In partnership with LA Nature for All, Earth Share is a series of conversations on IGTV with the goal of sharing knowledge and inspiration with local organizations and individuals caring for the Earth. The following is a partial transcript of our conversation with Michael Martinez, founder and Executive Director of LA COMPOST. It has been edited for length.
Paloma Avila: What does nature mean to you?
Michael Martinez: Nature to me, really is just life. I feel like, growing up, I would often box that term to mean only things that were really distant from me or things we would have to go visit. I grew up here in the San Gabriel Valley: when we go to the mountains, we’re in nature; go to a lake, we’re in nature; river, ocean. Little by little as I grew up, I realized that nature isn’t what’s around us, it is us. We are nature, we are a part of it and how our effort and role is connected to it, it is one and the same.
I also feel that, for us at LA Compost, when I say “connecting the people of L.A. to the soil,” it’s essentially connecting people to life, what brings life. And reminding people of our humanity and recognizing that when the Earth is in pain that is also because we are in pain. The intersection between it all, I feel, is important to recognize. It is not some distant thing. Even if you are in Los Angeles, with an apartment, the alleyways, your backyard, and your window view is a cement brick wall, you are a representation of nature in and wherever you are.
Levi Brewster: So, given that nature is everywhere and everything, one of our questions was: What are your first memories of nature and where did those come about?
MM: The first memory that is deeply ingrained and rooted in my memory bank is, growing up in the San Gabriel Valley, my earliest memories of nature is my home. At my childhood home in the San Gabriel Valley we had orange trees, we had a little, small garden, and we had a large avocado tree. It wasn’t so much the trees, what made the experience truly magical was that my father and grandfather (my grandfather was a carpenter and my father is an upholster, so thy were very well-to-do with tools and all that), they essentially built the tree house for my brother and me. That to me is the most connected experience as a kid I could remember as far as literally being in a tree. We camped many times, like with my church and family but, I remember one time spending the night in that tree house, I thought it was the most brave thing I could do as a nine year old… To me, hearing the leaves brush against each other, hearing a bird on a branch. It remind me that we are it.
PA: How did the partnership with Arlington come about?
MM: I’m kind of embarrassed because I grew up near Arlington. My mom’s first job was in Pasadena. We’ve passed by Arlington as early as I can remember but never stopped, never seen it. And obviously it is what it is after a series of growth and investment and energy… We talked what it would look like to allow for us to create a space for members to participate and collectively compost, to build soil and a healthier soil together. We didn’t have a hub in Pasadena at the time, so Arlington Garden was the first hub in Pasadena. Arlington Garden is actually one of the first cooperative hubs that we launched. … We wanted to create more investment … so the co-op experience in the co-op hubs essentially asks those that are dropping off [food scraps] to ensure that the flow and work of that hub is maintained collectively. And that work is distributed across the shoulders of everyone that is participating.
[Arlington Garden] is a magical space, to just be able to walk and breathe, and not see the visual traffic that is around you. It is such a joy for us to, not even work, but just experience that space while we are supporting it. Arlington is one of 33 locations, every single on of our locations is in partnership with a community organization such as Arlington, doing solid work in the community. We don’t own any land, we don’t own any space, every single hub is in partnership with the community and has built a level of trust and transparency and is doing solid work in that area.
In many ways compost is about adding life and value to what it is around. In many ways, our hubs reflect that. Arlington was a magical space before our hub, it is a magical space without it, but the compost we are able to create can add a little bit of life and value and soil vitality to the oranges, to the many beautiful trees and shrubs that you have.
The space you have at Arlington is something I would dream of having in every zip-code across LA County. As far as a space that people can gather and breathe and can reset and be reminded of their humanity…
LB: I know you guys work really broadly across LA County, can you talk about the diversity of the communities you do work in and what those different connections look like? How do you support that community and how does that community support you? What is some of the challenges in working in different communities?
MM: There is no universal blanket approach to this work. I feel like L.A. is L.A. because of the people who call it home. I always say the beauty of a compost pile is the diversity of its ingredients. And the beauty of Los Angeles are the many people who call it home. No neighborhood is alike, and I think that’s what makes L.A. not only resilient, but healthy and strong and a vision for what the future should look like. I think for us, the diversity of each community is placed in the strength of our work. I want our team to not only reflect the communities they are serving but reflect the city as a whole. One approach that we have taken is to have all of our compost managers… [be] born and raised in the communities they are serving.
LB: One of things we talk about at Arlington Garden is equity in access. Arlington is a garden that is free, it is open to the public, people can come and go. We talk about how do people feel comfortable coming to the garden, how do people feel safe coming to the garden, who represents that garden, who is in the conversation about what happens at the garden. What does that look like in the work that you do?
MM: I think for us, it’s ensuring that we are part of different levels of community engagement.
One thing that we’ve learned is that you can’t just come into a space, build, and expect for investment and buy-in to happen. I think a lot of this work has to come in conversation with communities that you are actually working with. A lot of listening. Oftentimes, we see how groups come in and say what needs to be changed or what needs to be added.
A lot of it is conversation and co-creating, listening, taking the time to recognize, what is needed? How do we get there? How do we not just build resiliency? … To me, resiliency is getting back up after you keep getting knocked down. How do we go beyond resiliency and how do we build true equitable and healthy communities?
A small step that we have taken is ensuring that our staff members are from the community they’re serving so that they know who has been at that community working for many years, making sure their voices are included and their interests and efforts are kept in mind. Never assume that a community wants or needs something.
To me, the gospel of compost is really important, but this is not to say that it is the most important thing. When someone is facing issues with rent or getting food on the table or childcare, [compost] is probably not on the top of their mind. When you start to [draw the] bigger picture and start to talk about the environmental injustices that take place across the county (Why is that trash is sent to your neighborhood? Why is that you don’t have parks or a farmer’s market or green space?) people start to realize they really do intersect.
When you are building the health of the soil, you are building foundational pieces of things to happen. I think when people start to realize we all want green spaces, we all want tree canopies, we all want to be close to a watershed and have nutrient-dense food and have spaces where we can breathe and live…. There is no climate justice without focusing on social and racial justice. Everything is connected.
When I think about vision and the future, is a strong human network… How do we mimic the beautiful soil food-web that is beneath our feet, above the ground? If you’re familiar with the soil food-web, you just see this incredible connected system of micro and macro-organisms working to build the health and vitality of the soil that feeds us all. We know so little about the beautiful magic that is happening beneath our feet, but if we can begin to mimic that above ground, from Arlington to Venice to Eagle Rock to Watts to Cypress and Glassell Park, you start to see the connections. You start to see that this powerful human network has the capacity and potential to create something that is beyond all of us… I always like to use the phrase, “Soil and Soul: the only two letters that separate those words are U and I.” We are so connected to not only each other but the soil.
How do we create, not just the physical infrastructure for compost and soil-building to happen, but the social infrastructure for the building up of communities and people to happen in unison? The vision for me is to see seed, water, and soil become the most valuable currency when we think about health and vitality.
True freedom is when we are able to feed ourselves… How do you feed yourself and feed your community, build up your community? I want to go beyond “resilient” and survive, I want to be holistic and I want us to thrive. Liberation and the freedom to thrive doesn’t happen alone, it happens with those around you.