Urban Tilth Has Big Dreams for Community Health: Reflections on SoPL Session 3

By Marco Lemus, Food is Medicine Project Manager at Urban Tilth and member of the SoPL “Rooted in Richmond Food Justice” team

Last month, the HEAL Food Alliance brought together our School of Political Leadership (SoPL) cohort for a dynamic session on Power Analysis & Campaign Strategy Development facilitated by HEAL’s Campaigns Director Jose Oliva. Over two days, Jose led the group through power mapping exercises and a discussion on how to identify power shifts and deconstruct concentrations of power to win campaigns. Below, Marco Lemus, the Project Manager for Urban Tilth’s Food is Medicine Program and member of the SoPL “Rooted in Richmond Food Justice” team gives his personal thoughts on the third session of HEAL’s SoPL, and shares how he is integrating lessons learned into his collective and individual work. 

What brought you to SoPL? Why did you choose to apply? 

I came to SoPL because I wanted to learn how to empower myself to make change for communities with the highest needs, and create campaigns that will create the foundation for food systems that gradually, and with urgency, prioritize investment in preventative, community-controlled care. 

What is your vision for yourself, your team and for the cohort as a whole? How will SoPL help you get there?

My vision for myself and our team is to dream big when it comes to community health. It can sometimes be hard to imagine a world full of fruit when the narrative you hear growing up in a city like Richmond, California is one of scarcity. Healthy food options, quality healthcare, affordable housing, clean air, clean streets…the list goes on. I want a positive change that is undeniable, long-lasting, and starts with those who’ve been most burdened by the disparities of our current food system. Through the tools we gain from SoPL, my team hopes to build a new narrative for Richmond. We will build this new narrative on preventing avoidable, premature deaths. It will call out an obsolete model of care and empathize with the detrimental conditions of our toxic systems of “care.”

What changed in your understanding of power, in general and within food systems? 

Through SoPL, my understanding of power has changed a lot. I feel a sense of calm and peace that comes from feeling empowered. When we feel like change is impossible, we have to remember that it’s just that: a feeling. It’s valid to feel that way, but change is very much possible. Sharing space with people who have done the work of pushing for policies centered around humanity, dignity, livelihood, and personhood proves that it is possible. Yes the task, the strategy, and the times will be different, but the numbers will look the same, and they will be in our favor when we are grounded by each other

I see how important it is to specify exactly what it is we want to see change in our food system because once you start laying out the steps to get to that specific goal, then it starts to feel less and less like a daunting or unlikely goal. Jose’s translation of the word ‘power’ speaks perfectly to this idea, to mean something you “can do” (in Spanish). 

When we’re all on our own, what we can do looks a lot different from what we can do ALL together. It’s like building the Egyptian pyramids. To us, as independent individuals, building the pyramids seems humanly impossible, but big projects and goals can be more attainable than we think. Understanding that strength in numbers equals power and identifying where our support and strengths are located is key to winning our campaigns. Power mapping was great for visualizing our issues, the policies that drive them, and what the next steps look like. Breaking up the overall strategy into smaller steps makes policy change seem very, very possible!

Does your campaign challenge the power dynamics within your community?

Our campaign looks to challenge a food system and healthcare system that profits off of communities with much scarcity and subsequently high rates of disease. My hope is that SoPL helps develop our storytelling skills on ‘food apartheid’ and gives us the tools to help back up our narrative with empirical evidence and first hand accounts. Our campaign will also push for a culturally relevant curriculum that sets BIPOC communities up for success rather than failure. 


Marco Lemus is a first-generation, Central-American and has lived in South Richmond, CA all his life. After graduating from UC Santa Cruz with a major in Critical Race and Ethnic Studies, Marco joined the Urban Tilth Farm to Table CSA team in 2019, where he learned how to grow, clean, and distribute healthy locally grown food to local residents. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Marco helped expand the capacity of the paid CSA from 80 to 250 residents, and also helped establish the New Farmers to Families FREE Box Program which supports 190 Richmond families.

Recently, Marco and the “Rooted in Richmond Food Justice” team were featured in a story by the Public News Service: Boxes of Vegetables as Medicine? Advocates Work Toward Food Justice