Reflections on Environmental Injustice Research & Shaping New Fellowship Program

By Allison McCabe

Allison McCabe is a rising Benicia High School junior and passionate about environmental science. She won this year’s Solano County Science and Engineering Fair with her research on toxins found in soil samples in Benicia and Vallejo — research she undertook to examine environmental justice issues in Solano County. We are excited to be working with her to shape Sustainable Solano’s environmental justice fellowship in Benicia for the coming school year.

Allison McCabe and another Lawrence Hall of Science intern taking soil samples at Allendale Park in east Oakland

I stared at the X-ray fluorescence analyzer in shock to see the soil sample I had just collected at Nicol Park in east Oakland read over 700 parts per million of lead on the device, almost nine times the California Environmental Protection Agency standards. This discovery would lead me to think upon what this data meant for the east Oakland community, which was disproportionately affected by such toxins, and set me on a path to study environmental injustice there and here in Solano County.

Last summer I received the opportunity to intern at the UC Berkeley Lawrence Hall of Science through a program called the East Bay Academy for Young Scientists. I got to spend two months of my summer in east Oakland, investigating soil and air pollution with nine other Bay Area high schoolers with the guidance of three adult mentors from the Lawrence Hall of Science: Colleen Sutherland, Eric Campos and Kevin Cuff. Our team collected and analyzed over 500 air samples and 600 soil samples throughout the two-month period. I learned a wide range of skills and the program gave me insight on what it is like to be an environmental scientist. I got to use scientific equipment such as air beam monitors and soil pollution analyzers. I even learned how to statistically analyze large data sets and how to write a scientific abstract.

However, the most important takeaway from the program was the chance to address environmental injustice in the Bay Area. In particular, I looked at lead and arsenic contaminants in the soil, two toxic metals that bring devastating effects to the human body, including slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems, and hearing and speech problems. My research found that soil samples collected in low-income and communities of color typically had higher amounts of pollution in the soil compared to higher income communities. This is because historically marginalized communities are more likely to be exposed to landfills, toxic waste, highways, and other environmental hazards. Factors such as old lead water pipes, paint mixed with lead, and factories that dealt with recycled lead batteries most likely contributed to the amount of lead in the soil I detected.

Lawrence Hall of Science interns collect soil samples at Verdese Carter Park in east Oakland
Allison McCabe and another intern record soil sample results onto a Google spreadsheet

I initially applied to the program to learn more on environmental science, sustainability, and climate change but by the time I finished my experience, I learned about the intersection between environmentalism and social justice. The interconnection between the two was so intriguing to me as it was something I never learned about before. I’ve always been passionate toward environmental issues such as climate change, but I never understood that historically marginalized people are disproportionately affected by it. I realized that combating climate change is vital to mitigate its disportionate effects on people of color and other marginalized communities.

After the program finished in August 2020, I had the opportunity to present my findings in the program at the American Geophysical Union Conference (AGU) through the Bright STaRs program. After the conference, I felt inspired to continue to investigate and learn more on the issue of environmental injustice even though my internship had come to an end.

Within those few months, my fascination for environmental justice grew immensely. I joined the Solano Youth Coalition’s Social Justice and Racial Equity Committee to continue my work in environmental justice. At the moment we are working on a podcast series, “Teens Talk Social Justice” where I hope to share my personal experiences and thoughts on environmental injustice.

Additionally, I have brought my experiences from east Oakland to Solano County. From October 2020 to March 2021 I worked on a project for the Solano County Science and Engineering Fair, “How do the poverty levels and race profiles of Benicia and Vallejo correlate to the amount of soil in public schools and parks?” (See the slide presentation here) I collected over 150 soil samples in the cities of Vallejo and Benicia for lead and arsenic. My research found alarmingly high levels of lead in the soil of public schools and parks in Vallejo. My goal is to collaborate with the Vallejo school district to replace the soil at parks and schools that exceeded standards to address environmental injustice in my community to ensure that everyone, no matter their race or income, does not have to face the burden of soil pollution and its effects.

Also, I have been working with Sustainable Solano to create an environmental justice fellowship program for Benicia high school students. I am extremely excited to launch the program in the fall with Sustainable Solano. It has been an amazing experience getting to shape the fellowship program. I have been brainstorming presentation ideas, interactive workshops, service opportunities, and the curriculum. I want to make the issue of environmental injustice known, and by helping to create the program, I get to bring my experiences from east Oakland to Benicia. In the fellowship, I hope to share my involvement collecting air and soil quality data in east Oakland and hopefully give the opportunity for the fellows to do the same in their communities.

In a few months I will be continuing my pathway in the field of environmental science. This summer I have the opportunity to intern and work under the direction of Dr. Pedro Monarrez and Professor Jonathan Payne to understand the evolution of biodiversity and body size as a Stanford Earth Young Investigator with 13 other Bay Area high school students. I am extremely excited to examine life during the Cambrian and Ordovician periods while getting to present at the AGU for a second time in a row. Last year the conference was virtual, however I am hoping that the meeting will be in-person this year so I get the chance to meet space and earth scientists from all over the world.

After looking back on my involvement in the environmental justice movement this past year, I now know that I want a career in the environmental field. I realized that it is essential for me as a future environmental scientist to look at the environment from a social justice perspective, and to make sure I am advocating for a world in which race and class do not determine the environmental quality of a community or the health of those living in it. I want to be a part of the solution, dedicating my life to work towards environmental justice and a sustainable planet for all.

Permaculture Design Course Graduates 12 in Benicia

By Allison Nagel, Program Manager

The 2021 Benicia PDC class participants, instructors and homeowners

Solano County’s first Permaculture Design Certificate course wrapped up on April 10, with 12 students presenting their capstone design projects and receiving their PDC certificates.

It was powerful to see how this group used what they had learned to shape plans for four very different projects: One on a gradual rewilding of an aging DMV site to create a city park space; one envisioning the transformation of bare soil and turf at a city park into a welcoming space for enjoyment and reflection; one creating a healing garden space at a veterans home; and one bringing regenerative farming practices to a homestead that could support the family that lives there and supply food for their restaurants.

It was also powerful to connect with a group of individuals that signed up for the PDC program for a variety of reasons, from professional advancement to personal goals, but who all brought their passion, knowledge and desire to shape a better world to the course and their projects.

2021 Benicia PDC Slideshow


2021 Benicia PDC

The program was offered in Benicia through a partnership between Sustainable Solano and Benicia Adult Education. The PDC, which is an internationally recognized certification program, has 72 hours of standard required curriculum, but instructors bring their own expertise and insight to each program. We were lucky to have Lydia Neilsen and Anne Freiwald of Vital Cycles lead the PDC class in Benicia, which had a hands-on component focused on putting permaculture principles to use in a suburban setting.

The PDC demonstration project sheet-mulched the grass on the front yard of a Benicia home, dug an in-ground swale to capture rainwater from the roof of the house, planted guilds of plants that work together and support one another for a healthy ecosystem in the front yard, and installed a laundry-to-landscape greywater system that will take the used wash water and run it into mulch basins on the side yard for the plants there.


Video courtesy of  PDC participant Sylvia Herrera

I had the unique opportunity to pursue my PDC along with the class, allowing me to reach a life goal I set back when I first started volunteering with Sustainable Solano and learning about permaculture. The program wasn’t without challenges. COVID-19 caused huge shifts in when we could offer the course, and then we had to make logistical adjustments to be able to offer the course safely under the state’s higher education guidelines. We were so fortunate that Anne and Lydia looked for creative ways to offer the class in a combination of online and in-person instruction; and that homeowners Chris and Megan, our newest Food Forest Keepers, generously made their backyard available for class instruction while the front and side yard were being transformed through the class’ hands-on projects. I appreciate the patience of my fellow students who pursued taking the course despite these challenges and worked to get the very most out of it. Along with the education that came from the program, I also feel we created a community among the class that comes from working so closely together.

The PDC course was offered as a part of our Workforce Development program, which has been a part of transforming three Benicia yards into food forest gardens that are edible, waterwise alternatives to lawns, while educating landscaping professionals, life-long learners and high school youth on permaculture principles and sustainable landscaping practices.

We are already starting to plan for our next PDC course! Interested? You can find details here in the coming months. And feel free to email me at allison@sustainablesolano.org to be added to the interest list.

Congratulations to our 2021 Permaculture Design Certificate recipients!

John Davenport*
Scott Dodson*
Jonathan Erwin
Clay Ford
Karen Lee Ford
Sylvia Herrera
Ron Kane
Jason Lingnau
Allison Nagel
Katie Rivera
Jaxon Shain
Susan Worden

*Learn more about these participants on our Sustainable Landscaping Professionals page

The Benicia PDC program and demonstration project were funded through student fees, Benicia Adult Education, the second amendment to the Valero/Good Neighbor Steering Committee Settlement Agreement, and the Solano County Water Agency.

Vital Cycles Brings Permaculture Instruction to Solano County

By Anne Freiwald & Lydia Neilsen, Vital Cycles

Vital Cycles is Anne Freiwald and Lydia Neilsen, permaculture educators based in Santa Cruz County. They bring together extensive backgrounds in community health and permaculture education and activism, and have taught classes to our local community through Sustainable Solano.

We are thrilled to be part of the diverse offerings Sustainable Solano provides the community! We have been consistently impressed and inspired by the commitment of Sustainable Solano and the larger community to regenerative practices and community resilience. Join us this January 2021 for Sustainable Solano’s first Permaculture Design Certificate Course (PDC), which we are kicking off with four free introductory classes so you can get to know us and get a taste of what permaculture is all about. See this link for more details.

Our first offering, Permaculture 101: Patterns and Principles, focused on three of our favorite patterns: the meander, dendritic branching and the keyhole bed design. Patterns provide tools for understanding the big picture as well as design ideas to integrate. Permaculture principles represent stories and ways of understanding that offer deeper perspective on how we interpret our landscapes and make design decisions. This shift in thinking is critical to our roles as members of and tenders within the ecosystems we inhabit. Missed this one? Check it out in the video above, or here.

This Saturday, Nov. 7, from 11 am-12:30 pm we will be taking a deep exploration of Soil, Water, and Plants. As gardeners, we are working with these three all the time, but do we really understand the nature of their interactions? How can we honor and enhance their interconnections and synergy on a backyard scale? How do they regulate carbon in our atmosphere and what is their role in maintaining local and global climate? Join us for an integrated perspective and practical examples for working with soil, water and plants, so that we can all move towards dynamic stability through ecological co-creation. Register here.

Our following talks will be on the parallels between our natural and internal worlds, particularly the cycles of sleep and water, and community and the permaculture concept of guilds (plants that work together to support one another). The sleep and water talk will be Dec. 12 and the guilds and community talk on Jan. 9 (registration will open soon). We hope you’ll join us for all of these informative talks and dive deeper into the study of permaculture with the PDC this January in Benicia!

Permaculture Design Certificate Course Coming to Benicia

By Allison Nagel, Workforce Development Program Manager

Permaculture education is a key part of Sustainable Solano’s mission, and that means not only educating the public through our hands-on workshops and online talks, but also offering ways for professionals to grow their knowledge and understanding.

That’s why we’re excited to bring our first Permaculture Design Certificate course to Benicia starting in January. The course offers an internationally recognized certification, though its appeal is widespread – from landscapers interested in enriching their design skills to individuals who want to create change in their communities. At its core, permaculture recognizes the strength of working with nature to encourage natural processes that result in healthy soil and abundant ecosystems. Permaculture can be used to design a landscape, neighborhood, community, organization or society.

Sustainable Solano’s 2021 PDC develops a broad understanding of permaculture and design that uses whole systems thinking, which looks at how everything works together as a part of a larger whole. This can apply to the environment, our internal state of being and our organizations and social systems. In this course, participants learn a standard 72-hour permaculture curriculum toward certification. Participants will also gain hands-on experience in designing and transforming a local landscape using design principles and incorporating the use of captured rainwater and greywater systems.

We are excited to bring Lydia Neilsen and Anne Freiwald of Vital Cycles to Benicia as the course instructors. Lydia, a longtime partner with Sustainable Solano, is a PINA certified permaculture educator, landscape and habitat designer, specializing in water cycle restoration and passionate polyculture. Anne is a passionate personal health and permaculture educator focusing on growing food in small spaces, working for over 25 years with individuals and communities on personal ecology and community resilience. They have an action-based perspective that highlights skills, practices and resources necessary for growth, creativity and vitality in person and place.

Curious to learn more? Lydia and Anne will be offering two free online introductory talks that will cover the foundations of permaculture. They will discuss Permaculture 101: Patterns & Principles from 11 am-12:30 pm Oct. 3, and Soil, Water & Plants from 11 am-12:30 pm Nov. 7. These are a great way to learn more about permaculture and to meet these wonderful instructors. The Patterns & Principles class will cover working with nature to create resilience – the very heart of permaculture design. The Soil, Water & Plants class will explore how these vast and interconnected systems work together to restore and maintain balance in local and global climates.

2021 PDC instructors Lydia Neilsen and Anne Freiwald

For those inspired by the talks or already wanting a deeper dive into permaculture, the PDC will offer a rich, varied experience with a small group of peers involved in online classes, hands-on experience and cooperating on a final design project. The program runs from January through April with all classroom instruction online and four hands-on weekends spent outdoors at a site in Benicia. The program is $1,200, with a 10% discount for verified Benicia residents.

Because of safety precautions due to COVID-19, we are limiting enrollment in the 2021 PDC. This will allow us to maintain physical distancing requirements, and we will take other precautions, such as sterilizing tools between uses, during the outdoor instruction. We will continue to work with Solano Public Health and monitor state and CDC guidelines to make sure the program meets the latest requirements.

For those with PDCs who want to brush up on certain topics or those interested in learning more about permaculture before signing up for a full PDC, there will be four online Friday Focus classes that will be open for public registration on a sliding scale. These classes are included as part of the PDC instruction, but are also being open to the public. We will have more details and registration open for these closer to January.

The PDC program will be partially funded by the second amendment to the Valero/Good Neighbor Steering Committee Settlement Agreement, which supports our goals of public and professional education, and measurable improvements for the city of Benicia. The free introductory permaculture classes are funded by the Solano County Water Agency.

Free Online Introductory Classes

Oct. 3 (11 am-12:30 pm): Permaculture 101: Patterns & Principles (Register here!)

Nov. 7 (11 am-12:30 pm): Permaculture 101: Soil, Water & Plants (Register here!)

Permaculture Design Certificate Course

PDC begins Jan. 29. Learn more and register here!

Questions? Contact Program Manager Allison Nagel at allison@sustainablesolano.org 

Share Your Inspired Gardens!

By Sustainable Solano

We know that many of you attend our demonstration garden tours, hands-on workshops, talks and classes with your own gardens in mind. Maybe you’re considering converting your lawn into something waterwise. Maybe it’s learning about groups of plants that work together to support each other. Maybe it’s the desire to grow food for your family and your community.

Often, we hear anecdotally about what inspired people to take action, from downspouts routed to swales to laying lots and lots of mulch. Now, we want to share your inspired gardens so your projects can inspire others! We’ve launched a new Inspired Gardens section on our Solano Sustainable Backyards page, starting with Colette and Daniel’s “Der Biergarten.” Sustainable Solano’s Land & Water Caretakers class worked with Colette and Daniel on their class design project, giving us a chance to get to know them and talk about their desires for the property. We wanted to share the beautiful transformation Colette and Daniel made to their garden that brings in various sustainable practices. You can find more on their garden here.

Do you have an Inspired Garden to share that reflects some of what you’ve learned? Tell us about it! Please submit:  Your first name, location, what inspired you, what action you took and 1-3 photos to info@sustainablesolano.org

Your inspired garden entry will be posted on our website to inspire others. If you live in Solano County or nearby counties, then you will be entered in an upcoming monthly drawing to receive a gift card from a local nursery of your choice:

  • Lemuria
  • Mid City
  • Morningsun Herb Farm
  • Grow a Pear

The winner will be announced each month during our online classes. Entries will remain in the monthly drawing and removed only once they win. Let us know how you’ve moved from inspiration to action!

More Sustainable Landscaping Education Programs Planned for Benicia

By Allison Nagel, Workforce Development Program Manager

Students in the 2020 Land & Water Caretakers certification course do a soil test at the project site

As we plan for an exciting slate of programs based in Benicia for 2021, we want your insight on what sort of workshops we should hold in the city — what is most interesting to potential participants as well as property owners. These workshops will help to strengthen and expand the programs we piloted in Benicia at the beginning of this year.

These Benicia programs support our goals of public education through class instruction and public workshops, targeted sustainable landscape professional education for adults and high school interns, and measurable improvements for the city of Benicia, including water savings, improved soil health through mulching and keeping organic matter on-site, and planting trees and understory plants for carbon sequestration, food production and heat island mitigation through shade and evapotranspiration, which moves water through the plant from the soil to the leaves where it can evaporate and cool the air.

Our Youth Leadership and Workforce Development programs in Benicia launched in January, bringing instruction and certification programs through adult education and high school internships. We offered our Land & Water Caretakers program in partnership with Benicia Adult Education to participants from around the county looking to build their sustainable landscaping design skills for use in their careers, seeking new work and at their own homes and in their communities. Working with Liberty High School’s award-winning Learning Through Interests program, we offered an internship that taught students about sustainable landscaping and systems thinking while building hands-on skills that they could put to use in further study or future careers.

Participants in both programs worked on creating demonstration food forest gardens in Benicia: Wild Cherry Way and Giardino su una Colina (Garden on a Hill). Shawn Carter and Maleik Dion of Resilient Solutionaries were the course instructors for both programs and designers for Giardino su una Colina, and Lauren Bennett was the designer for Wild Cherry Way.

At Wild Cherry Way, the Adult Education Caretakers worked alongside their class instructor and garden designer to create a backyard food forest complete with three fruit trees and a laundry-to-landscape greywater system. The Caretakers went through the design process and then joined in three public workshops to dig swales for roofwater capture, work on the greywater system and put in the plants and drip irrigation. It all added up to nearly 33,000 gallons of possible annual water savings for the property. The Caretakers then took what they had learned from that process and created a design for another Benicia property based on their knowledge and what the homeowners wanted for their backyard. Funding for the program and the public workshops came from the second amendment to the Valero/Good Neighbor Steering Committee Settlement Agreement, the Solano County Water Agency and student fees. Republic Services donated compost for the Wild Cherry Way project.

Liberty High School students in the Land & Water Caretakers internship work on their project site

At Giardino su una Colina, the Liberty High Caretakers went through a similar process with their instructor, learning about permaculture design, meeting with the homeowner, and, through a front-yard lawn conversion, creating a demonstration food forest that introduced the concept to neighbors and others. The students dug swales for roofwater capture, sheet mulched, constructed guilds of plants that work together and replaced the sprinkler system with drip irrigation, resulting in a possible annual water savings of more than 96,000 gallons for the site. Students then used what they learned to design their own guilds and create a sample design to earn the certification. Funding for the program came from the second amendment to the Valero/Good Neighbor Steering Committee Settlement Agreement, and Republic Services provided lunch from Benicia restaurants for the days the students worked on the installation.

There were challenges, perhaps most noticeably how the shutdown from COVID-19 affected the conclusion of both the adult education and internship programs, with final presentations moving online and the cancellation of planned field trips. We are already planning for our next Land & Water Caretakers course through Benicia Adult Education and high school fellowships for this coming January. We are also planning to offer Sustainable Solano’s first Permaculture Design Certificate course in Benicia starting in January! You can find more information here and we will provide exciting updates in the coming months.

For all of these programs, we are figuring out what we can offer online and how to best hold outdoor workshops that are safe and adhere to the guidelines from Solano Public Health, the state and the CDC. We also want your insight on what to offer. While this year’s Caretakers courses focused heavily on permaculture design, for the coming year we are trying to offer a variety of workshops in Benicia that would be open to the public as well as those enrolled in the Caretakers certification programs. Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn how to convert a sprinkler system to drip irrigation, or you want to create a guild of supporting plants around an existing fruit tree, or capture all of that rainwater off the roof during the rainy season.

If there are workshops you would like to see in the year ahead, please let us know by taking this quick Benicia Workshop survey. And if you are a Benicia resident interested in hosting a workshop either on your own property or a community site, such as a church or school, please fill out our Sustainable Landscaping Interest Form.

Questions? Contact Program Manager Allison Nagel at allison@sustainablesolano.org