Interview with Thomas Garcia-Prats, Co-founder of Small Places

For Thomas Garcia-Prats, founder and general manager of Small Places, urban farming represents an opportunity to work towards social justice, bring communities closer together, and provide nutritious and locally sourced produce to people in need - but the path to becoming a farmer was not a straight shot. I got the chance to speak with Thomas about his interest in urban agriculture and how he got to his current position.

Q: Tell me about yourself and how you got started in urban farming.
A: I was born and raised in Houston, Texas. I’m from a big, stereotypical urban family, so growing up I went to church, school, sports, and that’s it. I never intended to be an urban farmer. My family didn’t even grow potted tomatoes on the front porch. It was an intersection of experiences, like living in Central and South America, that changed things.
Studying culture and history abroad in Nicaragua got me interested more in justice in general, rather than agriculture. I started asking myself, why is Nicaragua one of the poorest countries in our hemisphere? How can I provide basic features of living for people? Coming back from there changed my perspective. I wanted to learn more about my own culture, and in Houston, food is a big part of that. I went to work at an organic farm in Maine after about a year of living in Houston teaching and waiting tables.
Q: What was the farm like in Maine?
The farm was in an incredibly rural, small town. It was a 20 acre farm on a country road with about two acres in vegetables, and it ran off the grid on solar and wind power. The farmers there homesteaded, which means they grew produce for sale but also for themselves. Rosie [the main farmer] took an apprentice every year, and she and I would wake up Monday through Friday at 6 am, and then be out on the field working until 5 or 6 PM. 
Q: Was that a difficult adjustment, from living in Houston to working long hours outside on the farm?
Everything about farming was a brand new world for me, and I had to learn the small details like what type of seeds to use, but living in Nicaragua, we were basically outside all the time. I’m athletic in general, and I enjoy that physicality of working outside.
Q: How did your farming experiences lead you to founding Small Places?
When I left Maine, I had no idea what I wanted to do. It has never been, “I’m going to be a farmer.” It’s more that I’m fascinated by how our culture works and food is so integral into that. The work we do as a farm, it’s getting me deeper into why our society works the way it does.
An opportunity presented itself in Iowa where I could work on a large organic farm up there. It was a step up in scale and professionalism. The farmer worked to build a good reputation as a professional farm, and they had good recordkeeping and documents compared to the previous farm. Working there strengthened my business sense to help me when I eventually started Small Places.
After I came back from Iowa, a friend working on a farm in Nicaragua told me about an opportunity to manage a farm there in 2012. Farming in the tropics is different, so I learned how to work in a new climate. I was also managing people for the first time, so that was new.
Q: Tell me what it was like starting the farm. Why Houston and why urban farming in particular?
I started the farm in Houston in May of 2014. I wanted to stay in Houston but there were no farming jobs here, so I now run the farm with two of my brothers. I called it a meeting of the minds = we would cook dinner and brainstorm about the idea of running an urban farm in Houston. 
We saved up money and started going to conferences and talks on health and food. The interesting thing was, agriculture was almost never a part of the conversation. Often, people will say urban areas need more access to fresh food, so they’ll talk about building a grocery store, but in an urban setting, people are disconnected from where food comes from. I don’t think the problem is access to grocery stores. It’s access to agriculture.
People sometimes ask why we don’t just get 50 acres in Beaumont and affect more people with more product, but we want to be where the people are so we can be part of the conversation. When I go to community meetings, people always ask me about the farm. We’re now a part of the community. Our farm is in the neighborhood so you can meet other people there, connect with other people who are interested in eating healthier, being outside, and want their kids to be more conscientious about nutrition. These important conversations stem from having the farm in the middle of the city.
Q: One of the biggest challenges urban farms face is the rising price of real estate. How is Small Places overcoming the increasing cost of land in Houston?
The value of our land has almost quadrupled in four and a half years. Can I justify my 1.5 acre farm on a piece of land that could be valued up to a million dollars? The impact that my farm has goes beyond food production. Houston’s productive green space is diminishing. We just had some Rice students do a Social Return on Investment calculation to determine the financial benefit of the farm, including non-tangible benefits. We give pre-K students free bags of produce, and because of that, the cost of healthcare can go down $10,000 per child. They’re projecting over $1 million in value due to less visits to hospitals and being healthier in general. I think of it as a minimal investment in the long term health of my community, and I think more people are recognizing the health realities of obesity, so I think $1 million is justified.
Q: What are your favorite and least favorite parts of the job?
A: My least favorite is probably the marketing and accounting, which my brother does usually.  I’m not really inspired by that.
My favorite is interacting with people on the farm. There’s all kinds of people – kids who have never been there, adults who’ve immigrated from places with a lot of agriculture, people who just drove by. The fact that people are gracious and interested always motivates me to keep doing what I’m doing.
Q: Any parting words of advice?
I would say it’s important to get out of your comfort zone. If I’m comfortable arguing about environmentalism or why society sucks at taking care of it, that’s great, but can we not do something beyond that? Inform yourself more. We get comfortable in our belief systems, but we need to challenge ourselves to learn more. And get out of your routine. Do something you wouldn’t normally do. Make dinner for your neighbor. Break down some of these barriers we build up. Donate money to something you believe in instead of going out and eating or drinking. Take a different route home. Just do something to get out of your default setting – go home, go to work, go to the store, go back home. The world is way beyond that.
Interview By: Erin Philip

A More Flexible Approach to the Straw Ban

With Seattle’s city-wide ban on plastic straws and utensils, major businesses like Marriott, American Airlines, and Starbucks announcing plans to eliminate straw usage, and increasing pressure from environmentalists, it’s become harder to ignore these ubiquitous drinking utensils. But how much impact do straws really have on the environment, and how did the movement gain so much traction?
Straws have been used by humans since ancient times; there are wall paintings of Mesopotamian royals drinking beer and wine through long tubes dating back to 3000 BC. Materials ranged from grass, actual straw, to paper, but plastic straws only started to become the dominant trend in the 1950s, when plastics became cheaper to produce. 
It’s estimated that 500 million straws are used in the US each day, enough to fill 127 school buses. Due to their small size, these straws often get past mechanical recycling sorters and end up in the ocean, polluting the water and harming marine life. A recent report on plastic flows projects that by 2050, oceans will contain more plastics than fish by weight. The same study found that since plastic packaging is often used only once, about 95% of the value, worth $80-120 billion annually, is lost to the economy.
The focus on banning straws arises because they are relatively easy, inessential items to eliminate – at least, for most people. The straw ban has gained recent attention for marginalizing disabled people, who depend on straws as an accessibility tool. While proponents of the ban have suggested alternatives made of metal or bamboo, these options may pose choking hazards and high costs for disabled consumers, promoting a situation where disabled voices are left unheard when it comes to environmental policy.
The #StopSucking movement may have taken off due to the symbolic power of simply saying no to a straw at a restaurant; no one wants to be the person responsible for a poor sea turtle with a straw stuck in his nostril, especially not when everyone else at the table declined a straw. It’s easy enough for most people to participate in the straw ban voluntarily, but we should be cautioned against mandating the ban and inadvertently dismissing the needs of the disabled community. Instead, consider adopting the following habits so everyone can reduce the impact of using plastic on the environment:

1) Use reusable shopping bags. A single plastic bag can take up to 1000 years to decompose. Reusable bags can often hold more groceries, keep certain items cold, and come in fun designs to show off your (eco-friendly) personality!

2) Buy items with less plastic packaging. Instead of single serving snacks, see if you can buy in bulk and transfer to reusable containers when packing lunches. Instead of buying dozens of plastic water bottles at a time, use a reusable bottle to track your water intake and keep drinks cool or hot.

3) Recycle plastics you do use. If you must use plastic, take care in disposing of items properly to minimize their environmental impact. While not all plastics are recyclable, it helps to know what your local recycling plant accepts and keep that waste separate from trash that ends up in landfills. 


By Vox Blogger: Erin Philip


Understanding and Welcoming Refugees

We live in a truly unprecedented era. Never before has the world been so connected and our destinies been so intertwined. Thanks to technological advances, we have greater access to information and to each other than ever before. We can travel farther and faster than ever before. We live in a globalized world, where what happens on one side of world has the greatest potential in all of human history to impact those of us on the other side. 
And because of this, the global refugee crisis—that thing happening “over there”—is something we here in Houston cannot ignore. 
Currently, there are an estimated 68.5 million forcibly displaced persons in the world, people who have been forced to flee from their homes due to some form of conflict.  That’s roughly the population of the United Kingdom. Of them, almost one third, 25.4 million, are classified by the United Nations as “refugees”: displaced people who are outside the borders of their countries of origin. By definition, a refugee is unable or unwilling to return home due to a well-founded fear of persecution.
What else is a refugee? A refugee is a father who wants to provide for his family. A pregnant mother concerned about her baby and her other children. A young man who wants to avoid war. A little girl who can no longer attend school. An elderly gentleman who remembers a peaceful existence, who never imagined his country would be destroyed. Refugees are ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances. The current refugee crisis is the worst humanitarian issue of our day, on a scale never seen before, considered the greatest migration crisis in the history of mankind. It is estimated that one quarter of the 25 million refugees are from one country alone—Syria. Half of all refugees in the world are under the age of 18. 
For decades the United States has resettled refugees.  In fact, we have historically been the world’s top resettlement country. (In 2018, however, the U.S. will resettle a historic low. ) Since the Refugee Act of 1980, the U.S. has resettled over three million refugees. Over the past decade 24% of those resettled were from Burma (Myanmar), 20% from Iraq, and 14% from Bhutan. On average the U.S. resettles 90,000 refugees per year, not a modest number by any means; in the broader context, however, less than 1% of all refugees globally are resettled into a third country in any given year. Many more refugees are turned away.
Refugees live in every state in the U.S. Many refugees have landed in Texas, in Houston, America’s current #1 city for resettlement. Houston resettles more refugees than some nations, resettling refugees from dozens of countries in any given year. Refugees (and immigrants in general) have changed the landscape of our city:
One out of every four Houstonians was born abroad.
We are the most racially and ethnically diverse city in the nation, eclipsing cities like Los Angeles and New York in terms of statistical diversity. 
We are the nation’s top refugee resettlement city, settling over 70,000 refugees since 1978.
In Fort Bend County, the nation’s most ethnically diverse county, over 95 languages are spoken in the school district.
Thirty years ago, Houston was largely bi-racial; today everyone is a demographic minority. The U.S. census predicts that by 2040 or 2050, the U.S. will be a minority majority nation. In Houston this is already a reality.
Houston has become not just a microcosm of the world's people, but also a microcosm of the world's religions. From Armenian Orthodox and Bah’ai to Yazidis and Zoroastrians we can account for dozens of major religious affiliations, and some of the nation’s largest churches. It’s the collaborative spirit among these faith groups and interfaith groups that have helped thousands of refugees rebuild their lives in Houston. 
When refugees first arrive, they have many urgent needs. Among them are the need to learn English, the need to get a job, and the need to arrange for personal transportation. Parents need to enroll kids in school and buy clothes and supplies. Almost nothing compares to friendship in terms of helping refugees thrive. There are multiple opportunities for our Houston community to get involved and welcome these newcomers.
Houston refugees are supported by a refugee consortium consisting of five refugee agencies, plus one English institute:
While each of these agencies manages their own cases and programs, there is a lot of cooperation and solidarity among them.
Since 2003, Houston’s refugee consortium has collaborated with the City of Houston and dozens of community partners to host World Refugee Day Houston, an event seeking to raise awareness, show gratitude, and honor refugees. World Refugee Day, recognized globally on June 20, was established in 2001 by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and is celebrated around the world yearly. The Houston event takes a different form every year: it might be a cultural festival, or a panel discussion, or a story showcase. World Refugee Day Houston is a great way for Houstonians to meet refugees and celebrate their achievements.
For decades, Houston has boasted a welcoming spirit toward refugees. There are many ways for you to get involved with refugees in Houston. One of the best ways to start is to contact one of the agencies and ask about volunteer opportunities. Many churches and temples have their own ministries for refugees. You can also do a quick Google search to seek out community partners and refugee support organizations. Here is a list of just a few of those organizations.
Refugees contribute to the thriving of our city. They teach us about resilience, grit, and perseverance. They are part of the fabric of our cosmopolitan city. Join Vox Culture in welcoming refugees.
Cindy M. Wu is a local author and speaker, and former Vox Culture board member. You can find her at www.cindymwu.com

Beyond the Margins: An LGBTQA+ Refugee Experience

When people think of refugees and asylum seekers, they often think of widely publicized news stories where countries are engrossed in civil and political unrest that results in a large-scale refugee crisis. The unique challenges faced by the LGBTQA+ community in countries where they are persecuted often go unnoticed. In an effort to shed light on the mistreatment, victimization, and criminalization the LGBTQA+ community still faces all around the world, the City of Houston Office of New Americans, ACLU of Texas, The Alliance, Human Rights First, Refugee Council USA, and YMCA International Services held a symposium at Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church where refugees, asylum seekers, and experts shared their stories. 
The evening began with opening statements made by Resurrection Reverend Vickey Gibbs and Terence O’Neil from the City of Houston Office of New Americans. Reverend Gibbs and Mr. O’Neil welcomed the audience and described how Houston is a welcoming city for all people regardless of who you love, where you come from, or what religion you practice. They reminded us that refugees and asylum seekers should not be afraid in Houston – they are welcome here and they are safe here. As Pride month comes to an close, they wanted to make sure that the LGBTQA+ community is included in the current refugee and immigrant conversation that has taken hold of the United States.
While the United States has made great strides with the rights of the LGBTQA+ community, we are reminded that all over the world, LGBTQA+ individuals are often the targets of persecution. A short film was screened during the symposium illustrating the extent of the institutionalized violence and discrimination the LGBTQA+ community faces in countries all across the world. Homosexuality is currently illegal in approximately 76 countries. Additionally, many countries do not have hate crime laws that protect the LGBTQA+ community. Homophobic and transphobic violence often goes ignored by police and government officials in these countries, which causes LGBTQA+ individuals to seek refuge or asylum in the United States. In the film Tyler Oakley, a popular YouTuber and member of the LGBTQA+ community, interviewed several refugees who fled to the United States due to persecution based on their sexuality. After interviewing these refugees, Oakley noted that they are some of the most patriotic individuals he has ever met.
Following the short film screening, a panel moderated by Melanie Toarmina Pang, social worker and founding co-chair of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s LGBTQ Advisory Board, was conducted. The panel featured Christian Longue Dessug from Cameroon, Mary N. from Iran, Franklin Lucien Tatpa from Cameroon, Adonnay Antonio Aguilar Marmol from El Salvador, Anandrea Molina from Mexico, and Laura Nally, managing attorney of the Houston office of Human Rights First. Pang began the panel with an expression of love and gratitude for the individuals who are brave enough to share their personal stories with the public and kind enough to inform the community of the challenges faced by LGBTQA+ refugees and asylum seekers. While each panelist had a unique story to tell, there was one theme they all had in common: each panelist lived in constant fear for their lives as a direct result of their sexuality. The panelists shared their memories of being jailed, beaten, bullied, rejected by their families, and outed by their friends. Despite these conditions, it took incredible strength for the panelists to leave everything they knew and loved behind to seek refuge in a foreign country. After coming to the United States, each panelist took it upon himself or herself to give back to the LGBTQA+ immigrant community by getting involved in volunteer work and community service. 
While it was clear each member of the panel was grateful for the refuge the United States provided, the conversation inevitably turned to the current dismal state of immigrant affairs in the U.S. One panelist noted that “the new administration is a circus [and is] putting the lives of LGBT people at risk” with their zero tolerance policy. Immigration lawyer Laura Nally also noted that there has been a clear increase in the detention of asylum seekers where they are put in unsanitary detention centers that are filled with discrimination and a lack of privacy, which uniquely affects LGBTQA+ individuals. 
As the evening comes to a close, we are left wondering where we, as a community, city, and nation, can go from here. These are my suggestions: Educate yourself. Vote. Hold your government representatives accountable for their words and their actions. Know where your tax dollars are going. Get involved in your community. Above all else, listen to people’s stories, and give the individuals who have personally experienced the effects of hateful policies a platform to speak and to educate. It seems easy to not care about these issues when they do not personally affect you, but it is important to remember that we are stronger together. Empathy is what makes us human. In the face of adversity, it’s important not to forget that. 


By: Chelsea Ogan, Vox Advocacy Ambassador on Refugees


Understanding World Refugee Day in Houston

World Refugee Day is celebrated every year on June 20th. This year the Houston Refugee Consortium, in partnership with the City of Houston Office of New Americans and Immigrant Communities, celebrated World Refugee Day 2018 with guest speakers and a panel held at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. The goal of the event was to discuss the global refugee crisis and Houston’s response to it. 
The main theme of the night was to celebrate Houston’s diversity as well as the courage of refugees. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner presented a city proclamation commemorating World Refugee Day and spoke about how diversity makes the Houston community stronger. Additionally, the status of immigrants and refugees in the current presidential administration was not lost on Mayor Turner as he proudly stated, “we don’t build walls. We cherish and value relationships. We value families and the family unit. We welcome them with open arms.” He went on to discuss how the role of diverse cities such as Houston has never been more important than it is today, and Houston should lead the way in opening its communities to immigrants and refugees.
Following Mayor Turner, Dr. Stephen Klineberg, Rice University professor and founder of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, presented statistical data illustrating the growing diversity, or demographic revolution, of the Houston area. His research, which was made possible through local surveys and United States census data, suggested that even if American boarders were completely shut down and all immigrants and refugees were barred from entering the country, the Anglo population of Houston – and eventually America as a whole – will continue to decrease while other populations grow.
In fact, Dr. Klineberg asserts that, “no conceivable force in world can stop America from becoming less and less Anglo and more everything else.” Given this undeniable fact, Dr. Klineberg states the next step for America is figuring out how to keep it from tearing us apart. 
State Representative Gene Wu for Texas House District 137, was the third speaker of the evening. Representative Wu expressed his anger and frustration with the current state of immigrant and refugee affairs in the United States under the Trump administration, reminding the audience that 39% of adults in his district were born outside of the United States. Much of the Representative’s anger stems from the fact that the individuals affected by the xenophobic policies of the current administration, “are his people.” However, he reminds us that refugees and immigrants are the very spirit of our nation, and our actions, our advocacy, our voice, and our passion have ever been more important than they are now. 
To end the night, a panel featuring several members of the community was conducted by moderator Lomi Kriel of the Houston Chronicle. The panel included Yuliya Labanouskaya, Starbucks District Manager, Jonathan Trinh, Principal of Margaret Long Wisdom High School, Jeff Watkins, Vice President of Global Initiatives – YMCA of Greater Houston, and Alyssa Stebbing, Director of Outreach at Trinity Episcopal Church and Diocese of Texas Liaison for Episcopal Migration Ministries. The panel discussed ways to help refugees succeed in resettling in America, including employment opportunities, volunteering to teach English as a second language, volunteering to teach valuable skills and trades, and simply checking in and keeping up with a refugee family going through the resettlement process. If you are looking to get involved with refugee resettlement in the Houston area, you can contact Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, YMCA International Services, Refugee Services of Texas, or Alliance for Multicultural Community Services.
 Overall, the night was filled with passion, conviction, and hope. While it is easy to feel discouraged in light of current events in the United States, World Refugee Day Houston reminds us that that our diversity is our strength, and it should be celebrated not vilified. It is easy for people to forget the power they hold, but everyone has a voice that matters – and right now, our voices matter a lot. I came out of World Refugee Day Houston feeling empowered and optimistic about the future of refugees and immigrants in the Houston community. If there is one thing I took away from the panel, it is that refugees and immigrants are here to stay. If you are looking to get involved with refugee resettlement in the Houston area, you can contact Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, YMCA International Services, Refugee Services of Texas, or Alliance for Multicultural Community Services. 
By: Chelsea Ogan, Vox Advocacy Ambassador on Refugees