What are you doing to be the ancestor you want to be?

By: Leanne Kami, ASU Sustainable Food Systems graduate student.

“What are you doing to be the ancestor you want to be?” Upon arriving at Spaces of Opportunity in South Phoenix, Arizona, that question greeted us, scribbled on a chalkboard under a farmers market tent.  In early December of 2022, our ASU Sustainable Food Systems Cohort visited Spaces of Opportunity as part of our Arizona Farm Immersive course.  As we assembled for introductions, other signs like “Climate Justice Now” and “Inmigrantes somos Essentiales,” which translates to “Immigrants are essential,” caught our attention and shook us out of our mid-afternoon brain fog.  

John Wann-Ángeles, a founding member of Spaces of Opportunity and the Director of Orchard Community Learning Center, kicked off the tour by providing an overview and background of the project.  Started in 2015, Spaces of Opportunity is a collaboration amongst Desert Botanical Garden, Orchard Community Learning Center, Roosevelt Elementary School District, Tiger Mountain Foundation, and Unlimited Potential.  Their collective mission is “to enable all south Phoenix families to have affordable access to healthy food, active living, and healthy roots in their cultures. Spaces is engineering a comprehensive, neighborhood-level food system where gardeners, farmers, and farm workers are celebrated as artisans” (Spaces of Opportunity, About Us, 2022).

The site for Spaces of Opportunity is 19 acres in South Phoenix.  Surrounded by residential neighborhoods with five schools within one mile, the site provides a unique opportunity to build a community around healthy food.  Over the years, the Spaces team has transformed a vacant lot into a productive food oasis by providing community gardens, incubator farm plots and a farmers market, on-site cold storage, and a remote kitchen for value-added processing.  “It is a hybrid of community farming on a production scale and an incubator for learning,” said John.

John also introduced us to Sowan Thai with Desert Botanical Gardens and Ryan Thayer, Spaces of Opportunity's first Executive Director. Sowan joined Spaces in 2017 as a farmer and later moved into the role of land manager/incubator coach before taking a position with Desert Botanical Garden.  “Places like this did not exist growing up,” he shared.  “Spaces is my second home.  I learned many skills in agriculture production that allowed me to thrive as an entrepreneur.  The experience has been life-changing for me.”

For Ryan, a big motivator is equity, economics, and looking at the root causes of systemic barriers.  Historically, South Phoenix has been stigmatized as an area of racial exclusion and economic marginality (Bolin et al., 2002).  In Geography of Despair: Environmental Racism and the Making of South Phoenix, Arizona, USA, Bolin et al. state that “by the 1920s, race, and place were discursively and materially woven together in a mutually reinforcing process of social stigmatization and environmental degradation in South Phoenix.”  They go on to share that “Class and racial privilege has been built in a wide range of planning and investment decisions that continue to shape the human ecology of the city today” (Bolin et al., 2002).

Spaces of Opportunity not only provides space for growing healthy food, but it also provides a space for healing and connection. Bordering the farm is a large mural depicting South Phoenix's agricultural history.  It pays tribute to the Hohokam ancestral peoples who originally stewarded these lands and also recognizes the contributions made by Mexican, Japanese, and other immigrant farmers and ranchers. “What has been done to us that keeps us from talking about these issues…we are addressing them here,” said John.

Following the mural leads to the healing garden, a space for relaxation and learning about medicinal plants.  As we stood in that space, Ryan’s words echoed in my ears, “Where is that connection point with ecological practices?  How are we building community connection to the land?”  It is all about connection and is reinforced as part of the ASU cohort experience.  We may come from all parts of the country with different backgrounds, but what we have in common brings us together, and when we join, we can achieve amazing things.   So, “What are you doing to be the ancestor that you want to be?”

This blog is part of a series from the December 2022 Arizona immersive component of the MS in Sustainable Food Systems Program. Students toured the state, meeting with farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, government staff, and non-profit leaders.


About Us. (2022, August 10). Spaces of Opportunity. https://www.spacesofopportunity.org/about-us/

The Geography of Despair: Environmental Racism and the Making of South Phoenix, Arizona, USA. (2005). Human Ecology Review, 12(2). https://www.humanecologyreview.org/pastissues/her122/bolingrineskicollins.pdf