Scroll down to find out specific ways you can help these Tucson organizations
• Flowers & Bullets Midtown Farm
• Iskashitaa Refugee Network
• YWCA Southern Arizona

It’s January, and in a garden in Tucson, when the roots are resting in the desert’s coldest month, volunteers who believe in the power of one person to make a difference are working in the earth.

Emily Lupercio is a student at the State University of New York. In Arizona, she kneels in the soil, a mask over her face to protect others, and grasps slender green shoots. 

Life for communities of color won’t change, she says, if all you do is think about why it should. It’s one thing to read about social justice and racial justice issues in the news, “but in order to spark change, you have to talk about those issues in our own communities,” she says.

You have to act, she says.

“Then maybe we can try to be a better nation,” she says, standing in a garden in a community that is not her own, working to make it better for people she doesn’t know.

Grassroots movements often begin out of a need not being filled or justice not being met by society. Arizona is home to many nonprofits working collectively for change that strengthens communities. 

Some nonprofits like Chicanos Por La Causa, Valle del Sol, the Greater Phoenix Urban League, Native American Connections, and Youth On Their Own have longtime roots in their communities. Others like Poder in Action, Arizona Coalition for Change, Black Lives Matter Phoenix Metro and a string of COVID-19 mutual aid networks across the state were founded more recently by people looking for new ways to take action on long-standing issues of social, economic and racial justice.

Working alongside young people planting sweet onions, Emily is learning how people of color who grew up in Barrio Centro are fighting food injustice and inequalities. She traveled to Arizona with a group from New York as part of the BorderLinks service learning program.

Volunteers are the force that keeps Flowers & Bullets’ Midtown Farm in Tucson thriving.

In New York, Emily is studying politics and government. Farming in Arizona is hands-on work, but she thinks of her own family’s Latino heritage and how bonding over fresh food helps bring a community closer.

Detail of the corn goddess in a mural at the Midtown Farm, operated by Flowers and Bullets. Photo by Becky Pallack, AZ Luminaria.

An abandoned school becomes a farm, a corn goddess protects a barrio

Flowers & Bullets began in 2012 when two longtime friends saw needs not being filled in their Latino and Indigenous communities.  

The organization’s website shares the story of why kids who grew up together decided to work with their community for change that would stem the systemic effects of racism.

“Tito Romero and Jacob Robles, are Latinx and Indigenous men who have lived all their life in Barrio Centro. They recognized the need to make this community in Tucson a sustainable and healthy neighborhood due to the effects of systemic economic and environmental racism in the area. We reclaim our cultural roots and amplify them through sustainability, art, and rebellion to heal and empower our neighborhood.”

The collective expanded a year later when Dora Martinez joined Flower & Bullets to create a community garden cared for by volunteers growing healthier food options for Barrio Centro families. 

In 2018, the team turned an abandoned elementary school into a budding space for Midtown Farm. The 9-acre plot is nestled in a triangular neighborhood, bound by Aviation Road, Alvernon Way and 22nd Street. There are 4 acres for farmland and community space with another 5 acres for the organization to grow as Barrio Centro families identify ways to strengthen their neighborhood.

Robles manages the farm in the community he played in as a child. Now, he watches a new generation of Barrio Centro families face many of the same problems he grew up with.

A day of work at the Midtown Farm, he says, can help volunteers decompress from time and energy spent living with social and racial injustice. The garden is for healing, working in the earth, and recognizing something can be done to fight food insecurity for families.

“I really appreciate being that space for those folks,” Robles says, standing in the sun between rows of crops. He’s teaching volunteers both how to plant onions and how food is social justice.

At a time when food prices have spiked, healthy fruits and vegetables have become more expensive, expanding food-inequality problems for many low-income communities.

From December 2020 to December 2021, food prices increased 6.3%, up from a 3.9% increase the year prior, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Prices for fruits and vegetables rose by 5%.

While civic and nonprofit leaders are continuing conversations about boosting efforts to address inequalities for families of color in Arizona, there remain families in Barrio Centro and across Arizona feeling the pressure of feeding and keeping their children healthy.

“Including food justice into those conversations is crucial,” Robles says. “It is a key component to the racial injustice that takes place in communities of color.”

Organizers at Flowers & Bullets empower their community with projects creating graphic and digital art and painting murals at parks, schools and youth centers. The organization believes in the power of art for healing communities of color. 

One mural at Midtown Farm is painted in the deep pinks, blues and golds of a desert sunset with people — fists raised — carrying a banner holding Barrio Centro’s name. At the center of that banner is a brown-faced goddess wrapped in a gold and green corn husk. Tiny stars on the cloaked goddess bring to mind the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico whom Catholics pray to for protection.

Maybe the corn goddess, painted on the garden mural, is there to protect Barrio Centro families.

‘We will always center the people’

With the enduring needs in the pandemic, more volunteers at the barrio garden are needed for farm work, grant-writing and other projects.

Silvia Valdillez, the program coordinator, and a small group of volunteers keep the community space thriving. 

Together, they host water-harvesting workshops. They install 1,000 or 1,500-gallon water tanks and gutters in neighborhood homes. They organize community gatherings in the farm, including picnics, movie nights and brainstorming sessions to imagine new ways of collectively solving problems. 

“We work to make the space inclusive and safe for undocumented folks, Indigenous folks, Black folks and anybody else,” Valdillez says. “We will always center the people who usually don’t have safe spaces in society.”

Flowers & Bullets keeps a list of guidelines to center the collective’s values and embrace equality for marginalized communities: 

“Led by people of color from Barrio Centro. We center Indigenous knowledge. We all learn, we all teach. Everyone has something to contribute.”

A volunteer and a refugee work together on watercolor paintings of citrus fruits at the Iskashitaa Refugee Garden Art Program on January 12, 2022. Photo by Becky Pallack, AZ Luminaria.

Welcoming refugees to their new home

About 15 minutes northwest of Flowers & Bullets, near the University of Arizona campus, volunteers are working to connect refugees with their Southern Arizona communities.

The Iskashitaa Refugee Network was founded in 2003. Volunteers of all ages and refugees of all backgrounds harvest and re-distribute local produce so it doesn’t go to waste.

The organization educates communities about strengthening the local food system, reducing local food waste, and increasing food security.

The heart of the work centers on empowering new refugees with opportunities to get involved in their communities, meet their neighbors, and build a support system in their new home. And neighbors have an opportunity to learn from people who have strengths after escaping violence and war beyond what many Americans can imagine.

Ramy Al-Kubessi interns at Iskashitaa as part of a University of Arizona program.

“This place is wonderful, and the capacity you have to help the community is tremendous,” he says. “ You really do make a difference in one of the most insurmountable ways imaginable.”

To expand Iskashitaa’s community work, they need volunteers who can help with driving harvested foods from the harvest site back to the Iskashitaa office. Harvest days are Monday and Friday mornings and winter citrus harvesting is in full bloom. They need people to help in the community garden and help sort fruit. They need people to help with office work, artists to help paint a mural and volunteers for the Refugee Garden Art Program on Wednesday mornings. 

Anyone is welcome in the arts program. It’s another way for refugees to feel welcomed in a new community as they get to know their neighbors. 

‘It’s going to take a whole community’

The YWCA Southern Arizona is also expanding its community efforts and needs volunteers who want to make life better for themselves and their neighbors. 

People can get involved at the weekly Latino Leadership Institute meetings, participate in the Pima County Teen Court, help with their 35-year-old fully volunteer-run program, Your Sister’s Closet, or support and learn from low-income seniors, while serving healthy meals and joining social activities.

Your Sister’s Closet is a donation-based program that collects lightly-used or new clothes for women who are in need of outfits for jobs or interviews. Volunteers in the program guide women through the process so they feel comfortable and confident choosing multiple outfits. 

This program needs volunteers for taking in donations, sorting the clothes and repairing any minor damage on the fabrics.

Facing social, racial and economic inequalities can feel overwhelming, but working with others to make a difference can ease the burden people from underserved or underrepresented communities often bear alone.

“In order to carry out our mission of eliminating racism and empowering women, and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all, it’s going to take a whole community,” says Liane Hernandez, the director of the organization’s Women’s Wellness Empowerment and the Leadership Circle.

‘Nourish your own community’

At the Midtown Farm, Emily, the college student, is crouching in the dirt near rows of crops. Near a couple of last season’s sunflowers glowing in the morning desert sun and bowing over the winter garden. She’s alongside students from New York and teachers from Arizona.

They’re all listening and learning from a Tucson farmer sharing lessons on agriculture in an arid climate with a parched Mother Earth who will fight you if you don’t care for her. 

They’re delegates from their East Coast communities, experiencing life in borderlands, Southwest and Indigenous communities. 

They’re here with BorderLinks, a Tucson-based nonprofit that brings together people from congregations, colleges, advocacy organizations and other groups to learn about the challenges migrant people face along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Delegates from across the country learn about why someone would risk their life crossing the border. They walk the desert trails to understand the perils of the journey. They meet with organizers and advocates working to establish economic and social justice in borderlands communities. They see the effects of U.S. policies as part of BorderLinks educational immersion trips in the Arizona-Sonora region and Mexico. 

The goal is to unite communities often divided by complex immigration and migration issues by centering vulnerable families seeking refuge, asylum or a better life.

Lupicero was part of the BorderLinks delegation at Midtown Farm. They are here to get hands-on experience with social-justice issues like food insecurity.

“Seeing it first-hand helps them make connections to the realities that are happening in their own communities,” says Josue Saldivar, a BorderLinks program organizer. 

“Flowers and Bullets is very powerful because it provides traditions, customs and connections they otherwise wouldn’t have,” he says. 

Besides learning about growing food, volunteers are learning about the labor behind our food and the love of the land, he says.

The morning sun in Arizona on a chilly January morning is still brilliant enough to warm the tops of the students’ heads and the crops in the field. It’s so different from New York in January.

Emily is wearing short sleeves, her black hair up and out of her face, so it doesn’t fall over her eyes, as she carefully places onions in their new home. Hunched in the field, planting crops an arm’s length away and directly across from Emily, is Kayla Eyler. 

For Kayla, volunteering in Barrio Centro with fellow students from New York and strangers in Arizona, is “a physical manifestation of a want to nourish your own community.”

The SUNY student with light-brown hair in tight braids is eyeing the earth, moving her hands over the rows in the field, pushing plants into the earth. 

Like Emily, she’s grasping a small bundle of slender green onion shoots. 

Like Emily, she’s wearing a mask to protect others. 

Like Emily, she’s planting food she will never eat. For people she’s never met.

Volunteer opportunities

Flowers and Bullets

What: Office work, farm work. When: Every Monday through Friday, farm work can be done any day of the week if people just want to come in and pull weeds and such. Skills: No restrictions for farmwork, office work should be able to use a computer. Volunteer opportunities available for people of all ages. Spanish or English. Sign up through their website here for email blast about volunteer opportunities.

What: Water harvesting and events. When: Sent in a newsletter email to those who indicated interest. Skills: Capable of helping, lifting chairs and such for events, and knowledge of water harvesting is preferred. Spanish or English language. Sign up for emails here

What: Grant Writing and fundraising. When: On your own time. Skills: Especially seeking experience grant writers but knowledgable or willing to learn about grant writing and fundraising. Spanish or English. Sign up for emails here

Iskashitaa Refugee Network

What: Harvesting help. When: Monday and Friday, 9 a.m. to noon. Proof of vaccination required. Seeking: Pickup trucks for transporting goods. Sign up online here

What: Refugee Garden Art Program. When: Wednesday, 8-11 a.m. Proof of vaccination required. Also seeking: Percussion instrument donation for drum circle. Sign up online here

What: Office work, grant writing and helping refugees. When: Every day the office is open and events are happening. Preferable to have a reliable ride to the office. Proof of vaccination required. Seeking: People to drive refugees if they need rides. Sign up online here

YWCA of Tucson

What: Pima County Teen Court. When: Attorney training began in January. Requirements: Must be a high school student in Pima County. Contact kspaulding@ywcatucson.org or 520-991-5666

What: Latino Leadership Institute. When: Sunday mornings, in the summer it moves to weekdays. Skills: Willingness to work, bilingual in Spanish and English is preferred. Contact Imelda Esquer, iesquer@ywcatucson.org or 520-884-7810 ext. 7127

What: Your Sister’s Closet. When: Monday-Wednesday. Skills: Willingness to work, bilingual in Spanish and English is preferred. Contact Nancy Laney 520-273-6959.

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Sofia Moraga is a recent graduate of the UArizona journalism school and is currently freelancing with Arizona Luminaria to write on important community issues while finishing a book on minority representation...

Becky Pallack is the Operations Executive at Arizona Luminaria. She's been a journalist in Arizona since 1999.