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Are Skidmore students literate in politics and government? Lessons in democracy
Students rock the vote New voters, new media, new energy
Road to the White House Melissa Winter '89 staffs the First Lady
McCain-Obama: Fair fight? Reviewing the 2008 presidential race
Growing the grassroots Scott Kennedy '87 films urban citizen action



Taking on the system

by Kathryn Gallien

“The first time I stepped onto the garden at 41st and Alameda, the city of Los Angeles seemed to vanish,” writes Scott Hamilton Kennedy ’87 in the director’s statement to his award-winning film about a humble group of people fighting to keep their urban farm. That was in 2004, when the thriving 14-acre oasis in South Central LA was threatened with imminent demolition. Four and a half years later The Garden debuted, and this January it ended up on the prime Hollywood short list, as one of five documentaries nominated for an Academy Award.

Kennedy nearly made that short list in 2003 with OT: Our Town, about an unlikely production of Thornton Wilder’s American theater classic by high school kids in crime-ridden Compton, Calif. Fast-forward six years later, and Kennedy was digging out his black tie for Hollywood’s big night. “I get giddy and tense at the same time thinking about it,” he said in January, reveling in the honor of being nominated—“This is the win.” (Indeed, on Oscar night the award went to odds-on favorite Man on Wire.)

The garden itself had been a big win for a riot-torn community back in 1992, created as a healing balm following the Rodney King beating trial. “It was a beautiful example of how the system can work,” says Kennedy. For many years, it bore an abundance of food for its hard-working farmers, many of them Spanish-speaking immigrants. Then in 2003 (spoiler alert), the city sold the land back to its previous owner. Enter producer-director-cameraman-editor Kennedy to chronicle the farmers’ spirited fight to save the garden—and in the process shine a light on complex issues of poverty and race, politics and social justice. Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan declared the film “a potent human drama that serves as a case study in how hardball politics is played and why it is so difficult to take on the system.”

Difficult, Kennedy stipulates, but also empowering. Though the farmers ultimately lost their battle, they gained strength as citizens. He says, “Most had never done anything political before. They found a way to get organized, ask questions, do research, and not give up without a fair assessment of what happened.”

Yes, people walk away from the film angry and emotional, he says. “But there is still hope that the system can work,” he adds, although “we can’t just expect it to work—we’ve got to be a part of it.”

As for the displaced farmers: “As much as the film is a tragedy,” Kennedy says, “you can’t kill their hope.” Indeed, the South Central Farmers organization is currently boycott­ing warehouse development on the site. Meanwhile, hundreds who lost their urban farm plots have since started new gardens in other locations and are distributing their produce broadly through an active food co-op.

Would they fight city hall again if they had to? “I sure hope so,” says Kennedy—“for them, and for all of us. I hope people will never give up faith that the system can work.” Perhaps that is the real win.