I first met Leonel at the Interfaith Hunger Coalition in 1988 where he had recently finished an effort to focus religious congregations on social justice and poverty alleviation. As President of the Board of our host agency, Interfaith Ministries, he asked me about the community gardening project we were doing. I told him that the food pantry network the Hunger Coalition had organized was taxed to the max. During the historic economic collapse of 1986, it supplied a million requests for emergency food. I explained that my mentor County Agent Arnold Brown and I thought that both inner city market gardening and consumption gardening were good ways to alleviate poverty, hunger, and poor diet. He loved the idea and said we should form a committee. He then suggested we meet at 7am every Friday at a Denny's. “7am is one way to find out if people are serious,” he said! We met for over a year.
That was one of many times he taught me something significant about community organizing. Essentially if you want to get something done, find people who will do what they agree to, get a committee together around food, meet a lot, set homework assignments, and monitor their progress every meeting. The project we worked on--a $2 million dollar grant to put demonstration market gardening training projects in each Council District-- never materialized, but the conversations were invaluable, the goals became clear, and were among the first things we worked on when we started Urban Harvest six years later.
When it finally became obvious that we needed to separate from Interfaith Ministries, Leonel joined Suzy Fischer, Mark Cotham, Terry Hershey, and Ellen Mitchell as the original board. Together they guided Wendy Kelsey, George McAfee Jr., and myself as staff in the new adventure we named Urban Harvest at Suzy's office one hot July day in 1994.
Over the next decade, Leonel worked as Assistant for Education to Mayors Lanier, Brown, and White. He advocated at HISD for school gardening and with Councilman Fraga spoke at the dedication in 1997 of the Browning Elementary Garden that helped jumpstart the Urban Harvest program. And for a time, he tried to create a High School for the Green Professions.
Leonel also became head of Urban Harvest's Latino Services Committee. Along with several others, he created a Fiesta en Primavera. We had Spanish language gardening booths, Spanish radio, mariachis and a bayou flotilla of canoes from Memorial Park to Guadalupe Plaza.
He was also our featured speaker at Urban Harvest's 10th anniversary harvest celebration in 2004. There I gave him a Founder's Award and he spoke to us about the remarkable fact that unlike most startup charities, Urban Harvest had survived 10 years. He also discussed the importance of providing good food and good food advice to the huge numbers of people in our area before they get ill from dietary causes such as stroke and diabetes.
Like Leonel, Nancy and I were in the Peace Corps and as well I lived a while in the Philippines doing research. So we connected as movement siblings on the same road. He was a wonderful inspiration.