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Richmond youth learn agriculture and more at Urban Tilth's summer apprenticeship

It’s a sunny, windy afternoon in Richmond, and Adam Boisvert is out in a garden.

“Right now we are in the heart of the Richmond High school garden, this is half of the growing space that we have,” he says.

The garden is about half as big as one of the tennis courts that butt up against one side. Along its other sides, it’s surrounded by portable classrooms, a blacktop, and the back of the football field bleachers. Inside a chain-link fence there are colorfully painted beds full of plants like kale, chard, squash, basil, and strawberries. There are also fruit trees, a composting system, and even a rabbit hutch.

Boisvert is a project manager for Urban Tilth, a Richmond-based organization that focuses on urban farms and food policy.

“We have seven youth here from our program and also some from Youth Works taking part in an apprenticeship program, learning about organic agriculture, organic soil production, and also learning about food justice and how to take food from our community and nourish ourselves with it,” he explains.

Urban Tilth’s summer apprenticeship program is now in its sixth year, with locations all over Richmond. This one at Richmond High has about twelve students.

One of those students is Carlos Hernandez. He’s about to start his senior year at Vista High School in Richmond. Hernandez says his mentor was helping him figure out what to do this summer, and asked him what kind of job he was interested in.

“I told him I don't really like being enclosed in a place, I like being out in the open, in the sun and the clouds and the air,” he says.

So his mentor pointed him toward this farming apprenticeship program at Urban Tilth. And Hernandez says it’s actually been perfect for him.

“I learned ... the basics of landscaping. So that'll help me with what I want to do, because I don't want to be inside stuck in an office,” he says.

He says the program has also helped him with some more intangible skills.

“I learned how to communicate with people, how to not be shy, and explain or say what I have in mind,” he says. “Like before, I would be shy, I wouldn't talk at all, but now I'm like more open to like making friends and trying not to be shy.”

Project manager Adam Boisvert says that’s not by accident-- those kinds of skills are an integral part of the apprenticeship.

“The emphasis in the first three days of orientation for the program revolves around mindfulness, around conflict resolution and emotional literacy, and how to talk about how we're feeling, how to communicate our triggers, how to communicate our state that we come into every day. We don't all come in on the same page,” he explains.

A lot of the kids that Urban Tilth serves --in fact a lot of kids in Richmond-- have first-hand experience with poverty or violence.

“Some people come from a traumatic situation at home, some folks come from an entire lifetime of traumatic situations. So it's really teaching kids how to be communicative about that,” Boisvert says.

Besides communication skills, the program’s focus on gardening also teaches project management. Boisvert says that can help apprentices get all kinds of jobs.

“You're learning how to care for life forms, you're learning how to take care of a project from start to finish. And the proof's in the pudding, you know. If you can't eat at the end of the day, you know why: you messed up along the way,” he says. “So it's really good to be able to take something like that and have checkpoints along the way and see your success and be able to taste your success.”

Boisvert says some past apprentices are now full-time staffers at Urban Tilth, and others have gone onto jobs in everything from restorative justice to solar companies.

Current apprentice Nikia Whittie is already thinking ahead.

“This will really look good on college applications and other job applications that you put out. So it'll already be like a foot in the door,” she says.

And for these kids, a foot in the door may be all they need.