FORT WORTH, Texas — James Smith can’t sit on his front porch anymore. The Southside resident used to enjoy soaking in the sounds of nature and watching the bustle of passing cars and children at play. Now, the porch that was once a place of refuge only dredges haunted memories.
His home sits opposite the site of Atatiana Jefferson’s murder by Fort Worth Police officer Aaron Dean. It was Smith who called the police asking for a wellness check when he noticed his neighbor’s doors and windows open at an odd hour of the night. Since that day in October 2019, Smith has become determined to keep Jefferson’s memory alive.
When he heard about a neighborhood activist who was raising money and recruiting volunteers to erect a mural of Jefferson, he made a donation and became involved. Through that project, he met Patrice Jones, who would eventually set him down a path to reclaim his home as a place of calm meditation — through gardening.
“The closest stores to my neighborhood don't have any produce,” he said. “It's more like junk food and candy. So it’s nice to have your own personal garden.”
Through the Southside Community Garden, a project that uses volunteers to build raised garden beds at homes set in a food desert area, Smith now sits on his back porch, admiring burgeoning produce like tomatoes, squash, and greens.
When Jones was organizing the mural project, which was completed in July, she noticed on her many supply runs that there wasn’t a proper grocery store within miles of the neighborhood.
“We were cutting grass, picking up trash,” Jones said. “We were doing everything to get the [mural] sight presentable because it had been abandoned for about 20 years. And during that process, we realized the stores were just so far away. Like we were literally having to drive 20 minutes just to make it to a store where we would be able to get fresh produce, fruits, or vegetables, or even to get something to drink.”
Jones and the Garden’s co-founder Alison Pope did some research and found that Atatiana’s zip code, 76104, has the lowest life expectancy in the state — a zip code that shares space with half a dozen major hospitals and countless medical clinics.
"We wanted to take the initiative of not only bringing light to Atatiana Jefferson's murder, but to bring food justice to the area,” Jones said.
Jones and Pope met through the many protests that erupted all over the city in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Both have become stalwarts in grassroots organizations demanding racial and social justice.
When the pair decided to address food insecurity in the 76104 area, they initially wanted to create a traditional community garden. Because of cost and access issues, the duo later settled on a model that brings resources to the homes of residents. So far, the group has built 11 area gardens, and demand is growing.
Once someone from a household expresses interest in having a garden, Southside Community Garden volunteers provide a 4x8-foot bed built by volunteers who also fill it with high-quality soil. The organization also provides the new gardeners with online resources and a mentor who is available for questions. Jones and Pope are hoping the recipients will, in turn, teach others how to garden and become more self-sufficient.
“A slogan that we say is ‘Each one, teach one, reach many,’ ” Jones said. “So if it's a household with multiple generations, then they can kind of teach each other."
“We do ask that the home gardener share the harvest, but the only commitment we're asking for home gardeners right now is just to be willing to learn and grow,” Pope said. “And after a year, they'll have the confidence and the skillset … and maybe they will pass that information on to other people outside of their family as well.”
Prior to creating their non-profit, neither Jones nor Pope had any experience gardening.
“We just saw the need,” Jones said. “We wanted to serve that need and try to bring fresh produce to 76104 one backyard at a time.”
The charity’s first build was Smith’s, who Jones said has become the organization’s most enthusiastic gardener.
“His build was just really special,” she said. “We had a lot of volunteers — people from all walks of life come out and created a meditation space for [Smith]. “All the volunteers were commenting, ‘Wow, this feels so therapeutic. This is so great.’ So it's something that's a little bit deeper. We hope it's going to bring peace and justice to the community as well.”
For Smith, the garden means he can return to the outdoors without having to relive the tragedy of Atatiana Jefferson’s murder.
“We placed the garden on the other side of my backyard, which was away from the street and away from the view of her home,” he said. “And it has a calming effect. I’ve gone back to nature and it's a meditation spot. It’s serving a dual purpose for me."