The Hoover Hawks Victory Garden thrives on the Hoover Elementary School campus in West Oakland, a neighborhood rich in history, culture and people. Urban farmer Wanda Stewart is the tireless champion and architect behind the garden project, which has become an intergenerational hub of healing, learning, and wonder for the local community.
Recently, Wanda and Trena Noval—an educator, artist, and activist—sat in the garden and talked about its history and the people who dedicate their time to growing and tending the land there. This is a story of resilience, community engagement, and how one person can manifest real change through the power of community and healing properties of the Earth.
In this Q&A with Trena, Wanda shares her journey to change the lives of students, families, and neighbors by teaching them to nurture a vibrant, fruitful ecosystem.
Students, families, and neighbors gather at the Hoover Hawks Victory Garden to grow together. All photos courtesy Hoover Hawks Victory Garden.
Trena Noval: Can you share how the Hoover Hawks garden got started? What was the impetus and the main focus?
Wanda Stewart: West Oakland was once famously known as a food desert. There were no grocery stores and the corner stores did not sell any fresh food. Ashley Martin, then-principal of Hoover Elementary School, and Ayala Goldstein, the after-school teacher, had a vision to grow a garden in the back corner of the schoolyard. When I first started working there in 2015, there were just a few things growing: a couple of fruit trees and some collards, the archway entrance and a giant pergola. I saw this space as having enormous learning and community-building potential.
TN: What was your first task?
WS: When I asked Ashley what she needed in the garden, she said, “We need food.” The first week I worked with kids at Hoover, a sweet first grade boy was having a temper tantrum. He looked me in the eye and threw the chair across the room. When I asked him why he did that, he said, “I’m hungry.” That’s when we got busy growing food for the kids, to show them they could grow their own food, to incorporate outdoor learning into their world, and most importantly to feed them. Most of the kids at Hoover live in apartments and don’t have green spaces to play in. We wanted to create a place where they could be face-to-face with nature and understand their role in saving the planet. By taking care of this garden, they would learn how to care for themselves. So food and peace was what was most needed and we absolutely solved that by having kids make this garden their own.
TN: So you wanted the students to have real ownership in this space. Were the students involved in planting the garden from the beginning?
WS: Yes, in the beginning, I took groups of kids out into the garden once a week to help grow and develop the space. It started with an empty dirt patch and seeds. Eventually, we wound up with a 10,000-square-foot garden space full of food and medicine. There was so much learning happening all at once! Students began to witness their own growth in the development of the garden. We would have 30 kids laying mulch, hauling wheelbarrows from one end of the school yard to the garden. They started to really understand the value of teamwork through this process. As time went on, students were able to look back and see what can come out of working and learning together, and how investment in a place over time is essential. It is learning about what resilience looks like.
TN: What’s one of your favorite memories from those early days of the garden?
WS: In the garden, students are learning that they are part of the ecosystem. There was an explosion of caterpillars during that first fall. The kids were amazed! All the caterpillars were gone the first day due to students’ curiosity; they wanted to hold and feel them. They didn’t yet understand how to take care of them. By year three, the students knew all about the life cycles of a butterfly and understood not to touch but to become constant, close observers. They were so excited when they could follow the cycle all the way to watching butterflies emerge!
One young boy was a challenged learner. He couldn’t sit still for more than a minute. One day when we were out in the garden, a butterfly emerged from its chrysalis and decided to dry out its new wings on his arm. He knew that he had to stay still to keep this new butterfly safe. He was still for the whole 10 minutes required for the butterfly dry off and to be ready to fly. It was the most amazing achievement for him and his class applauded him afterward. He was so proud of himself. The garden has offered opportunities for social emotional development.
TN: Can you talk more about some of the impacts the garden has had on the way the students interact with each other and with their community?
WS: Sure. As the population at Hoover changed from mostly Black to 50% Lantinx, there began to be more social conflicts with the kids. Suddenly more fights were happening on the playground. We took the food we grew and used it to heal the negative impact in the community and we learned what a complement we are to each other. We were having a cooking class, and students picked chayote (a squash perennial) and collards from the garden to make the most delicious soup together! From that point on, we used that as a saying when there were disputes among the students: “You need to get along like collards and chayote.”
The garden is also a memorial place. We have kids and community members who helped to grow this place who we have lost. We have the most abundant fig tree placed at the entrance of the garden for a student we lost to cancer. We have a persimmon planted for Tony Ramos, who was murdered two blocks from here while painting a mural under the freeway. His killer was a man who went to this school. That violence is part of these kids’ lives. Even out of sadness comes beautiful things.
TN: Why do you think this schoolyard garden has had such a deep impact on students at Hoover Elementary School?
WS: Every student deserves outdoor learning spaces. We use the principles and practices of permaculture in the garden as a way of looking at nature. This garden has become a zone 0 for the community: you start with yourself and grow cycles of community out from there, so the rings of influence start to expand what is possible. In the garden, students learn how to grow, how to eat healthy food and how to heal themselves individually. It creates a community centered on caring.
The impact of the Hoover Hawks Garden is a powerful example of investment in people and place for students. It’s been a place to build community across cultures, genders, and ages, and address issues that can often divide communities. It teaches kids the power of stewardship. Especially during the time of COVID, being outside and tending the garden has helped heal our community. It feels healthy and good for us to be doing this work. Learning outside does not just teach kids how to grow collards; it also teaches them how to grow themselves.
TN: The garden has also had an impact on the broader community outside the school. How do you see that play out?
WS: On the garden volunteer days, I have people coming from all over the neighborhood. Current students, alumni, parents, friends and neighbors all come together. Digging in the garden helps people work out the anger they’re holding, especially in this area. This was once an all-Black community and now that it’s becoming gentrified, there’s housing pressure. But the garden has started to build new social relationships and stronger ties in the neighborhood. When we started having community workdays, people from the local urban gardening community started to come. There used to not be a lot of cross socialization, but now everyone has gotten to know each other.
When you get the food flowing to people, everything comes to you like you need. It’s about giving and generosity. It’s about everyone getting to know each other. Neighbors exchange and return. The garden plays a central role in seeding and growing all kinds of things, from plants to kids to families, flowing from seed to food to consumption, and back again. This process is healing the hearts of our children.
A crew of kids helped build this amazing garden. They learned about the earth and the ecosystems that support them. They grew themselves and they grew plants, and they grew a great community. It’s the spiral. We healed the earth and we healed ourselves.