Lebenskünstler

Something else that is social practice, but isn’t social practice (art), although it gets asked similar questions

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 05/30/2013

SEEKING SERENITY IN A PATCH OF LAND – Patricia Leigh Brown

The garden, on the scraggly outskirts of town, is one of seven in Fresno created for immigrants, refugees and residents of impoverished neighborhoods with mental health money from the state. At the Slavic Community Garden, Ukrainian refugees persecuted for their religious beliefs in the Soviet Union now grow black currants for jam, dill for pickles and soups, and medicinal calendula flowers from Ukrainian seeds.

The thinking of community leaders and health professionals is that gardens can help foster resiliency and a sense of purpose for refugees, especially older ones, who are often isolated by language and poverty and experiencing depression and post-traumatic stress. Immigrant families often struggle to meet insurance co-payments, and culturally attuned therapists are in short supply.

Spending state money this way has been controversial, with some advocates for those with mental illnesses arguing that gardens are an unaffordable frill in an era of diminishing resources. From 1995 to 2008, the state cut $700 million a year in core mental health services like psychiatric facilities.

“Should they be a priority when there is no evidence of how many seriously mentally ill are served?” asked Curtis A. Thornton, a member of the Fresno County Mental Health Advisory Board.

Assessing the results is a challenge. “We don’t know what kind of effect it has,” said Jessica Cruz, the executive director of the state’s National Alliance on Mental Illness. “But any entryway into mental health is positive, especially for underserved populations.”

In West Fresno, the Growing Hope garden, a collection of raised beds, is on the grounds of the West Fresno Family Resource Center in a black and Latino neighborhood with widespread poverty and toxic industrial sites. The area is nicknamed the Dog Pound after a local gang.

The garden draws mothers like Alejandra Vasquez, who has seven children and is growing tomatillos, cilantro, green squash and other vegetables. Organic produce is too expensive, she said, and the nearest supermarket is more than 20 minutes away.

At the new Punjabi Sikh Sarbat Bhala Community Garden, which means “may good come to all,” older Sikhs are mentors to younger gardeners, instructing them on how to harvest fenugreek seeds and use a hand sickle called a datri.

The old men who were farmers in India share memories of oxen races and tell folk tales that invariably end with a moral: Hard work pays off.

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