Jade Walker: Beauty In The Margins

This story was written by sophomore Amy Felice.

 

When Jade Walker was fourteen, she had a summer job in her home state of Connecticut, picking apples. She found herself working amongst a dozen migrant adults, from Nicaragua and Guatemala, making the same $4.25 an hour that she was. 

 

She became confused about her place at the orchard. “These are grownups who can’t find any other labor,” she said, comparing them to her own position in society. They had migrated away from their loved ones, and were sending what little money they made back to their families. Jade was just saving up for some concert tickets, maybe a car someday.

 

“Something is different than everyone is trying to pretend like it is,” she thought.

 

Jade started asking questions. After noticing the unfairness once, she started seeing it everywhere. She later discovered that her whiteness was her safety. Her guarantee. 

 

Today, Jade is the middle school counselor at U-32. Becoming aware of another aspect of her identity in that apple orchard, along with her open-minded and supportive upbringing, sprouted an awareness that stayed with her as an educator and social justice advocate. 

 

Jade’s heritage is important to her. Her mother’s extended family is Jewish, and emigrated from Poland and Russia to New Haven, Connecticut, a result of severe antisemitism in their home countries. Jade’s mother is a third generation American, and her side of the family benefitted from the GI bill and started a gas station. “Generational wealth is more present in my mom’s side of my family,” Jade explained.

 

Jade’s father’s family was also Jewish, spoke Yiddish, and immigrated from Latvia to Brooklyn, making him a first generation American. He grew up in the working class, in a two-room apartment, similar to a tenement, his relatives living directly above and below him in the row home. He made money as a taxi driver through the streets of New York City when Jade was young. After marrying Jade’s mother, he joined the family’s gas station business, and his father-in-law sent him to business school. He later inherited partial management of the company. But the business wasn’t everything- his latest poetry book is coming out this year. 

 

Jade grew up in New Haven, with her mother, father, grandmother, and four siblings, and was closely surrounded by her family’s Jewish culture and tradition. Her two aunts lived down the street. She saw her 18 cousins regularly. 

 

During her elementary school years, Jade and her siblings attended Hebrew school every Sunday at Temple Beth Tikvah. Then, starting in eighth grade and continuing through high school, she not only attended her district’s high school, but also a Jewish high school, Makom, every Wednesday evening. 

 

This took place after the hours of her public school, starting in the evening at six. There, Jewish kids from all over the county would gather together to learn about aspects of their heritage and community. Hundreds of kids attended her public school. Makom had around 90.

 

Jade feels ‘met’ now, at U-32. “There’s this cliche expression about being the grownup that you needed as a kid,” she said. She connected the saying to how she got her job. “Being in a school is to try to correct what was missing in my schooling experience.”

 

At Makom, they’d cover everything from the Jewish Partisan resistance during the Holocaust to Yiddish folk music, Jewish feminism to taking care of the environment. 

 

Jade loved Jewish high school, but not her public high school. 

 

It took Makom to teach her about the Holocaust, current events, moral compassing, and world religion. Her regular school didn’t teach any of that. Plus, the people were boring.

 

“My high school was really homogenous,” she explained, “and everyone wore the same clothes and went to the same kind of parties and talked about the same kind of things.” She distanced herself from that community quickly. “There’s something else happening in the world, that is way more exciting than your J Crew outfit,” she remembers thinking. “It just wasn’t enough for me. I always wanted more.”

 

This fast-moving, experimental, adventurous mentality inspired hundreds of learning experiences that helped her better understand people’s problems and desires. At U-32, this understanding helps her educate kids on social justice and run the GLAMM club. High school was her turning point.

 

Come senior year, she dropped her sports for an independent study in yoga. Her mentor was an eccentric, elderly lesbian woman who opened Jade’s eyes to independence, “alternative ways of being,” and mutual respect. “I had never met anyone who talked to me like a real person and not like a kid,” said Jade. 

 

Jade wants the kids at U-32 to feel heard the same way that she did, and reveal to them what they can do. “There’s a lot more possibility in working with young people,” she said. 

 

She’s excited by the idea of helping kids learn about the world and what’s in it. She reflected on leading workshops for other adults, and the frustration it triggered. “Why are these people 27 and just starting to understand gender or sexuality or racism?” She asks. “We can’t wait until 27 to start learning these things.”

 

At 22, Jade went to Paris and volunteered at a bookstore. In return, she was allowed to sleep in the store. She spoke high school-level French. Between 2000 and 2003, Jade had a job harvesting olives in Northern Italy, learned to farm at the Intervale Community Farm in Burlington, attended many human rights protests across North America, taught workshops on everything from food systems to car mechanics, lived in the Utah desert for three months, taught skiing at a school in Colorado, became a wilderness first responder and received medical training, and volunteered on several construction crews.

 

After graduating from UVM, Jade and her friend went to Guatemala and El Salvador to work in solidarity with indigenous farmers and bring them back to test their seeds for cross-pollination with Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds. 

 

In her early 20s, right after hurricane Katrina, a friend and nurse from New Orleans called and said they needed help opening up a building to start a free medical clinic. Jade and her friends, all of whom had been squatting in an abandoned building in Philadelphia, rode on freight trains down to Florida, and hitchhiked the remainder. They stayed for several weeks. 

 

The building was a Mosque in Algiers, New Orleans’s 2nd oldest neighborhood. After Jade and her friends turned on the water and electricity, nurses volunteered and taught Jade and others how to give people insulin shots and vaccines. The city was in martial law, and the people needed help, so no one’s authority was questioned, despite their lack of medical experience. Granted, Jade had skills in herbalism and as a wilderness first responder. In time the small, basement-run medical facility became the Common Ground Health Clinic, still around today.

 

Back in West Philadelphia, Jade applied for a storm remediation grant and turned an abandoned lot into an urban educational farm in the Mill Creek neighborhood.

 

Harvesting honey from beehives in West Philly

 

Jade and the community built garden beds on the land, creating a small, simple farm for flowers and vegetables on a one acre land plot. As it gained steam, they started a non-profit so they could run educational programs, and employed teens from the neighborhood. The plants grew in numbers, and community members began taking on construction tasks. Soon, they had a cob pizza oven, solar-powered living roof, and 10 beehives. Peach, plum, and fig trees bordered the whole block.

 

The farm was the attraction, but once people came thinking they’d get a tour of the garden, they’d walk straight into a group of people discussing alternatives to capitalism. 

 

Greenhouse that Jade and a friend built and grew food in one winter on a vacant lot in West Philly. Made with all found materials

 

Soon people were asking for tours and taking part in a workshop series on everything from bike repair to hosting their own radio show to basic home plumbing.

 

It was there that she learned the importance of “[building] community across race and across generation,” she said. People of all ages and backgrounds would show up on the block, all because of this one common interest. “[Running the farm] taught me so much about being a white person in a Black city… and what community really means,” Jade said.

 

In a city-donated pickup truck, Jade drove past construction sites and partially-destroyed buildings, asking for spare metal and cinder blocks. After some quick lessons on welding, they were able to utilize the bent and graffitied debris, creating structures out of old bike frames and building sheds from scrap metal.

 

Jade preparing to open the streetside Farmer’s Market at Mill Creek Farm.

 

“We just wanted everything there to demonstrate alternatives,” Jade said. At the time, it was difficult for the general public to access green space or agricultural projects, especially in inner city Philadelphia. The sustainable concepts they were teaching weren’t unheard of, but there were very limited opportunities for people to see the solutions in practice. 

 

After 7 years of directing the educational farm, Jade transitioned leadership to some of the long-time community members. Mill Creek Farm continues to be in operation today.

 

Jade at Mill Creek Farm

 

Jade’s search for knowledge and answers has brought her all over, and while seeing what life is like in less privileged parts of the world, she came to love the thoughtfulness that went along with living in them.

 

“You don’t hang out on the margins without understanding that there’s inequity and injustice happening,” she said. “There’s beauty in all of those marginal places like that.”

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