Cultivating a Community in the East Village



Q&A With Susan Madden Lankford

As a photojournalist, writer and documentary filmmaker, Susan Madden Lankford has tackled the gritty subjects of homelessness, incarceration and juvenile justice. But most of the dirt she digs up these days is the kind in the raised planter boxes of Smarts Farm, the four-year-old, East Village urban oasis run by her nonprofit organization, Humane Smarts. Offering gardening workshops and classes, as well as plots for neighborhood gardeners, the 16,000-square-foot Smarts Farm especially has become a learning destination for local children, giving them hands-on experience in food growing and nutrition. Susan also uses her background to teach kids photography, and the farm supplies fresh produce to Smarts Cafe, located a block away. It’s all an offshoot of Humane Exposures, which Susan founded in 1997 to raise awareness about San Diego’s disenfranchised populations. She’s married to developer Rob Lankford, who was responsible for building San Diego’s Hall of Justice.

What was the genesis of Humane Exposures?
In the early ’90s, I rented the old jail near Seaport Village and used it as a backdrop for a magazine shoot. People thought I was nuts. Homeless people started following me into some of the old cellblocks, trying
to tell me stories, and I was trying to do a portrait for a magazine. They came in and said, “What are you doing in a place like this? You want to come out with us?” So I spent three and a half years with them out on the street. I left my wonderful home. I got my children to school, my husband was building the hall of justice and I was on the streets with the homeless.

What was your goal in starting Smarts Farm?
I wanted to be a part of the process of building community. I also wanted to see children come together with adults in the area. There are a lot of children in downtown San Diego. There are more schools that are opening up now. There are lots of families who are living in the high rises along the harbor, and there’s an opportunity for me to offer an area for children that is not really a park but is a growing, gardening, learning center.

What inspired you to do this?
I guess you could say I had an awareness phase in my lifetime as a photojournalist and writer. I had a deep need to be able to seek things out for myself. Being a responsible mother, I wanted my children to know that life isn’t just in North County San Diego. And the next phase of that had to be a solution. It’s one thing to go find out about [social justice issues] and to write about them and be out there talking about them; it’s another thing to offer a solution. The solution came down to teaching children how to sustainably provide for themselves — learning what they need to have for healthy eating and for nutrition and also how to prepare healthy food. If they can figure out how to grow things that are good for them and how to prepare them, someday they might be selling them. They’re learning a little bit about how to market, how to make money and how to be very individualistic and independent.

I’m assuming most of these kids have no experience with gardening. What have their reactions been like?
We’ve had many children that the first time they come don’t want to get their hands in the soil. But once they do, they get it. I thought at first they were going to be so grossed out by the beetles and worms, but we have little screens that the kids get to shake the soil from and then they see all these grubs surface. And they have races with their grubs. I never dreamed that they would go from, “No, I don’t want to do that,” to doing something creative. It’s just stellar watching these little minds.

You’ve started a pilot project with the downtown charter school Urban Discovery Academy. What does it cover?
This past spring, two classes from Urban Discovery Academy [a charter middle school also in the East Village] came for multiple weeks as part of their biology work. For four weeks, we had sixth-grade students, and then we had fourth- and fifth-grade students. They learn to plant seeds and harvest and then learn how to prepare and serve food.

What about older kids?
Jeffrey Newman, who teaches sustainable agriculture at e3 Civic High School [a charter school within the nearby San Diego Central Public Library] has brought his students every Wednesday afternoon. The school leases five planter boxes. Because they are experienced, when we teach composting, they can act as ambassador/mentors to younger children. The younger kids are learning how to prepare food, like pizza, which they serve to the high school students.

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