Mama Wanda Sows Resilience
A Contributor from our Next-Gen Inspiration Team
Wanda Stewart stood out in her bright yellow overalls at Hoover Elementary’s garden work day celebrating Black History Month last spring. Known affectionately by the community as Mama Wanda, she flitted through the garden like a bee, swarmed by people and activity.
After a career of school administration and community engagement, Stewart saw firsthand how schools can be a central space for activating people. But it wasn’t until she moved to Berkeley, started growing food on her own land, and fell under the mentorship of legendary East Bay gardener Victory Lee that she saw how her experience with schools and love of gardening could come together to generate transformational change.
“By growing gardens in schools, we’re not just growing the children. We’re growing neighborhoods.”
Stewart went on to lead the food justice nonprofit People’s Grocery and build a garden at Hoover Elementary in West Oakland. All the while, she honed her philosophy: “By growing gardens in schools, we’re not just growing the children. We’re growing neighborhoods. We’re growing the earth and improving the planet.”
Stewart is now Executive Director of Common Vision, a fifteen-year-old nonprofit working at the nexus of food, learning, and the environment. Common Vision began with fruit tree planting in schools and now also educates youth, cultivates school gardens, and engages in urban forestry.
Stewart is quick to say that just like school gardens, trees offer multiple benefits. Trees clean the air, produce fruit, shed leaves that can generate compost, and even lower crime. Trees and gardens can also provide heat relief for community members and students. The greenery and shade can be crucial for schools with heat-absorbing blacktop playgrounds like Hoover Elementary, while also offering what Stewart calls “psychological cooling of the spirit.”
When Common Vision plants shade trees, youth conduct neighborhood outreach to inform residents of their benefits. This deep relationship building strengthens community support networks so communities can better respond to public health and climate crises.
Other Recent Posts
In this January mini-series, KneeDeep reaches across the continent to the East Coast to see how New York, New Jersey and Miami are wrestling with rising seas, whether they are succeeding in getting the local populace on-board, how the Army Corps’ is faring in its slow embrace of more nature-based flood-protection, and what parallels can be found here in San Francisco Bay. Three different angles on the same story, including one presented for your listening pleasure, by reporters Lilah Burke, Robin Meadows, and Ashleigh Papp.
From New York’s Battery Park City and Staten Island to the Cryosphere, follow sea level rise resilience work in this 13 minute audio story.
Typical flood protections rely on engineered structures. But there’s a new push at the national level of the US Army Corps of Engineers to prioritize working with nature. Storm surge plans currently underway in New York, Miami and San Francisco highlight a range of nature-based fixes.
As Bay Area residents kayaked through flooded streets and bailed out buildings during California’s recent storms, they faced not only bursting creeks and pouring rain but also rising groundwater.
In November 2022 San Rafael launched a resilience planning project that has community-based organizations playing an active role in decision-making.
An Army Corps storm surge and flood plan for the New-York-New Jersey waterfront, now going through a public comment period, could be the most far-reaching coastal resilience project the region has seen thus far. The preferred alternative, however, is leaving advocates and community groups questioning if all the pieces will ever fit together.
According to the Atlas of Disaster, 90% of U.S. counties have had an extreme weather event in the last ten years, and California had more disasters than any other state between 2011 and 2021. The report also offers a cost-effective path forward.
The 14 graduates of the inaugural 2021 Oakland Shoreline Leadership Academy have new skills to confront the rising tide head-on. “It’s completely changed how I look at the environment,” confesses Academy alum Shy Walker.
It’s hard for me to imagine a scarier name for weather than bomb cyclone — the kind of California experienced on January 4, 2023 — and in the days leading up to the storm, the media frenzy amped up my fears even more. Next, PG&E and my internet provider warned me of service outages. Then, Governor Newsom proclaimed a state of emergency.
San Francisco is increasingly seen as a “green” city but its track record doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.
When Oakland public schools closed at the start of the pandemic, Stewart coordinated a big harvest of collard greens and the herbs mullein, mint, plantain, and oregano to distribute to the kids. Afterward, the power of gardens as sites of individual and community resilience hit her: “There’s this fear of ‘here comes the apocalypse,’ but what made me cry was how empowered I felt because I had just fed the children and sent them home with food that was medicine. We had established gardens that could sustain us when the pandemic showed up in ways we hadn’t anticipated. Those four herbs are the herbs that one needs for respiratory distress. Those children had the tools to help their families. They knew how to grow those collard greens.”
Moving forward, Common Vision plans to help high school youth plant 2,000 trees in West Oakland and 5,000 trees in San Leandro. Meanwhile, Stewart says, “I am doing my best work as a climate resilience leader by first growing my best self — the best Wanda I can be.”
Top Art: Alyson Wong. Photos courtesy Common Vision.