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Meet the Jewish Teen Who’s Uniting a Community Divided by Income & Prejudice

hart fogel

The Challenge: Marin County and Marin City share a lot of the same land and yet their communities are often divided by income and prejudice.

The Solution: Marin City Community Garden Project.

The Teen Hero Who’s Making This World A Better Place: Hart Fogel, who grew up in Mill Valley, CA, and has been passionate for a long time about restorative justice, youth leadership, and getting out into nature.

Hart has been volunteering for five years with the Marin County Youth Court, which is an early intervention program for first-time misdemeanor offenders. Youth Court lets young offenders get their cases heard in a real courtroom with other juveniles serving as attorneys, court clerks, bailiffs, and jurors.

Hart has also been very active at the Center for Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership, where he first was working on renovating a transitional housing site’s yard in San Rafael. Next, he was asked to help lead a community garden beautification and maintenance project in Marin City. It was here that he noticed both the huge disparities between Marin City and Marin County and the unique opportunity to highlight the positive, vibrant side of Marin City.

NOMINATIONS WANTED: Do you know a teen activist who deserves a $36k prize?

Hart decided to combine his gardening work with his interests in restorative justice to expand the scope of the project. He got the Marin City Community Garden Project onto the list of community service sites for juvenile offenders and made the garden a hub for all different kinds of residents to come together for a common cause. In addition to leading work sessions which ensure that the community garden remains a reliable source of fresh, healthy food for residents of Marin City, Hart facilitates conversations with project participants about Marin City’s much maligned reputation.

Hart is currently a senior in high school and is an avid learner. In his “spare” time, he is starting an oral history project this year, which was another fruit of labor that came out of his garden. All of this of course was made possible with the help of the Hellen Diller Family Foundation’s generosity. Hart won a Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award for his groundbreaking work.

We got to chat with him about how he started on this path.

What’s your favorite song?

I play jazz trombone in a band so I’m a big fan of jazz. But I also like rock and classical. Basically everything.

Your favorite subject in school?

I’ve never been able to pick a favorite subject because I like all of them for different reasons. I like the creative side of English; the analytical side of History. But I also really am interested in the logic of Science and Math. I’m interested in a lot of stuff. I can’t really pick a favorite.

Your favorite author or book?

I read Moby Dick recently for the first time and I really enjoyed that.

When did you first start volunteering at the Marin County Youth Court and what was that like?

I first started volunteering there in seventh grade—about five years ago. There was a fair at my school, and the Youth Court had a booth there. On a whim I walked up, read a pamphlet, thought it sounded interesting, and then I just started to show up. I’ve been volunteering there since then.

READ: Meet the Jewish Teen Who’s Breaking Down all the Barrier for Kids with Special Needs

I really love it. I’ve served in the courtroom as an advocate representing kids who come into the program; giving opening and closing statements, asking questions, all that sort of stuff. I’ve also helped with the leadership of the program and been a part of the team that thinks about the structure of the program and helps revise the process and scripts that the court offers. I’ve also given lots of presentations around the state to let people know about these incredible programs. I’ve really loved working with the Youth Court and I’ve gotten a lot out of it.

How did you combine your work with the Youth Court and your interests in gardening?

Another interest of mine is the Center for Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership. I volunteered with CVNL on a project in the past. We were refurbishing the backyard of a transitional housing center for people who had fallen on hard times… I became leader of this project where we were making this backyard a nicer place for the facility, and I got to know the people at CVNL through that. And of course I was also keeping up with volunteering at Youth Court and with a number of other organizations in Marin. It was back in my freshman year—someone at CVNL expressed interest in having some sort of project that involved the community garden in Marin.

The community garden was around for years before I was even born. There was talk about starting a project with the community garden. Originally the idea was basic garden cleanup and maintenance…but also, Marin County is known for being predominately white and pretty affluent. Marin City is a relatively small town. It’s mostly African American and not as economically prosperous as the county. There’s a lot of prejudice, and usually it’s only discussed in Marin County in the context of crime. So we bring in volunteers from all around the county and all different backgrounds to work alongside each other in the garden. I hope we can also break down some barriers that are separating different communities within Marin County.

I see the garden project as not just about providing food but also building community and building a network of leaders—expanding upon the efforts of the Youth Court. We got the garden project added to the list of recommended places to do community service hours. So we get a lot of youth coming to the garden to do their hours.

So who exactly is working on the garden project?

We get all different kinds of people. We get kids from Youth Court coming to do their hours. We get kids whose schools require community service hours. We have kids and adults who just believe in volunteering. We have Marin city residents who are interested in volunteering. It’s a pretty diverse group of people.

And tell me about this oral history project that you’re starting.

There are a number of people whom I’ve worked with really closely who’ve lived in Marin City for decades and have really seen some incredible changes. So I came up with the idea to do some interviews and post them online. Hopefully this can also contribute to that goal of giving people a more accurate view of Marin City.

READ: Meet the Jewish Teen Who’s Improving the Lives of Migrant Day Laborers

What’s next for you after high school?

I’m still in the application process (for college) now…I don’t really have a top choice yet. But I know that whatever I end up studying, whatever career path I end up going down, I want to make sure that I’m happy, that I’m always learning more about the world and maintaining an intellectual curiosity. I always want to find ways to give back and have some sort of positive effect on the people around me.

Anything else you’d like to say about the garden project or your Tikkun Olam award?

I’m incredibly grateful. I would like to thank the Diller Foundation. This award came as a huge surprise. I felt very honored. It was a very humbling experience.

What I loved the most was that it wasn’t just an award, as in giving some money and saying, “See ya.” You’re invited into this community of people who are excited about giving back to the world. I feel really fortunate to have been invited into this community. At the awards weekend, even in that relatively short time, we got to know each other really well. I plan to keep in touch and remain part of this incredible community.

I think it’s important to mention that no one getting the Diller Award does community service because they expect recognition or are trying to get an award. They feel it’s important to give back to their communities. At the same time, it’s really nice to get an award, and this has inspired me to work even harder. To give back, to think of more ways that I can have a positive impact on my community.

This post is sponsored by the Helen Diller Family Foundation. To learn more about the foundation’s $36,000 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, visit www.dillerteenawards.org. Nominations are open for the 2016 awards, now through Dec. 1

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