It’s mango season in Miami, and James Jiler’s kitchen counter keeps filling with bags and bags of the tropical fruit. The towering mound accumulates nearly faster than he can slice the mangos apart or blend them together in a summer daiquiri.
Tasty as the fresh fruit is already, it’s even sweeter to Jiler because of where it comes from: many of the mangoes were nurtured and picked by at-risk youth, halfway house residents and the formerly incarcerated. As the executive director of Urban Greenworks, Jiler provides green jobs and environmental programs like planting in urban spaces or science education in schools to troubled residents of Miami. Since the organization’s start in 2010, roughly 55 people have been employed by the nonprofit, plus hundreds more have served as volunteers.
“Every time we plant a cluster of native trees, we create a little, cool sanctuary, or a butterfly garden or a natural habitat for the endangered Dade pine that was once there 150 years ago,” Jiler says. “My philosophy is to change one person, one garden, one community at a time.”
Before he arrived on the southeast tip of Florida, Jiler lived in New York’s East Village for more than a decade. He spent his time organizing with his neighbors to protect several community gardens — precious land in dense Lower Manhattan — from the dual threats of gentrification and former mayor Rudy Giuliani. He spent his days heading up the GreenHouse Program, a “jail to street” program at Rikers Island, the city’s central corrections facility, where he taught male and female prisoners “the art of gardening” on two acres of land adjacent to the penitentiary. Schooled in the methods of tending plants from seed to blossom, the formerly incarcerated left “immediately employable,” Jiler says. They could quickly transition to jobs in the city’s parks department or nature conservancies. Some alums even found themselves potting flowerbeds at spacious penthouse terraces, overlooking skyscrapers and the great emerald of Central Park.
“I would say, of close to 700 inmates I worked with over 10 years, I could count on my hands the ones that had a college education and on my hands and feet the ones that graduated high school. The rank and file of incarcerated in our cities are undereducated, underemployed and generally poor,” explains Jiler, who completed a graduate program at Yale University’s School of Forestry. “Using horticulture and gardening and food production, we’d redirect their lives. It’s a way to develop vocational skills and educate. When the real difficulties begin, it’s a way to reduce recidivism.”
Not only did gardening provide the incarcerated with work, its rhythms and routines could soothe tensions and relieve anxiety by troweling the earth. “It’s horticulture as therapy,” Jiler explains. “People’s lives could be transformed having these positive interactions with nature.” If a convict needed to confront the old buddies that once got him into trouble, for example, the rote actions of pruning could be meditative, could prove that small and painful incisions do eventually beautify the whole.
“I like to see beauty. What gets me going is to see a garden made by people in that community who have been marginalized, who are considered unemployable, involved in something productive and meaningful,” Jiler says.
In 2008, Jiler packed up from his New York neighborhood, feeling it had lost its edge, and journeyed south to Miami. He thought his work in the penal system had been effective, but he started to wonder if it was possible to bust what he calls the “cradle-to-prison pipeline” at an earlier stage. In Liberty City, “one of the most neglected inner-city neighborhoods in Miami,” Jiler found the Belafonte TACOLCY Center, a community youth center, and a partner with whom to launch a green initiative. Roger Horne, a naturalist who’d co-founded Youth Bike, a program teaching mechanical skills and safety to inner-city kids, and taught gardening at the center, now heads Urban Greenworks’s community health relations.
At their newly formed organization, Jiler and Horne created Cerasee Farm. It’s named for a tropical vine in the Caribbean that sprouts wherever the land is disturbed and produces seed pods used in medicinal teas — just the antidote the pair believed Liberty City needed. Over the course of a year, the nonprofit’s employees and volunteers transformed an abandoned tract of land into a huge urban farm. They grow moringas, a tree that sprouts healthy superfood, and mulberries, a tree that shoots up quickly and produces fruit within eight months. Higher up in the canopy, there’s avocados and lychees.
In August 2013, Jiler also established the Mustard Seed Project, creating an urban farm of kale, arugula and cranberry hibiscus at the halfway home Agape House, where women reside post-incarceration. Almost all have a history of substance abuse, and a number have suffered as victims of human trafficking. Women from the facility also run the Edible Wall, 400 square feet of fresh herbs and fruits, like peppermint and spearmint, cilantro, basil, passion fruit and strawberries, that supply downtown’s trendy mixologists and chefs.
“I look forward to each day so much: we get to be outside with nature and get our hands dirty,” one woman says of the program. “I used to hate going outside, but now I love to with all the plants and flowers — so much life.” Another adds, “It’s great to be part of something beautiful for a change.”
It’s said that weeds are nothing more than unloved flowers — a lesson that holds true for gardeners, too. No matter if they’re wild, bent or misshapen, Jiler accepts Liberty City’s inmates, addicts and youth — the people that others would uproot and toss aside. Some may not look rosy today, but with a little care, they’ll be like late-spring blossoms, all the more beautiful for the wait.