Gardening in 2020

When the pandemic came, some people drank about it, some people wrote about it — and some people planted potatoes about it.

When the shelter-in-place order came down for my county, I went to the community garden. For the past year, I’ve been helping with the community garden at St Stephen’s in-the-Field Episcopal Church (7269 Santa Teresa Blvd, San Jose, CA 95139).

One of my gardener friends had texted me the leaked announcement of the shelter-in-place order around noon; we had until midnight. We had no idea when anyone would be able to get to the garden and had hundreds of seedlings we needed to get out of the nursery beds. The seedlings were fruit vines we are growing from seed; California natives we are growing to build a California native garden on the church’s campus; transplanted volunteer oaks from the church’s 450-year-old mother valley oak.

People are dying in hospitals, hospices, and homes; they are today and they were on March 17. But I’m not a doctor or a nurse. So I solved the problem in front of me. I had to get the seedlings out.

Texting, emailing, and Discord messaging brought together a dozen gardeners who agreed to foster the seedlings for the foreseeable future. Members of the church had been gamely accepting seedlings for weeks, so the garden’s distributed shelter system was already in-place.

Within 6 hours, hundreds of plants were safely on apartment windowsills and mobile home backyards, on tables made from old fence posts and broken garbage cans, saw horses and petition-drive folding tables pressed into service as a backyard nursery.

This post is the first in a series about gardening during a pandemic. I aspire for it to be something like the BBC’s Gardener’s World, but instead of a 50-year-old Colonialist-apologist TV program with a massive heritage garden and a sizable travel budget, we’ve got: me, my gardening friends in South San José, and a global pandemic. Some of the gardeners I’ll be writing about are still working during the pandemic and some unable to work; some live in apartments, some in houses with backyards, and some in pre-fabricated home parks; most are queer women and nonbinary people in their 20s and 30s, but there will be guest appearances by 90-year-old grandmothers and 11 year old first-time gardeners and the wide cast of characters who I’ve met through my community garden.

If you’d like to hear more about this, sign-up to get these updates by email on the right-hand side of this page. If you’re writing about your garden in this moment or have advice, feel free to leave a comment.

As we now say in 2020, stay safe, stay healthy.

Presenting on Making the Women’s Bill of Rights Inclusive of Trans and Non-Binary Residents + Why There Haven’t Been Human Services Commission Updates

Tomorrow morning I’ll be presenting at Foothill College on my work as Chair of the Human Services Commission on the Women’s Bill of Rights, San José’s implementation of the United Nation’s Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women. You can see my presentation here, filled with wonderful free stock photos of trans, non-binary, and genderqueer folks from this collection.

Normally, tomorrow would be a day when the Human Services Commission would meet. I would love to meet. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to meet since January because half of our commission seats are unfilled, leaving us with 6 of our 13 seats empty. Those of you familiar with quorum rules know that means we need 100% of our members to attend a hearing to legally to allowed to meet. But every month, at least one commissioner has had a commitment that kept them away, so we have not met.

Below is a description of the process issue we’ve been going through, in the hopes that writing it out will help other commissioners facing the same issue resolve it more quickly. It gets long and wonky and technical and I want to say something about criticizing people vs processes before I get started.

I know the city is understaffed. I’ve worked in state government in two states. City workers are doing their best under difficult circumstances. But there are also some clear technical, process, and communication improvements that could be made to this system and I think the best way to help get them made is articulating them here, since 4 months of quiet advocacy that hasn’t worked.

The Process Issue: As far as I can figure out, the City Clerk’s office closed applications to the Human Services Commission (HSC) on January 3rd and didn’t tell us they were open until March 1. Here’s the timeline as far as I could find out:

  • December 2018: City Council does not fill the 4 vacancies on the HSC. The commissioners are asked at our 12/20 meeting to help recruit to fill them. We recruit from our networks. 
  • 2019: 1/3: the City Clerk’s office stops allowing people to apply to the Human Services Commission. They removed the HSC from the drop-down on the Granicus-run application system. 
  • 1/3 – Present: the City Manager’s office, through their commission staffer, encouraged the members of the commission to recruit from our personal networks to keep our commission alive. Here’s one such post.
  • Mid-Jan: We realize there’s an issue with the application system, don’t know what it is, and our staff secretary from the City Manager’s office reaches out to the Clerk’s office to fix it. They say they are understaffed and it will take about a week. At least 2 people I recruited to apply are unable to do so. I can’t tell them why. We’re still being reminded to recruit for the commission. 
  • 2/22: It’s the day after our February meeting, which we canceled for lack of quorum and the Clerk’s office re-opens the application. But our staff secretary — and thus the commission — is not told. So we have no idea applications are open. 
  • 3/1: The City Clerk’s office tells our staff secretary the application is open. But there’s some issues, so the staff secretary requests all recruited applicants reach out to her by email. You can see this language here in this tweet from Councilmember Khamis.
  • 3/8: I call every single council’s office with a vacancy plus the Mayor’s office (whose seat is also vacant). Those are: Mayor Liccardo, Vice Major Chappie Jones, Councilmember Lan Diep, Councilmember Devora Davis, Councilmember Sylvia Arenas, Councilmember Johnny Khamis. None of the frontline staff who picked up the phone knew their districts had a vacancy and most had no idea who on their staff handled board and commission appointments. I also made social media images and wrote sample newsletter/social media text to make it as easy as possible for busy staffers to recruit. You can see my image and text in Councilmember Khamis’s tweet.
  • 3/19: I hear from our staff secretary we have 9 new applications for the HSC. Which, to me, implies that council offices hadn’t known to recruit for these roles before and when council’s offices reach out, they get responses from their communities.
  • April – May: We struggle to get answers about if the applicants have been reviewed by the committee on appointments, whether their conflict of interest review by the City Attorney’s office had been done. We don’t meet either month.

I’m very much hoping we can meet in June. I wish I could tell the Foothill community college students and their families a story tomorrow about government moving quickly to solve a problem tomorrow, but instead we’ll talk about wielding inertia and that the arc of the moral universe does not bend alone; it bends because we bend it.

Sierra Leone: Wrapping Up

This is a series of posts I will be making about my trip to Sierra Leone to teach with the US State Department-funded TechWomen program. See photos here.

I got back late last night after about 42 hours of travel, beating my 2010 record of 31 hours of continuous travel by a handy margin. It was long, but the company was good, and I think I still have a brownie from Heathrow carefully wrapped in my jacket pocket (the itinerary was: Makeni->Freetown->Monrovia->Brussels->Heathrow->LAX->SFO->Home in San José).

Sunday:

I spent the weekend in Makeni, seeing many but not all of my friends from when I taught there back in 2017. One of the most touching moments was when I was presenting about how to give an elevator pitch and then I paused and asked the students there to raise their hands if they already knew me. Half of the room raised their hands.

To be known so far from home, to be so thoroughly remembered by people with busy lives and complex obligations, means more than I can say. I remembered them each as well — Fatimata who wants to be a Modern Day Bai Bureh, Abdul who wants to be a rapper (and who swaps new Jidenna tracks back and forth with me on Messenger), Joseph who is an incredible leader and just graduated, and Ibrahim, who is getting his MBA in China now. They and dozens of other students live with me every day and I usually assume — just like most people who teach do — that I remember more of them than they do of me. It meant a lot to see that wasn’t the case this time.

Here are 10 of the students who attended that session, giving their elevator pitches:

Today:

I presented for 3 minutes in my Japanese class about why I missed class last week, at the request of the sensei. I spent probably more time thinking about how to explain this entire week in 3 minutes than I did studying my hiragana (which may explain the resultant quiz grade). How do you sum-up an entire country in 3 minutes?

I talked about freedom of faith. I talked about technology and brilliant scientists. I talked about the deep, centuries-long relationship with the US, good and bad. I talked about why it’s vital to know the monetary value of the help you’re providing before giving some European airline $2000 to go to a country where that money could send a young person to college for a year, including room and board. I talked about the power of the US exchange programs and how the US citizens and the international students (who are about 50% of my class) could get involved.

My sensei asked what I taught that week. I listed it on the board:

  1. Coding on a Loom
  2. Pitching
  3. Finding Funding ($$$)
  4. Public Speaking

A student asked how I taught coding on a loom and I showed her with my fingers; she’s also a CS student and we ended up talking about what classes she was taking during the break, and the fact that CSU East Bay only offers C++, no Java.

While I spoke, I passed around some of the fabrics, I bought and a skirt I had made. This skirt, in fact:

I also included a mahogany sculpture of a woman reading and a wood-beaded bracelet I bought when I was there in 2017.

I talked about where the fabrics were from, about how different countries have different styles.

The first day back is always hard. The food tastes wrong, all of the colors in our cloudy California skies are too dull. I, who usually wear black accented with additional black and maybe some dirt on it for color, found myself wearing pink plaid and feeling as dull as an unvarnished door. Campus was so quiet, no call-to-prayer, no children running around me. My skin felt strange with no one tapping my arm for attention or brushing against me in crowded classrooms. I had my American personal space bubble back and it felt cold.

But every time I sat down to get my computer out, I got to see a bag full of Sierra Leone and suddenly the colors, the smells, the textures, the sounds were around me again, if only for a few moments.

One of the things that makes TechWomen so powerful is invested I get in the lives of women who live all over the world. When the women I know through the program have incredible professional wins, I cheer online along with them. Since they’re TechWomen Fellows, those major wins come regularly:

But the flip side of this is that I am invested in the lives of women who live all over the world. Women who I rarely get to hug, rarely get to smile at except through the mediating technology of Skype or WhatsApp. When things go wrong in their countries, which happens, then I hurt too. I get worried for them every time I see their countries’ names in the headlines.

Even when elections happen as planned, even when the airstrikes are called off, I miss my friends.

I love making friends around the world, women who know me, women whom I am honored to know.

But it is hard to know they are so far away.

I will miss Sierra Leone.

I didn’t say goodbye to any of my friends new or old during the delegation, only: “See you later.”

Sierra Leone, I will see you later.

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