By Emile DeWeaver
Forty people, damp from rain, gathered in San Quentin’s Protestant Chapel to celebrate what several environmentalists there called the world’s most important natural resource: people.
“If you think solar and wind power are the answers to our problems, you’re wrong,” said co-founder Sam Hearnes during his talk about the future of renewable energy at The Green Life program’s second graduation. “The greatest form of renewable energy is our relationships with each other.”
Editor of Earth Island Journal Maureen Mitra also talked about the connection between people and the planet. “You can’t take care of the planet if you don’t take care of people,” she said, at the October event.
The value of people was both what initially made co-founder Troy Williams skeptical about environmentalism, and what eventually galvanized Williams to help build The Green Life.
“I remember when Angela and everybody said we are gonna form The Green Life,” Williams said. “I thought, what do I care about trees when people are dying where I’m from? Then I read Van Jones’ book Green Collar Economy, and that helped me understand. If I don’t care about the world that sustains us, how can I care about the people in the world?”
Williams paroled from San Quentin State Prison almost two years ago. He returned as a free citizen to continue the community work he began in prison. Other guests included fiscal sponsor Tamira Jones from the Earth Island Institute.
“I am always amazed by the wisdom and insight of people cut off from society,” Jones said. She was reacting to presentations by Green Life facilitators and graduates. Graduates included Armando Garcia, Seth Harding, Francisco Ortiz, Jesus Perez, Ruben Ramirez, Mark Tedeschi, Lynn Beyett, and Wesley Eisiminger.
Eisiminger and Beyett presented a plan to conserve water. They proposed a catchment system that uses rain runoff from the rooftops of buildings at San Quentin. For each 1,000 square feet of roofing, the system would gather 600 gallons per inch of rainfall. The water could be used for irrigation during the summer months on the flowers and plants located at the prison entrance, the grass on the sporting field on the Lower Yard, the garden at the Education Department and Planting Justice, a gardening/self-help program. Eisiminger added that the water could also be available for washing thousands of articles of clothing per week.
Harding talked about how the first step toward a greener world can begin with literally walking greener. He demonstrated a natural way to walk that, according to Harding, reduces stress and damage to joints. He said early Homo sapiens walked in this way, and learning to “walk green” is the first step on a larger journey back to a more natural self.
Other presenters included Angel Alvarez, Francisco Ortiz, Jesus Perez, and guest speakers Wanda Stewart, a green farmer, and green entrepreneur Keba Konte.
After presentations, Green Life Director Angela Sevin distributed certificates of completion while Green Life facilitators stood in a line behind her to shake hands with each graduate who ascended the stage.
“The men were some of the most consistent people I know,” Sevin said, referring to the incarcerated men in her program. “Through the years I’ve learned more about what people who live here are really thinking about. I go back into my world on the streets and have a better feeling about a stranger I might encounter on a day-to-day basis, whether they are Black or Brown or White.”
The Green Life began in 2009 after Van Jones came to San Quentin. In a talk about the green movement, Jones talked about the importance of green practices, but he emphasized that if we care enough about cans to recycle them, then we also need to care about people enough to give people a second chance to remake themselves.
“He inspired a whole bunch of men in San Quentin,” co-founder Jorge Heredia said. “We talked about the topic Van Jones put in our minds, and we decided we needed to create The Green Life movement in San Quentin.”
Heredia talked about the challenges the co-founders faced establishing the group, noting in particular Sevin’s perseverance.
“One reason why I do this [work] is because I consider people who are in prison part of my community,” Sevin said. “If we are gonna survive on this planet with temperatures rising, with carbon parts per million over 350 — which is considered a trend toward an unlivable planet — we’re going to need all of our resources. And that means human resources to build resilience and come up with solutions. We need everybody to be a part of that.”