A Home-Grown Social Entrepreneur
After stints in the Navy, the corporate world, and then no job at all, Kelly Carlisle is now using work on an urban farm in Oakland to inspire youngsters to engage with the world as curious citizens.
By WILL CALLAN
When Kelly Carlisle is feeling “low-power,” she reads high fantasy, typically novels about sword-wielding heroines who heed the call to adventure. At home, in the car on audiobook, with her daughter, by herself, she consumes these tales whenever she needs refueling. Like right now. The organization that Carlisle founded and directs—Acta Non Verba: Youth Urban Farm Project—is gearing up for the summer, its busiest time of year, and the pressure is mounting. “I’ve been listening to fantasy books for some months now,” she tells me, laughing. “Just finished another series this weekend.”
As a kid in East Oakland, Carlisle watched her parents, who were both street vendors, scrape together a living.
We’re sitting on the splintered bleachers in the corner of Tassafaronga Park in East Oakland, just outside the fence of the quarter-acre plot that Acta Non Verba (or ANV) leases from the City of Oakland. The park is surrounded by Tassafaronga Village, a mixed-income development that’s played a role in cutting crime in the neighborhood. An abandoned Mother’s Cookies factory occupies four derelict acres a few blocks away. A Baptist Church, with a big, white façade sits at the other end of the park, and a sign on the fence of the church parking lot advertises the second coming in both English and Spanish.
Behind us, inside the gate, two of Carlisle’s employees are turning compost and organizing the greenhouse in ANV’s organic farm. Three days a week during the school year, and five during the summer, local kids age 5 to 14 come here to learn how to raise organic produce.
Carlisle’s recent fixation is Rae Carson’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns. “She has this desire to make sure that she’s doing good,” she says of the protagonist. That principle is what both calms and energizes Carlisle—not the transporting quality of the story, but the resonance of its message. When she reads, she says, her attitude is this: “Give me the moral of the story—give it to me! I just need the moral.”
It’s unclear whether Carlisle, whose trove of stories I only got a sprinkling of, sees the episodes of her life as possessing the same intentionality that her favorite authors apply to their work; what I do know is that Carlisle’s journey has been unconventional enough to make anyone stop and think. She talks a lot about her “worldview,” but by the time she was 22 and joining the Navy, she didn’t have much of one, in her view. Nor, six and half years later, with an infant daughter, a failed marriage, and an office job in downtown Oakland, had her worldview gotten any clearer or shapelier. It took being laid off during the recession and having almost nothing for Carlisle to tune in, and allow all the noise, as distressing as it could be, to settle into a coherent message.
As a kid in East Oakland, Carlisle watched her parents, who were both street vendors, scrape together a living. She regularly rode the train with her father into Downtown Oakland, where he sold incense, body oils, T-shirts, cherries, and oranges.
When Carlisle was nine, her father applied for admission to UC Berkeley, the crown jewel of the state’s public universities. He’d been taking classes at a local community college in Oakland when he received his acceptance letter. Carlisle remembers him dancing around the house “and I was dancing with him,” she says. “I didn’t know what any of that meant, but it was very exciting.” (Soon, Carlisle’s mother also applied to Berkeley, got accepted, and completed a degree in English Literature.)
Family housing for Cal students was in Albany, a nearby, nondescript town where, for the first time, Carlisle lived among a white majority. “I’d never been called ‘poor’ until I moved to Albany,” Carlisle says. Bit by bit, she adjusted. When I asked if the experience prepared her for fundraising at ANV, she thought for a few seconds before replying yes. “Being around mostly white people at such a young age made me more aware of how not to scare white people,” she says—a skill she says she tries to use when describing the neighborhood that surrounds the farm. “I don’t want folks to think of East Oakland as Baghdad…or Fallujah…but also, there’s a lot of shit that goes on here,” she says.
After high school, Carlisle followed her friends back east for college, majoring in Communications at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. Upon graduation, she started testing out career paths. There was a stint on a cruise ship, another on a dining cruise back in the San Francisco Bay; a job in a bookstore, another for Banana Republic. In 2000, when the dot-com company she was working for folded, she did an immediate about face. “I didn’t realize that a company could just, like, blink out of existence,” she says. What she needed, she suddenly realized, was some economic stability. “So I figured, there’s probably nothing more stable than the military.”
The first time Carlisle and I talked about her military service, she threw in a sort of disclaimer: “Always remember, when I’m telling you these stories: I read a lot of fiction.”
In the back of the nursery, Carlisle noticed a small tree, its flimsy branch supporting a giant lemon. Carlisle didn’t understand what the lemon was doing there; as she understood it, food came from the grocery store.
On an overcast night in late August 2001, Carlisle arrived with her division at a nondescript compound north of Chicago. (When she was signing up for this, the recruiter had told her she could keep her cigarettes, but when she entered the facility and had her luggage checked, an officer confiscated them.) Three weeks passed. Between chew-outs and “beatings” from her RDC, the Navy’s equivalent to a drill sergeant, Carlisle was meditating on the books she’d been reading back home, but to which she was now denied access. (Boot camp imposes a no-media-or-entertainment policy. The only publications available: the Uniform Code of Military Justice and a travel-sized New Testament.) Dean Koontz, with his dynamic scenery and untrustworthy characters, helped twist her new landscape.
One morning, after another of many sleepless nights, Carlisle and the 99 other recruits in her division were sitting through a video that she describes as an extended piece of propaganda. An intensely handsome Navy SEAL with a pulsing forehead was presenting on life in the elite force when suddenly the lights turned on. Several instructors ran in and told everyone to sit down. After they had conferred with the SEAL, he barked out an announcement. It turns out this was September 11th, and New York’s Trade Center towers had just been hit.
After a brief silence, the room filled with shouts. The recruits were screaming glory to America while Carlisle watched in disbelief. Surrounded by “young people from middle America who are, like, eating this shit up,” Carlisle kept her left coast cool. “I was saying to other people, ‘Everyone, come on, obviously this is part of the training,’”she recalls. “‘Show us a newspaper. Show us a newspaper,’ ” which, of course, was against policy.
Two weeks later, stalled in a long line for dental week (the only time the authorities make an exception to the media embargo), Carlisle watched the towers smoking and collapsing. “And then,” Carlisle said, “with such shame, I was reading the news. This bullshit really happened in America?” Over the following days and weeks, it seemed to Carlisle that for many of her peers, the attacks became an excuse for bigoted and violent language—a strain of American patriotism that she’d never seen before. Nonetheless, Carlisle remained faithful to the Navy, grateful for its promise of order and predictability.
Carlisle graduated from boot camp at the top of her class. To add to her value, the Navy paid for extra schooling and she rose through the ranks. The result was that, for nearly three years, as an operations specialist on the USS Essex, Carlisle was at sea, sitting in a windowless, air-conditioned chamber, using a medley of WWII-era computers to chart the ship’s movement and track other objects in the water. The goal was simple: Don’t hit anything, and don’t get hit. The work became automatic, but it all felt like a comfort. “You just don’t have to think,” she said. “I can’t stress that enough. You don’t have to think, you just have to do your job.”
Once she was part of a massive institution like the military, Carlisle assumed, she would never have to find another job and never have to worry about money, housing, or health care again. But then, in a romance that she says burned hot and brief, she got pregnant. Given the option to accept honorable discharge or send their daughter back to California to live with Carlisle’s parents, the couple opted for the former. They got married in San Francisco, moved to military housing in San Diego, and four months later went their separate ways.
Carlisle then moved back to Berkeley with her daughter. She was hired at a recruiting agency in Oakland, and soon found life not too different from the Navy. She completed her tasks. She dealt with daily racism from her co-workers (whether on the issue of her hairstyle, or a perceived sense of black entitlement under the newly elected President Obama). She greeted the homeless man outside her office, and would maybe, if she could fish it from her pocket, dribble some change into his soiled palms. Yes, there was suffering in the world, but her efforts to alleviate it boiled down to a simple set of rules: “Make sure that you put your recycling in the blue bin and give your change to the homeless person, and let that be that.”
Then two things happened that she couldn’t ignore. Early in the morning on New Year’s Day, in 2009, a young black man named Oscar Grant was shot and killed by a police officer for BART, the Bay Area’s mass transit system. This was before social media had spread awareness of racial bias in police shootings; within days, mobile phone videos of the shooting posted online racked up hundreds of thousands of views. On Wednesday, January 7, a peaceful protest began its march from BART’s Fruitvale Station to Downtown Oakland.
By the early evening, clutches of the march were breaking out in riot. Carlisle was at work when she overheard her boss, a white man, offer her coworker, also white, a ride home, considering how messy things were on the outside. When Carlisle said, “What about me?” her boss didn’t have much of an answer. He just figured that, you know, being black, she’d be fine… “It was like a ripping off of the band-aid, blinders off,” she said. “Are you for real?”
Soon thereafter, the second stunner happened. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Carlisle was laid off. For almost six months, she couldn’t find steady work. Down and out in Berkeley with a daughter to feed and rent to pay, this was the most unmoored Carlisle had felt in years. The stuff she’d been ignoring (through “willful ignorance,” as she puts it) returned now, not as an objective problem to be studied but rather as an everyday experience. Once again, she started reading, a lot, but this time, via the Internet, about issues much closer to home. “What really set the spark loose was reading the comments,” she says, “and understanding that there are people who just really don’t care.”
Carlisle gradually started noticing a host of problems all around her—the outsized high school dropout rate, teen prostitution, gun violence throughout much of East Oakland. The heartbreaking statistics, her fresh encounter with instability—all of this led Carlisle to look for something she could do to about the systems that make the U.S. a country of winners and losers.
This is where her go-to origin story comes in, the one she’s told for funders, filmmakers, reporters, and audiences of hundreds around the Bay Area. I heard her tell it at an event at the main branch of the Oakland Public Library in February, where a traveling photo exhibit—on Working in America by Project&, of Chicago—had profiled her. When we met for an interview a few weeks later, she said that in the previous week alone, she’d told the story twice.
The story begins in 2009, in the height of summer in the East Bay, when Carlisle, in search of A/C with her daughter, then four, wandered into a nursery. In the back, she noticed a small tree, its flimsy branch supporting a giant lemon. Carlisle didn’t understand what the lemon was doing there; as she understood it, food came from the grocery store. In her highly trained way of thinking solely about immediate concerns, it had never occurred to Carlisle that growing fruits and vegetables was a process unto itself, and that it required work.
So she bought the lemon tree, and started caring for it with her daughter, checking in each day on the incremental stages of its growth. “It’s really a miracle,” Carlisle says. “That’s what I felt like. Is that a bud? That must be what you call a bud. You see it kind of expand and you’re like, that’s hella weird, what’s that gonna be? And then it turns into a leaf or it turns into a flower and you’re like, fuckin’ amazing! I mean, especially in the beginning, it was like a whole other kind of magic.”
After a month of these tiny discoveries, Carlisle returned to the nursery to buy tomatoes, cilantro, and grapes, along with garbage cans in which to grow them on her porch garden. To Carlisle, the whole experience was like a heavenly slap to the face. “The magic of me growing things makes me know that I was really put on this earth for something,” she says. “Beyond being Kaiyah’s mom, beyond being a military chick, I was made to do this.”
About a year later, the idea for ANV came to her in what she calls an epiphany, and she began her research (starting with the Nonprofit Kit for Dummies). Once again, she plunged into a period of reading, this time about gardening, and took some classes toward becoming a Master Gardener. Before long, she had a mounting stack of articles and studies about food insecurity and its impact on communities of color in East Oakland.
In 2010, Carlisle opened Acta Non Verba (which means “deeds, not words”). After an initial trial period in the backyard of some property belonging to the Berkeley Housing Authority, Carlisle connected with Cynthia Armstrong, director of Oakland’s Tassafaronga Recreation Center. Armstrong invited Carlisle to look at the park’s quarter-acre open plot. That site is now teeming with chard, kale, broccoli, and onions, having served more than 3,000 students, all from schools and neighborhoods within walking distance of Tassafaronga Park.
“One skill that I hope we’re developing in our kids is being able to bounce back,” Carlisle says. “I didn’t necessarily want to be a farmer, I didn’t necessarily want to be in the military. It wasn’t my dream to do those things, but I did them, and I did them well, and they helped me get to this point now.”
Jill Ratner, president of the Rose Foundation, one of ANV’s early funders, told me that what has struck her most about Carlisle is her ability to articulate the problems she’s trying to address: East Oakland’s status as a food desert, the industrial particulate that sometimes darkens the neighborhood skies, the way the Bay Area’s development is forcing out a lot of working class families and people of color, just to name a few. “People understand things in different ways,” Ratner said, “and one of the things that I think Kelly is great at is moving between people,” adjusting her language to each audience.
Tim Little, the Rose Foundation’s executive director, was impressed by Carlisle’s ability to secure some city land. “I’ll tell you what: It’s not that easy to get a partnership with the City of Oakland,” he says. And she pulled that off early on—even before submitting her grant application. The Rose Foundation’s first grant to ANV, in 2011, was for a mere $1,000; since then, Rose has funded ANV eight times, including a $62,500 grant in 2015.
In those early months, Carlisle’s mother and sister sometimes joined her in the planting and harvesting. Griselda McCoy lived across the street at the time, and was soon inspired. Her three children all ended up being ANV participants. McCoy told me that her older kids learned lessons in entrepreneurship. Her son Anthony, after receiving his first paycheck for his work at the ANV summer camp when he was 15, gained newfound respect for his mother after seeing how quickly the money went. For her daughter, Genesis, now 13, McCoy said that ANV brings out her best, most engaged and thoughtful self. “And I’d never really seen her that way until she started working with Kelly,” she told me.
“One skill that I hope we’re developing in our kids is a sense of resiliency, of being able to bounce back,” Carlisle told me at one point. “I didn’t necessarily want to be a farmer, I didn’t necessarily want to work in corporate America, I didn’t necessarily want to be in the military. It wasn’t always my dream to do those things, but I did them, and I did them well, and they helped me get to this point now.”
Adjusting the expectations for youngsters in East Oakland has not been easy. Carlisle once asked the kids what they want to be when they grew up, but she never did it again because of the pattern in their answers: cop, cop, rapper, basketball player, cop. It’s not that she wants to discourage kids from following their dreams. Rather, she wants them to understand that a career in the police force is dangerous, and that only a handful of people have the combination of talent, opportunity, and luck to make it in sports and entertainment. Still, even when presented with these facts, kids rarely budge. “It is American to say, ‘Well, I’ll be one of those two.’ It’s very, very American.”
This is exactly why Carlisle is determined to expand these youngsters’ worldview. As she puts it, “We are what we know, right?”
The last time I visited the farm, Carlisle wasn’t there. She was out of country, taking a much-needed vacation, so her handful of staff members were in charge. It was a sunny afternoon, after ten days of rain, but in the wind and the shade of the plot’s six redwoods, the air was a bit chilly. No matter—the half dozen kids here that day didn’t seem to notice.
The goal of the day was to transplant starters from miniature greenhouses to larger pots. The week before, the kids had used soil, rocks, leaves, and other bits of organic matter to build small biomes inside plastic lidded containers, planted them with pepper and tomato seeds, and left the biomes to flourish on the office windowsill. ANV sells the harvest through a CSA whose proceeds land directly in savings accounts for the kids, reserved for educational expenses.
Before the kids removed their growing plants from the containers, Aaron De La Cerda, the farm manager, asked them to draw a picture of their starters. De La Cerda explained that they should look carefully. Even if they didn’t observe any difference, they should take note of that. Even a sketch of the soil would do. “Everyone sees things differently,” he said. “So I’m curious to see how you see it.”
Acta Non Verba runs its youth programs year-round, including summer camp opportunities at nearby ranches.
To honor the 40th anniversary of “Working,” Studs Terkel’s Landmark book, Project& chronicled hundreds of unusual Americans—in photographs, for radio documentaries, and in short print articles—for a project called “Working in America.” Project& is partnering with The Craftsmanship Initiative this year on our series, “Craftsmanship and the Future of Work.“