She trains formerly incarcerated people to work with plants

In our botanical PPL series, we interview people of color in the plant world. If you have suggestions to include PPL, tag us on Instagram @latimesplants.

At the age of 25, Genea Richardson lives in a 400-square-foot concrete cell, with seven other women, four bunk beds, four lockers, a toilet and a shower. She felt herself suffocating.

But outside, in a small garden at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, amid grass, weeds, soil and trees, she could breathe. She feels justified in volunteering to water the plants.

Sunflowers and vines form a metal fence.

Sunflowers and vines peek through the fence as seen from outside the community garden where Genea Richardson helps young people nurture.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

“In those moments,” Richardson said, “I had peace.” Her main job at the prison was cleaning and sanitizing the premises, but she eventually became known for her vegetative abilities. “The people in prison would bring the plants to me,” she said, “because they know I like them and I can bring them back to life.”

She was released from prison in June 2020. She was arrested in 2002 and later sentenced to 26 life years for being an accomplice to first-degree murder in a robbery. Richardson and another woman shot and killed a man at a motel but insisted she had no intention of abetting the crime. She was released early due to a 2018 law that eased punishment for accomplices in cases like hers.

At 40, she currently lives in a studio apartment that’s not much bigger than her cell, but it’s full of life. Plants are planted on windowsills, placed on bedside cabinets, covered kitchen counters and covered floors. Taking care of bonsai at home makes her mindful of taking care of herself and her mother, Iris, who lives across the hall. Iris has grown to love all the blue her daughter has brought into their world. Richardson often finds Iris secretly talking to the trees as she helps them.

Genea Richardson's hand caresses a white flower.

Genea Richardson holding a pincushion flower (Scabiosa) is growing in a community garden.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Richardson also surrounded himself with factories while serving as a director at Huma House, a recently relaunched nonprofit in Los Angeles. She trains former detainees to plant and prune and find employment for them through the organization’s gardening arm, Angel City Urban Farms. She procures gardening and landscaping clients for her small group. She also leads what she calls a “soil therapy” program, which guides people who are managing trauma through simple plant-based activities.

“Our DNA has been altered through trauma. So what we’re doing is we’re reversing that trauma by creating new and healthy experiences,” she said, referring to how consuming trauma can be. .

Gardening is sacred to her. She cares for every herb and weed in the gardens she cares for, but she has a special place in her heart for the bountiful bougainvillea – a climbing plant with beautiful flowers. hidden thorns. She felt the heartbeat of the earth as the earth clung to her fingers.

“Gardening,” says Richardson, helps people “on many different levels. It helps you think better and helps you breathe better. “

When she was little, her godmother would take her to a cousin’s house and she would rush to the garden, where she would feel “wrapped in a fairy tale forest.” In the backyard of her childhood home, where all the aunts and uncles and cousins ​​lived together, there weren’t many trees. But she loves to climb an overgrown lemon tree. Then, when she was 10 years old, her family moved and she started getting into trouble, moving in and out of juvenile detention facilities until she finally arrived at Chowchilla.

A pair of scissors in the middle of a tree

Seedlings grow in the community garden.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Genea Richardson sits on the ground in a garden, surrounded by sunflowers.

Genea Richardson sits among the sunflowers she planted with the children in foster care.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

She was detained when her father had a seizure. After years in and out of hospitals and nursing homes, he passed away. Their relationship was complicated, in part because he was an alcoholic and abused her mother, she said; although “there is bad mixed with good … for the most part, the good prevails.”

When she puts her hands on the ground, she releases her trauma. While she and her mother lost touch for many years, they are now inseparable and have two dogs, Eli and Ricky. Richardson greets passersby as they walk their dogs down the street. Richardson said: “Me and my mother, we had to reintroduce ourselves to each other. “And we finally understood the role we had to play in each other’s lives.” Iris accompanies Richardson on many work projects, and the duo often quarrel or laugh at a joke.

Richardson joined Huma House just months after her release. She met Tobias Tubbs, the co-founder of the nonprofit, through a mutual acquaintance. Tubbs spent 30 years in prison, where he eventually became a peer educator and trainer for rescue dogs. He founded Huma House with Meetra Johansen, who called Richardson “the goddess of the garden”.

Originally, Richardson worked at a Beverly Hills business through Huma House with her colleague and mentor Brendan Wilson. He taught her new skills, including understanding the language of trees, shrubs, and saplings.

Genea Richardson's bare feet in the dirty garden.

Genea Richardson loves to feel the soil and soil under her feet when gardening.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

“I butchered a rhododendron, he told me to prune. He was trying to tell me it was okay,” Richardson chuckled as she thought back, “but I saw the veins in his neck tense up. “

Richardson is constantly building on his knowledge of plants. She often uses Google Lens to identify new species she encounters. Her quests always involve a ritual: finding the spiritual meaning behind plants.

“I discovered that the azalea represents family and it goes with everything that I am doing and feeling,” she explains. “Whatever I was carrying in my heart, my pain, my hurt, I just started cutting that thing off with the bush. It just started talking to me – the garden literally started talking to me. “

A garden is located at the foot of the tall power tower.

Just outside the giant power line, the liveliness of the community garden shines through.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

In early 2021, Richardson hired Ilka Rosales to work with Huma House on landscaping work. Rosales took a landscaping class while in prison and wants to work with trees when she returns home in 2019 after serving a 25-year sentence.

“Just working outside is a breath of fresh air because I feel closer to God,” said Rosales, who has since moved on to another job. “It’s just a bunch of big trees and bushes but after you go through it, it becomes a song, it becomes a work of art.”

As they work together, Rosales and Richardson will evaluate progress on their ongoing projects. For Richardson, these talks are an opportunity to pass on what she has learned. For Rosales, spending time with Richardson was restorative.

“It’s easy to connect with someone who has been incarcerated before and is still equally sisterly,” says Rosales. “Like, I never knew Genea but just meeting her, knowing her background is similar to mine, it’s like we know what each other needs.”

Since January, Richardson has led a program for children in the foster care system, some of the children often in and out of juvenile detention, she said. Working with a grant through McCarty Memorial Christian Church, Huma House provides a safe space for children, especially those exposed to gang activity, to seek out community.

Twice a month, 5 to 10 children visit a community garden. That morning, Richardson and his mother prayed. When the children arrive, she gathers them in a circle to discuss how they are feeling and explain the day’s activity, which could be planting flower seeds or tomatoes. Then the work began. The children follow her lead as she demonstrates the process of growing a tree with a sapling. She brought snacks, trying to keep in mind the kids’ preferences. She encourages them to call her if they need anything or just want to talk.

Two photos, the top one is Genea Richardson's hand working the soil and the bottom one is a young tomato plant.

Top: Genea Richardson works in the land. Below: A germinated tomato is seen in the community garden.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

When they first arrived at the garden, the area was bare and barren. Every month, the kids see it transform. “They were very happy with those sunflowers,” said Richardson. “When they saw what they had grown with their own hands, they went crazy.”

She believes the garden brings people together and changes perceptions in unexpected ways. Many encounter people who were previously confined in the garden with prejudices and leave with new friendships. Bringing people together through the garden is her new life job.

“The land does not discriminate,” says Richardson. “It doesn’t care about skin color, race, class or gender. It’s all about paying attention, doing the work, and making things grow. “

Genea Richardson sitting in the sun in the garden.

Genea Richardson’s passion is connecting people through gardening.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times) She trains formerly incarcerated people to work with plants

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