing up, food insecurity was a real thing in my neighborhood and in my house. Thankfully issues of incarceration weren’t prevalent in my family, but they were in my neighborhood. I think now being able to work in a Catholic school and provide this opportunity for kids in the community to have access to healthy food and education, is what a Catholic education prepared me for. There’s no way that my Catholic upbringing hasn’t heavily influenced where I am today. I think that creating very meaningful and impactful experiences for kids today is in big part because people did that for me growing up….so WHY NOT!”