Reducing Recidivism with Ecological Stewardship

cathrine-snead-editedThe Garden Project works to transform low-income communities by employing and training ex-offenders and at-risk youth in areas disproportionately affected by crime. RSF Social Finance, in association with Nehora Law Firm and which provided The Garden Project with a grant through its Small Planet Fund, recently interviewed Cathrine Sneed about the project’s origins, evolution, and current challenges. Ms. Sneed and RSF have maintained an active partnership since 2000.

by Ellie Lanphier

What inspired you to start your organization? Why was the mission important to you?

I founded The Garden Project in 1992. From 1982 until that time, I was director of another program I started called The Horticulture Project, which was an employment-training program at San Francisco County Jail that taught inmates how to grow organic vegetables for donation.

After 10 years, the program was doing well, but I began to notice that I was seeing the same inmates return again and again. Many of them were happy to return to the Horticulture Program, where they felt they had a community, support, and a purpose. I remember asking one of the prisoners why he kept getting in trouble and coming back to jail – and he simply said that on the outside he had nothing. He was poor, uneducated, and he couldn’t find a job. At the farm, he grew beautiful plants and flowers; he cared for the animals; and he could help people though his work.

It became clear to me that we needed to work on the factors that led to incarceration and on recidivism. I decided we would continue the work of The Horticulture Project in a post-release program, and founded the non-profit The Garden Project.

Initially, the mission of The Garden Project was to offer structure and support to former offenders through job training, support for continuing education, and counseling. The work of the participants – greening activities and organic food donation – would focus on low-income communities. Our goal was to impact the high rates of recidivism in communities disproportionately impacted by crime. Participants worked in two job-training programs: The Garden Project Apprenticeship Program where apprentices worked at our farm and at a neighborhood garden growing organic vegetables, and the Tree Corps Apprenticeship program where apprentices worked planting and maintaining street trees. All participants had to enroll in school, work towards completing their GED, and participate in individual and peer counseling.

Our program worked. During the 1990s, 75% of former offenders returned to jail in a matter of months; while in our program, only 25% did. We were making a difference in the community too – in addition to our food donations, our Tree Corps planted over 10,000 street trees in San Francisco.

Has your inspiration changed over time? And if so, how?

As the demographics in our city changed and socio-economic trends emerged, the focus of our work changed in the early 2000s. More attention was focused on the fact that young Americans were struggling in this time of economic uncertainty to both find employment and to remain socially connected. The issue was especially acute among low-income, minority young adults. Because the work of The Garden Project was crime prevention, it seemed our work needed to also address this emerging trend. We began a program for young adults called The Earth Stewards in 2004, an intensive job training and community service program for lower income young adults.

Today, the Garden Project’s mission is twofold: to address the education, unemployment, and under-employment gap among low-income, minority adults by offering employment, assistance in continuing education, and life skills programming; and to assist San Francisco public agencies by supporting low income San Franciscans through our work.

Did you use any models?

Over the years, I have used both my own observational research as well as that of experts in the field of rehabilitation. Our programming strives to be comprehensive in order to eliminate barriers to participation, and ensure positive long-term outcomes. For example, we know from research that at-risk people have better outcomes in intervention programming if it includes job training, continuing education, and community service. The job training provides them with skills and a resume, which many at-risk people do not have. Our training also allows participants to earn a wage that allows them to support themselves and their family.

What did you have to figure out for yourself?

I learned it is important to be hands-on as a leader and director – I want to work alongside the people in the program. I learn from them what is working and what is not, and about life in their community. I am 60, but I work every day from 6:30am until 4pm. The work we do on the farm is hard work. When you do the work, you also make new connections in the community – you meet the police officers who are trying to renovate a park, or the teacher who is starting a food pantry at her school. You also learn about the effectiveness of your work

Do you seek to be a model for others?

I hope we are a model for what communities can do – for how they can use the resources that they have to create change, and to impact the lives of citizens. We get queries and visitors every month seeking to learn from what we are doing.

We value the power of appreciation at RSF. Is there anyone you’d like to recognize?

Frances and Anna Lappe were two of our earliest supporters, so we are grateful for their ongoing belief in the value of this model and the work that we are doing. Because we are funded mostly through city contracts for work on specific projects, we need to fundraise for items not covered by those contracts.

Ellie Lanphier is Program Associate, Philanthropic Services at RSF

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