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Tending to Community
Healthy, happy families are the cornerstone of community, but when parents have to work two or more jobs to make ends meet, it can be hard to make community and healthy eating a priority. In response to this problem, students in the School of Public Policy (SPP) recently spent weeks planning and executing a project to revamp the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center in Downtown Los Angeles.
As part of adjunct professor Elan Melamid's class titled "Regional Policies: Children, Families, and Communities," the group worked in conjunction with SPP assistant dean for administration Sheryl Covey, who helped mastermind the project, and selected this particular park as a service to both the local families and the underfunded, stretched-thin local government.
The group broke up in to four sub-groups to transform the park by sprucing up the library and neighboring charter school, building a vegetable garden, and conducting a general evaluation of the project as a whole.
Below, Melamid and student Philippe Eskandar—who served in the vegetable garden group—share their experiences of framing a public service project and planting the seeds for a stronger, healthier community in Downtown L.A.
Located on a one square block area in Downtown L.A., near the University of Southern California, the residents of a neighboring apartment complex had envisioned and hoped for a community garden for some time.
"Patrons of the park will be able to grow their own fruit and vegetables, which is a great resource all round—of healthy eating, of getting exercise while tending to the garden," says Eskandar (MPP '12 candidate and a student at the School of Law's Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution). The park already had space available for a garden, so Eskandar adds that, "the main goal was to provide this neighborhood with new opportunities to use the facilities."
The students originally discussed issues of safe community as part of Melamid's community class, which explores the needs and challenges of creating policies and service systems that impact children and families in lower income areas. Eskandar notes that the park was a great resource being underutilized because it was considered not terribly safe.
"There's a lovely library and recreation center and open fields, but it was not considered safe to bring children, which was disappointing," Melamid laments. "The more people use the park, safety will improve. So we just identified some of the problems."
Adds Eskandar, "This was one of the ways that we can show policy makers and future policy makers that we are physically doing something to make policies happen. Policy is not just about writing language, but making ideas successful through community participation."
The group spent weeks mapping out the design for the garden and partnered with the Malibu-based nonprofit, A Chance for Children, who donated money to purchase lumber and soil. It all came together one Saturday at the end of March, when the group spent the day installing the vegetable garden.
The planting began early on a cloudy and misty day, with all volunteers crossing their fingers that the rain would hold off—which it did. Besides Eskandar's confession that he almost forgot to pick up the nails—causing a last-minute panic visit to Home Depot on Friday night—the whole project went off without a hitch.
"It's not often that at a class level you get the opportunity to do something like this and coordinate the whole thing," he says. "We hope that it can serve as a model to future generations of students, schools, or policy makers who can see the benefits of planting a fruit and vegetable garden in a yard that is underutilized."
They also posted signs around the park to warn potential troublemakers of video cameras in operation, with positive feedback from both local police and the local community—members of which were out for a Community Health Fair hosted at the park on the same day, giving the SPP project maximum visibility.
"We met the families that will be utilizing the garden," Eskandar remembers. "In other neighborhoods, such as Beverly Hills, the residents are just trained to expect somebody to do something to create resources, but these residents were so genuinely happy that we were there. I met one of the park employees who mentioned that it had been a vision of the neighborhood to have a community garden for some time, with the hopes that it would be a catalyst for residents to use the whole facility, including the gym and library."
Melamid comments that small volunteer projects like this are vitally important in reviving community and restoring neighborhoods to family-friendly, safe, healthy environments. "The biggest surprise for me was that I was never surprised with how smoothly and effectively this project was managed. School of Public Policy students are very creative, energetic, and hands on," he adds.