He left prison for the first time since he was a teenager. Then he started filming.

14 days after finishing a 20-year sentence in prison, Bilal Coleman appeared on video in an unlikely setting: a garden full of fresh herbs.

With this, Coleman kicked off his video diary project called "The Freedom Chronicles," which documented his first year out of prison.

He doesn’t say much in that first video, which was filmed in December 2015. His mentor, another formerly incarcerated man named Anthony Forrest, shares the names of various plants around them. He encourages Coleman to break off pieces and smell the rosemary and basil — the scent of which, Coleman says, reminds him of his grandma.


These were Coleman’s first experiences of life outside of prison since he was a teenager — and most people in his place wouldn’t dream of sharing something so personal with the world.

Coleman meets goats on his 11th day out of prison. All images courtesy of Planting Justice.

For most people, the first year out of prison is a struggle. After incarceration, many have trouble finding stable jobs, accessing basic needs like healthy food, and transitioning back to daily life on the outside.

In fact, in Coleman’s home state of California, 7 out of 10 former inmates go back to prison within a year after being released.

Coleman was only 17 years old when he was sentenced to 20 years at San Quentin State Prison — so at 37, he didn’t exactly have a ton of work experience. Like so many others returning to their communities after incarceration, he faced the world with the odds stacked against him.

But when he got out, he had a good reason to start filming his journey — a job waiting for him at an organization called Planting Justice.

Planting Justice is an Oakland-based nonprofit that empowers people to grow their own food. In 2009, when co-founders Gavin Raders and Haleh Zandi launched the organization, they wanted to support people who are most affected by issues such as poverty and a lack of access to nutritional food. And they couldn’t think of a better way to do that than hiring people who, like Coleman, are leaving prison.

Planting Justice staff members Maurice "Big Mo" Bell and Darryl Aikens with co-founders Haleh Zandi and Gavin Raders.

"We really wanted to build the world that we want and need, and focus on solutions," says Gavin Raders, executive director of Planting Justice.

The organization offers a living wage and full benefits to all of its staff — an opportunity that’s all too rare for people with criminal records. Since its start in 2009, the Planting Justice team of landscapers has built over 450 edible gardens around the Bay Area.

Today, they employ about 35 full-time staff members, and just over half — including Coleman — are formerly incarcerated.

They've garnered some significant support, including plant sales from customers all over the country and $300,000 a year in small donations earned through street canvassing. They were even awarded a grant through The Kresge Foundation’s Fresh, Local, and Equitable initiative, known as “FreshLo,” for building healthy, inclusive communities.

FreshLo is all about supporting work that leverages creative, neighborhood-based food enterprises for community development, and these Bay Area gardens are brilliant examples.

The Planting Justice edible gardens grow in unlikely places — empty lots, schools, and concrete neighborhoods that don’t have fresh produce or green spaces for miles.

About 100 of the gardens they’ve built so far have been free or on a sliding scale, with fees depending on income, for people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford them.

A Planting Justice garden begins to grow at a juvenile detention center.

In spite of his inexperience, it turns out that Coleman is actually the perfect fit for this work. He’s from the very communities that Planting Justice serves and can relate to their struggles on a personal level.

"You try to instill a life skill within the youth, but what you don’t understand is you’ll receive one as well," he shares in the video for his 200th day out of prison.

Planting Justice has a success rate of nearly 100%. In nine years of existence, only one formerly incarcerated staff member has returned to jail.

What began as a simple landscaping service now includes education programs, farmer training, and a holistic re-entry program to help former prisoners transition back to a stable life.

And in 2017, after a lot of hard work and the help of over 900 donors, Planting Justice acquired a 2-acre plot of land to open up a nursery and farm. Rolling River Nursery provides landscaping services to the neighborhood, and ships plants, herbs, and trees all over the country. It’s located in deep East Oakland, California, in an area called Sobrante Park, which is known for having some of the highest rates of unemployment and crime in Oakland.

Sobrante Park is exactly the kind of place that needs green jobs like the ones Planting Justice creates, and Raders hopes that similar neighborhoods throughout the country can replicate their model.

Staff members at Rolling River Nursery.

In his final "Freedom Chronicles" video, Coleman celebrates his 365th day of freedom — and shows a total transformation.

This time, Coleman’s the one naming the plants, and he’s much more outgoing than he was when he started. His smile glows as he shows viewers his work, including the gardens he tends daily and a high school where he passes his skills on to youth.

"I feel overjoyed!" he exclaims about beating the odds by thriving in his first year out of prison.

It’s clear that he’s gained some skills, including newfound abilities in public speaking, youth education, and analyzing issues like economic and environmental injustice that affect the communities where he lives and works.

Coleman on his 365th day of freedom.

Coleman’s story shows how an opportunity to thrive after prison can help lift up a whole community.

Coleman was still working at Planting Justice at the time of this writing. He also enjoys spending time with his two kids, and he’s developed a passion for health and personal fitness.

On top of providing fresh food, vital skills, and an opportunity to escape the cycle of mass incarceration, the formerly incarcerated staff members get a chance to help lead these initiatives to transform their neighborhoods.

At the end of his last video, Coleman grins as he looks over the results of his hard work.

"Seasons pass, tomatoes are gone, the chard has popped back up like the spring," he says. "That’s resilience."

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The Kresge Foundation

Andy Grammer, the pop singer and songwriter behind feel-good tunes like "Keep Your Head Up," "Back Home," and "Don't Give Up on Me," has a new album out—and it is seriously fabulous. Titled simply "Naive," Grammer says it's "all about how seeing the good in todays world can feel like a rebellious act."

"I wrote this album for the light bringers," Grammer shared on Facebook. "The people who choose to see the good even in the overwhelming chaos of the bad. The smilers who fight brick by brick to build an authentic smile everyday, even when it seems like an impossible thing to do. For those who have been marginalized as 'sweet' or 'cute' or 'less powerful' for being overly positive. To me optimism is a war to be fought, possibly the most important one. If I am speaking to you and you are relating to it then know I made this album for you. You are my tribe. I love you and I hope it serves you. Don't let the world turn down your shine, we all so badly need it."

Reading that, it's easy to think maybe he really is naive, but Grammer's positivity isn't due to nothing difficult ever happening in his life. His mom, Kathy, died of breast cancer when Grammer was 25. He and his mother were very close, and her life and death had a huge impact on him.

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via Stratford Festival / Twitter

Service dogs are invaluable to their owners because they are able to help in so many different ways.

They're trained to retrieve dropped Items, open and close doors, help their owners remove their clothes, transport medications, navigate busy areas such as airports, provide visual assistance, and even give psychological help.

The service dog trainers at K-9 Country Inn Working Service Dogs in Canada want those who require service dogs to live the fullest life possible, so they're training dogs on how to attend a theatrical performance.

The adorable photos of the dogs made their way to social media where they quickly went viral.

On August 15, a dozen dogs from Golden Retrievers to poodles, were treated to a performance of "Billy Elliott" at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada. This was a special "relaxed performance" featuring quieter sound effects and lighting, designed for those with sensory issues.

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"It's important to prepare the dogs for any activity the handler may like to attend," Laura Mackenzie, owner and head trainer at K-9 Country Inn Working Service Dogs, told CBC.

"The theater gives us the opportunity to expose the dogs to different stimuli such as lights, loud noises, and movement of varying degrees," she continued. "The dogs must remain relaxed in tight quarters for an extended period of time."

The dogs got to enjoy the show from their own seats and took a break with everyone else during intermission. They were able to familiarize themselves with the theater experience so they know how to navigate through crowds and fit into tight bathroom stalls.

via Stratford Festival / Twitter


via Stratford Festival / Twitter


via Stratford Festival / Twitter

"About a dozen dogs came to our relaxed performance, and they were all extremely well-behaved," says Stratford Festival spokesperson Ann Swerdfager. "I was in the lobby when they came in, then they took their seats, then got out of their seats at intermission and went back — all of the things we learn as humans when we start going to the theater."

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The dogs' great performance at the trial run means that people who require service animals can have the freedom to enjoy special experiences like going to the theater.

"It's wonderful that going to the theater is considered one of the things that you want to train a service dog for, rather than thinking that theater is out of reach for people who require a service animal, because it isn't," Swerdfager said.

The Stratford Festival runs through Nov. 10 and features productions of "The Merry Wives of Windsor," "The Neverending Story," "Othello," "Billy Elliot," "Little Shop of Horrors," "The Crucible" and more.

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