14 days after finishing a 20 -year sentence in prison, Bilal Coleman appeared on video in an unlikely set: a garden full of fresh herbs .
With this, Coleman kicked off his video diary project called “The Freedom Chronicles, ” which documented his first year out of prison.
He doesn’t say much in that first video, which was filmed in December 2015. His mentor, another formerly incarcerated human named Anthony Forrest, shares the names of various plants around them. He promotes Coleman to break off pieces and reek the rosemary and basil — the odor of which, Coleman tells, reminds him of his grandma.
These were Coleman’s first experiences of life outside of prison since he was a teenager — and most people in his place wouldn’t dream of sharing something so personal with the world.
For most people, the first year out of prison is a fight. After incarceration, many have trouble observing stable undertakings, accessing basic needs like healthy food, and transitioning back to daily life on the outside.
In fact, in Coleman’s home state of California, 7 out of 10 former inmates go back to prison within a year after being released.
Coleman was merely 17 years old when he was sentenced to 20 years at San Quentin State Prison — so at 37, he didn’t precisely have a ton of work experience. Like so many others returning to their communities after incarceration, he faced the world with the odds stacked against him.
But when he got out, he had a good reason to start filming his journey — a job waiting for him at an organization called Planting Justice.
Planting Justice is an Oakland-based nonprofit that empowers people to grow their own food. In 2009, when co-founders Gavin Raders and Haleh Zandi launched the organization, they wanted to support people who are most affected by issues such as poverty and a lack of access to nutritional food. And they couldn’t think of a better style to do that than hiring people who, like Coleman, are leaving prison.
“We really wanted to build the world that we want and want, and focus on answers, ” says Gavin Raders, executive director of Planting Justice.
The organization offers a living wage and full benefits to all of its staff — an opportunity that’s all too rare for people with criminal records . Since its start in 2009, the Planting Justice team of landscapers has built over 450 edible gardens around the Bay Area.
Today, they apply about 35 full-time staff members, and merely over half — including Coleman — are formerly incarcerated .
They’ve garnered some significant support, including plant sales from clients all over the country and $300,000 a year in small gifts earned through street canvassing. They were even awarded a grant through The Kresge Foundation’s Fresh, Local, and Equitable initiative, known as “FreshLo, ” for constructing healthy, all-inclusive communities .
FreshLo is all about supporting run that leverages creative, neighborhood-based food enterprises for community growth, and these Bay Area gardens are brilliant instances.
The Planting Justice edible gardens grow in unlikely places — empty plenties, schools, and concrete neighborhoods that don’t have fresh make or green spaces for miles.
About 100 of the gardens they’ve constructed so far have been free or on a sliding scale, with fees depending on income, for people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford them.
In spite of his inexperience, it turns out that Coleman is actually the perfect fit for this work . He’s from the very communities that Planting Justice serves and can relate to their struggles on a personal level.
“You try to instill a life ability within the youth, but what you don’t understand is you’ll receive one as well, ” he shares in the video for his 200 th day out of prison.
Planting Justice has a success rate of virtually 100%. In nine years of existence, merely one formerly incarcerated staff member has returned to jail.
What began as a simple landscaping service now includes education programs, farmer train, and a holistic re-entry program to help former prisoners transition back to a stable life.
And in 2017, after a lot of hard work and the help of over 900 donors, Planting Justice acquired a 2-acre plot of land to open up a nursery and farm. Rolling River Nursery offer landscaping services to the neighborhood, and ships plants, herbs, and trees all over the country. It’s located in deep East Oakland, California, in an area called Sobrante Park, which is known for having some of the highest rates of unemployment and crime in Oakland.
Sobrante Park is precisely the kind of place that needs green undertakings like the ones Planting Justice makes, and Raders hopes that similar neighborhoods throughout the country can replicate their model.
In his final “Freedom Chronicles” video , Coleman celebrates his 365 th day of freedom — and proves a total transformation .
This time, Coleman’s the one naming the plants, and he’s much more outgoing than he was when he started. His smile incandescences as he presents viewers his work, including the gardens he tends daily and a high school where he passes his abilities on to youth.
“I feel overjoyed! ” he exclaims about beating the odds by flourishing in his first year out of prison.
It’s clear that he’s gained some abilities, including newfound abilities in public speaking, youth education, and analyzing issues like economic and environmental injustice that affect the communities where he lives and works.
Coleman’s narrative shows how an opportunity to thrive after prison going to be able to lift up a whole community .
Coleman was still is currently working on Planting Justice at the time of this writing. He also enjoys spend time with his two children, and he’s developed a passion for health and personal fitness.
On top of fresh food, vital skills, and an opportunity to escape the cycle of mass incarceration, the formerly incarcerated staff member get a chance to help lead these initiatives to transform their neighborhoods .
At the end of his last video, Coleman grins as he seems over the results of his hard work.
“Seasons pass, tomatoes are run, the chard has popped back up like the springtime, ” he says. “That’s resilience.”
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