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Born of Triumph and Tragedy, Social Justice Org Fosters Health Equity and Well-being of Communities of Color

October 19, 2016 |

Dr. D'Artagnan Scorza speaking to volunteers at one of the Social Justic LI's gardens

Dr. D’Artagnan Scorza speaking to volunteers at one of the Social Justic Learning Institute’s gardens. Photo courtesy of Social Justice Learning Institute.

Though D’Artagnan Scorza grew up economically disadvantaged amidst a food desert in South Los Angeles, his family created an oasis of fresh fruits and vegetables that left him wanting for nothing at home.

“My grandmother grew corn and bell peppers, and grafted trees, though I didn’t know what that was until I got older and began to understand the relationship between food and the land.”

Scorza’s family not only grew their own food, but also cooked it.

“The history in my family is connected to food. My grandmother held food culture high in our family and it has always had a strong place,” he says. “My aunts, uncles, nieces all cook. I cook.”

Scorza currently runs the Inglewood, CA-based Social Justice Learning Institute, which he founded and formally organized in 2008 to improve “the education, health, and well-being of youth and communities of color by empowering them to enact social change through research, training, and community mobilization.” His experiences serving

His early experiences with food and family inform the Institute’s Health Equity programs, which collectively seek to work with the community to create a local food system and food economy through the creation of school and community gardens, the operation of a CSA, and the management of a farmers’ market.

“Community members have responded in so many positive ways and we are blown away by the ways that they have shown up,” says Scorza. “We have installed 64 gardens, and launched a CSA program that has served 100 families from a combination of them all. We have also put in 5,200 fruit and shade trees to date, and built seven operating urban farms in community/school garden spaces that we glean from for our CSA program.”

Scorza’s determination to make his community better grew out of his experiences traveling abroad in South Africa during his pursuit of his PhD in education at UCLA, four formative years that he spent in the U.S. Navy supporting personnel on land in Baghdad, and the tragic circumstances that befell his own family.

“In 2000, one of my brothers got locked up for 25 years, another was dealing with major issues, and my dad was incarcerated, and one of my cousins got killed in front of the house,” says Scorza. “I kept thinking, ‘somebody needs to do something. This has to stop.’”

So, in 2006 Scorza founded the Black Male Youth Academy (BMYA) at his alma mater, Morningside High School in Inglewood, CA. The Academy brought together social justice leaders and advocates to mentor underprivileged youth in the community, and prepare them for college and future careers.

The idea for the Social Justice Learning Institute was born when students at the Academy organized to form a community garden.

“Students were just deeply engaged in an effort to transform the conditions in the community from what they learned in the classroom,” he says. “They went down to the school district, advocating for land, and they got the district to let us use an empty plot of land across the street. It became Inglewood’s first community garden.”

The SJLI’s social justice efforts surrounding the creation of an equitable food system in South Los Angeles continue to bear fruit, despite ongoing challenges.

“I think in many ways the vision is being met, I think there are still challenges, because of the nature of the food system,” says Scorza. “We can build gardens, but the material conditions in the community are such that money talks. We’ve been pushing for a healthier food environment, pushing leadership to make Inglewood a healthier and greener space. But in many ways it requires the political will to transform it.”

Despite initial pushback from the city, the SJLI recently launched the City of Inglewood’s first farmers’ market. “We just hit our one-year anniversary and are finally at the place to get the city to agree to help us sustain the market long-term,” says Scorza.

Going forward SJLI will continue to focus on the creation of gardens, growing its CSA program and challenging fast food restaurants, says Scorza.

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