A Conversation on Creativity, Leadership, and Teachings from the Garden with Andrew Vega Garcia of Attitudinal Healing Connection

Andrew Vega Garcia is a youth working with Attitudinal Healing Connection (AHC), a West Oakland-based organization that empowers youth through deepened self-awareness, art, creative expression and tending to land. Andrew spoke with Maya Carlson of Bioneers about the work of AHC and the lessons he’s learned from working with plants and being involved in collaborative creative projects for justice.

MAYA: Tell me about yourself, Andrew.

ANDREW: My name is Andrew, and I’m 17. I grew up in Santa Rosa and I moved to Oakland when I was in fifth grade, and I’ve been raised here through my teenage years. I get lit up by art, drawing, and creating things. At Attitudinal Healing Connection we do a lot of that. Today at our Summer Camp we made our own paint colors out of natural dyes with the help of our art specialist Keena Romano. We used turmeric, beets, cabbage, and other natural colors. 

MAYA: What other activities are you doing at the week long summer camp?

ANDREW: AHC hosted a “COVID-Safe Summer Camp” due to the concern of parents and staff about youth’s increased time indoors and in front of screens. We spent the week at City Slicker Farms where we completely revamped a large plot by amending soil, re-mulching paths, weeding overgrown beds, and putting in new plants like chamomile, eggplant, basil and more! We also made herbal tea bags from herbs grown on the farm and a healing oil infused with calendula flower and comfrey leaf: great herbs for the regeneration of skin cells. All in all it was a fantastic week that helped students get outdoors to reconnect with their peers and the land. 

MAYA: What’s your role with AHC right now?

ANDREW: I used to be an ambassador, which meant that I lead more through talking to the kids and facilitating circles. It was pretty fun! Most of the kids are great to work with. Kids are really cool. I like bonding with somebody who has the same type of problem in our communities or family. As a leader you get to know the kids on a deeper level.

AHC Youth at Bioneers Conference 2019

MAYA: What does being a leader mean to you?

ANDREW: Being a leader is not about pushing people to do things, but teaching them about themselves or about plants or other skills that they didn’t know. A leader is somebody you look up to. Ms. Neeka is a good leader. She has a lot of energy and she’s very patient. She has this happiness that makes you want to wake up and do things and move on with your day. When the students don’t want to do an activity or are on their phones, she brings happiness and energetic pace to get them going. 

MAYA: I love that! Ms. Neeka is a dear friend so it’s really sweet to hear you talk about her that way, because she definitely has that quality. I like the way you framed leadership as not telling people what to do but rather it’s the act of guiding, and lifting people up. It’s great that you’re stepping into that role for yourself. Each person has their own strengths that they bring to supporting other people.

MAYA: What about the creative process in these projects lights you up? 

ANDREW: The creative process gets me excited because I can voice my opinion. I really felt that with the AHC Virtual Art Exhibit. Every year, AHC has an art exhibition where youth have the opportunity to showcase our work. Due to COVID-19, AHC had to get creative about their approach to the exhibition. With a lot of teamwork, we were able to put up a virtual art exhibition, which takes viewers through a 3D gallery space. This exhibit features the work of so many of our students and includes the rough draft Superhero Characters that youth created for the mural that will go up in the coming year. 

We were given scripts to memorize, but we also had the opportunity to make changes to share how issues affect us, our community and people around us. It was a good opportunity to improve my speaking skills. I was able to express my opinions about how we should think about art and how art is a big part of the environment we live in. We can share so many messages with art. People have different styles of expressing themselves and teaching people things through art. 

The virtual art exhibit was a collaboration between AHC and other organizations that partner with AHC. All the artists are children voicing their opinions on gun violence, community violence, or environmental problems such as oil fracking. This exhibit was based on gun violence, giving voice to all the people who have been really affected by that in Oakland. Gun violence has really impacted Oakland. If you live in some parts of Oakland, you hear at least a couple of gunshots like fireworks every single night.

MAYA: Being part of a project with so many voices sounds like a really powerful experience. Did you also participate in the Self As Superhero Project? 

ANDREW: Self As Superhero is a project that a group of students participate in together. Each person picks out an issue they feel strongly about and create a superhero that is supposed to stop the issue or create peace. Self As Superhero is also a book written by Amana Harris, the Director of AHC. The curriculum helps youth transform themselves into life-sized heroes whose powers address issues the students care about the most. 

MAYA: What was your superhero?

ANDREW: My superhero was a representation of Mother Earth, a woman that dances and makes music to create a purple-bluish aura around her to protect her community. The issue I focused on was violence in communities in the Bay Area. My hero’s backstory was that this woman grew up in a village surrounded by pollution, violence, and all of the unnecessary things we have in our lives. Police are supposed to play a big part in creating justice in the United States, but a lot of times that doesn’t happen, so I thought it would be a good idea to have somebody from the community to bring hope, peace and love. Her story is that she gets robbed, but that incident of harm summons her powers and she puts the peaceful auras around her small community to help create peace.

MAYA: I love that! I’ve been learning a lot about community accountability, transformative justice, and different models for addressing harm that don’t require calling the police. I think it’s really cool that your superhero was someone from the community who was able to extend an orb of peace to stop harm. What was your process of coming up with that story?

ANDREW: It was a mix of things. At AHC we learn a lot about different types of people, including indigenous people such as the Ohlone here in the Bay. We learned about how settlers have built on sacred land. We learned about social workers and political activists, things to get me and the other kids thinking about how we can impact not only West Oakland, but also the world in general.

MAYA: I’d love to learn more about the gardening work you do with the AHC West Oakland Legacy Project, and how you got into gardening in the first place. 

Margarita Carreno, Andrew’s Grandmother

ANDREW: My grandma, Margarita Carreno, is a big part of my connection to plants. She’s always had a big garden and she’s always complaining about how humans trash our Mother Earth. Oakland has a bunch of trash, so any time she sees that, she gets mad. Ever since I was a little kid, she’s always had plants around her, making me help her put plants in the ground or weed out the garden. My grandma has been around plants most of her life. In Mexico, she didn’t really have work. She would go to the campo and to the field to take care of plants. Plants are definitely a big part of who she is. 

I joined AHC in October of 2019. Every Thursday we went to the farm park at City Slicker Farms. That’s where I started liking plants even more and wanted to grow them myself. AHC taught me a lot. When we started at City Slicker, we learned about what nitrogen and proteins go into the soil, and how to add hay so the soil doesn’t dry up. AHC definitely has been a big part of my journey. They’re super supportive and motivating. They’re like a second family. 

Youth at AHC Summer Camp, 2020

MAYA: When did you start having your own garden?

ANDREW: My grandma moved in with my mom, my sister and me at the beginning of Covid, and she was always tired. She wanted to go to work, so we got some plants so she could get her hands dirty. We dug the soil, we made little plots and we planted! But she ended up moving away, so it’s been my responsibility to take care of the plants. I really enjoy it because it’s peaceful, and it makes me feel down-to-earth. I don’t know if you talk to your plants, but I definitely talk to mine as I watch them grow and try to help them. Right now in the beginning of July my tomato plants are drying out, they’re going on their last cycle of producing flowers so I have to break off a couple of branches to regenerate this little life that it has. 

 MAYA: Did you already harvest tomatoes?

ANDREW: I did! They came in two or three months ago. It was pretty quick. I had three tomato plants, and I have some cucumbers, some zucchini, mint, jalapeños, strawberries, and some herbs.

MAYA: Do you have any favorite plants?

ANDREW: I like my strawberries. They’re definitely sweeter and have a more earthy taste than what you get at the grocery store.

MAYA: Definitely, especially when they’re hot from the middle of the day. What’s a lesson you learned from working with land?

ANDREW: I’ve learned patience and how to look for what care plants need. I’ve learned to notice when a plant is wilting or needs more water. I can tell the differences between plants, how to nurture them and take care of them.

Youth at AHC Summer Camp, 2020

MAYA: That makes me think about how we can look at different people and learn what kind of nurturing they need overtime too. What are you hopeful for right now?

ANDREW: On a personal note, I just graduated and I’m going to go to college for chiropractors. It’s been really motivating to think about how I can keep bettering myself. I’m looking forward to school and continuing to work with AHC.

I also really hope that this country doesn’t have any race wars. Trump has been encouraging white supremacists to go out and show themselves to people of color. Hopefully nobody else gets hurt or killed. I also hope that police departments have stricter rules. I’ve seen a lot of videos of police officers getting out of hand. I get that they’re scared for their lives, but they’re supposed to be calm and keep peace. They need to step up their game and be for the people instead of causing more harm based on race. 

MAYA: Has COVID or shelter in place shifted your understanding of what’s important? Has it impacted your life in that way, like self-resilience or community resilience?

ANDREW: It has shifted my understanding of community resilience. COVID stopped me from going out to see people, so it made me think about who my friends are, who’s going to reach out to me, who’s going to keep in touch. At AHC we have weekly meetings, so that’s been a big part of my community and who I talk to. 

When I started working for AHC, I didn’t really think about the impacts of littering or how car smog affects people. I was kind of just living. Taking care of the planet wasn’t really something I thought about. I didn’t think about picking up trash, signing petitions or doing activist work. But working with AHC has taught me that my voice is important. AHC wants us to think of a bigger picture – how we live, how we keep peace and love nature. AHC opened my mind and made me think about how we treat our Earth, how sacred it is, and how plants can give you certain benefits. When I get my hands dirty, rubbing the soil between my hands when I’m planting, I feel connected.

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