Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Prison Food, Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

The Best Coast?

Mount Hood, OR.  Beautiful, of course.
When I received an email yesterday from my PhD program announcing that a member of my cohort had earned a position at a University in California, I was happy for her and proud of us.  Jama has always been a shining star and it is wonderful and appropriate to see her important work recognized.  But, honestly, I must admit that my heart let out a painful gasp - the West Coast?  Really, Jama, really?

Although Jama was born and raised in Mississippi, she's a New Yorker.  The image that comes to my mind when I think about her is Jama on the F train heading out to her beloved Brooklyn.  Messenger bag flung over her shoulder, jeans rolled up at the ankle.  Or maybe she's out on the Chelsea Piers or in City Hall, fighting for the rights of LBGT youth.  She's walking down Lexington Ave., smiling.  Now, can I imagine her happily strolling through the Castro with a skinny, soy, organic, trade-free latte in her hand?  Yeah, I can.  But I don't want to.

As it turns out, the email contained a clerical error and Jama's appointment does not involve a West Coast move. So we're saved, for now.  But that was a close call; I'm gonna keep my eye on her.  She's got a Mac, after all, and that's never a good sign.

If I sound bitter and angry about the West Coast, well, I am.  The West Coast has captured my two best friends from college, both of my siblings and all 5 of my niece and nephews.  Remember my groovy uncle with the Tevas?  Gone West.  Now it appears that a beloved cousin has her compass pointing West, as well.  Come on now East Coasters!  Let's get our game face on.  Make sure you've got Jay Z and Frank Sinatra on your playlist.  Post pictures of Fall Foliage on your Facebook page.  Remember how it feels to watch the first snow falling outside your bedroom window?  Tell a friend.  Let's not lose this one without a fight.

Now, I may be bitter and angry, but I'm not stupid.  I get it.  I've been to the West Coast many a time to visit my transplanted friends and family.  Mostly warm and sunny.  No mosquitoes.  Polite drivers who respect bike lanes.  Local food.  The ability to die when you want to and marry who you love.  While NYC's Lady Liberty declares, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free," the Golden Gate Bridge seems to beckon the idealistic with discretionary income, yearning to recycle and participate in outdoor sport.  I get it.

So, if I think the West Coast is so great, why don't I just grab my blue recycle bin and my bike helmet and move out there?  Well, it's complicated.  First of all, there are the logistical reasons: too far from Spain, too many earthquakes and the mortgage on our New Haven house is "under water" so we're not moving anywhere anytime soon.  And of course there is my East Coast community - friends and family who I don't want to leave.

Then there are the real reasons.  First of all, although I am a white, liberal, middle-class, "crunchy" (for lack of a better word) woman, when I am around lots of people who fit this same profile, it gets on my last nerve.  A week in Portland and all I want to do is wear stilettos, eat Twinkies and throw my Diet Coke can straight into the landfill.  Weird, right?  Probably not something that a good therapist couldn't work through in a year or so.  I guess I like to be in the minority, I like the uphill battle.  I get that from my mom.  Second, I'd feel weird about living somewhere with little to no Black people.  I told you it was complicated. I obviously still have some whiteness issues to work out.  I get that from my mom, too.  Finally, I don't want to give up on our great NE cities.  What would Jane Jacobs say if I moved to LA?  So there we go, I'm an East Coast lifer, for better and for worse.

But just because we're living along the Atlantic, doesn't mean we can't import some great ideas from the folks out yonder.  For example, all the really well-established thriving U.S. prison gardens are in CA, OR & WA.  There are some great programs in NY, WI, OK and I'm sure other places that I don't know about, but the West Coast really leads the way.  Organic prison gardens in these states teach gardening and landscaping skills, re-connect people with the food they eat and the world they live in, produce food for the prisons, and often raise enough vegetables and flowers to also contribute to local food banks.  The programs offer meaningful work for both the inmates and volunteers from the community.

The garden at Oregon's only female prison, Coffee Creek (Apparently, everything is about coffee out there!?), has a wonderful blog that I would encourage you to visit.  I don't know how anyone can look at this site and not want to charge over to their local prison with a shovel and a tomato plant.  Well, actually, I can - a lot of people really don't care what goes on in prison or how prisoners live.

So the question is, why do people in CA, OR & WA care?  Why do these garden projects flourish on the West Coast?  Is it just because Alice Waters got a bee in her bonnet and made it happen?  Is it because they have more fertile soil and sunshine?  Or do people on the West Coast just have more compassion and empathy?  One of the great mysteries of life is how and why innovations in social policy come about.  In OR and WA, I wonder if it has something to do with race, since I tend to assume everything has to do with race.  In Oregon, 72% of the prisoners are White, whereas in Connecticut, only 21% of the prisoners are White.  If the prisoners are the same race as the policy makers, does that make a difference?  Do people care more when the incarcerated person looks like their own child?  Of course this theory wouldn't explain why there are prison farms in CA, but who can explain California?

The Garden at Coffee Creek is about to embark on a 3 year initiative with the Oregon Public Health division to expand and evaluate their work.  This project is funded by Kaiser Permanente.  For all of us, it is a great opportunity to watch, learn and replicate.  So go West Coast!  In spite of all,  I admire and appreciate you, but you still can't have Jama - so back off.