Liberation practice begins at the roots. And for Steve Hughes the adage is literal. Since he began the #BreathingRoom community garden a year ago he’s used the space as a tool to educate the Back of the Yards community on how they can become independent of oppressive systems through connecting with the land on their own block.
“The garden takes us back to the bare-bone basics and that’s so needed for the things we’re facing in today’s society,” says Steve. “The garden has a way of getting you out of your environment. I can tell you that after a day’s work at the garden I feel like I can excel. I feel like I can breathe.”
Steve, a teaching artist for the #BreathingRoom’s Envisioning Justice programming, began gardening only three years ago and is completely self-taught. As a former data engineer turned farmer, Steve uses gardening to find solutions for the health problems he sees each day in his community.
The #BreathingRoom space believes resisting the carceral state begins by creating healthy communities. Following, their Envisioning Justice workshops include: “#FreeSessions: Writing & recording rhymes for rebellion, liberation, & alternative futures”; “Casting Black Magic : Improv, dramatic writing, & transforming trauma into beauty”; and Steve’s class, “#EverybodyEats: Herbalism, urban gardening & culinary arts as portals to liberation.”
At its heart, the #BreathingRoom community garden is about education. As a central focus in his class, Steve uses the garden to make literal the #BreathingRoom’s mission to build healthy communities. Through teaching healthy eating habits, Steve makes connections between urban gardening, social justice and community wellness. In this he also connects to Envisioning Justice’s belief that innovation breeds more creative reimaginations of criminal justice. He wants his students to simply walk away knowing they have options outside of the current systems around them.
“The garden that I have is to educate the people. That’s the number one reason. It’s an example to the community of how it can be vibrant and make money,” Steve says. “I also want to provide some economic development so people can actually find a job. You can have a tarnished background and still be a farmer.”
The Back of the Yards neighborhood, located on Chicago’s South Side, is historically underserved in terms of access to healthy foods. According to the Greater Chicago Food Depository, the neighborhood has a food insecurity rating of between 20 and 35 percent, making it one of Chicago’s many food deserts. Community gardens like Steve’s fight this statistic by giving agency to the community to produce what they need. A self-sufficient community can more easily exist of outside of oppressive systems which, in this case, is the criminal justice system.
As a descendant of the Great Migration, Steve says he knew Black people once tied their livelihood to their land. It allowed them success outside of the oppressive systems of the era and in going back to these roots, Steve believes Black communities can gain similar freedom now.
“The land helped us get through the Civil Rights Movement. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was starting the movement he needed funding. The people who supported were Black farmers,” he said. “Black folks had to create wealth on their own and they did that by farming. But we don’t do that today. Of all the farmers in the U.S., only one percent are Black.”
With his garden, Steve re-writes this narrative. If 60s-era farmers could drive the fight for Civil Rights, then community gardens now can actively fight against mass incarceration. Aside from giving communities agency over their food, Steve’s garden and “Everybody Eats” workshop also teaches how growth from the land means growth for the community.
He grows over 20 varieties of vegetables and fruits throughout the year and as it grows, Steve hopes to involve as much of the community as possible. For example, during the summer he opens the garden fruit stand at which he eventually hopes to employ community members during future seasons. In the future he wants to expand these efforts into farmers markets to further the reach of his garden’s educational capabilities.
“Just being in a garden has always benefited humans’ wellness. You realize that you survive because the plant lives. In the process of growing the food you realize it’s also having an effect on you as an individual,” he said. “It takes your mind away from the negative and makes you focus on the positive. All I’m concerned about is getting this plant to grow.”