Charlottesville just two weeks before—had been washed away
by the flood, or submerged like all the other things we had made.
Would the waters redeem us, like a baptism? Would we come out
new? Or would the lines be there when the waters receded, like
wrack left on the shore of the Gulf after the tide?
FOR DAYS, Liz Vallette, president of Plant It Forward since January 2017, couldn’t get to the farms to survey the damage. She’d
been holed up at her place texting the farmers, whose apartments had all miraculously been spared. In her restlessness, Liz
designed a t-shirt to raise money for Plant It Forward. “Root for
Houston,” it said, a bunch of radishes punctuating the phrase.
On social media, she asked anyone living near the farms to
post pictures of the damage, so when the waters subsided and
Liz finally walked the farms herself, she already knew it would
be bad. But she took comfort in what had survived: amaranth,
roselle, Malabar spinach, cassava and sugarcane— the resilient
crops of Congo. That seemed like a sign.
Liz grew up in a suburb north of Houston and went to the
US Military Academy at West Point, where she’d been recruited
to play soccer. A couple of years after graduation, in 2004, she
deployed to Iraq and was stationed at Camp Victory in Baghdad
on the grounds of Al Faw Palace, a former complex of Saddam
Hussein’s: muscular sandstone on the outside, tricked out all in
gold within, the entire thing situated in the middle of a manmade
lake through which huge carp glided in endless loops. She was in
procurement, engaged primarily in acquiring high-level communications equipment. She tried to source supplies locally. But so
much procurement was being contracted out to private American
companies. And the cost was astounding. Some of the companies
provided beds and lamps and blankets and air-conditioning and
dining halls with dessert bars. To Liz, it was insane.
It was during her time in Iraq that Liz started asking ques-
tions: Why did this happen? Why did we do this? Was this the best
way? In 2009, after having left the military, she returned to the
Middle East to work for a Canadian nonprofit in Afghanistan
advocating on behalf of local businesses. So much money was
pouring into the country, but a lot of it was going to foreign
companies. Liz wanted to use her skills in procurement to drive
dollars and jobs directly to the Afghan people, and, indirectly, to
give young men there an alternative to joining the insurgency.
Her work, she thought, might provide a sustainable, nonmilitary
solution to the mess war creates.
She loved Kabul, where she lived. She loved the Afghans with
whom she worked, many of them — displaced by the Taliban, or
before that by the war with Russia— were educated in refugee
camps in Pakistan as children. But after a couple of years, Kabul
became more tense. There were bombings and assassinations.
Liz’s o=ice would run emergency drills in case of an attack. The
best option for escape seemed to be to run to the roof and jump
to the next building.
Liz came home to Houston. And up until the 2016 election,
she thought that she knew the country that she had served. She
thought that her values were the values of America, mostly. But
in his campaign, Donald Trump equated refugees from the Middle East with terrorists, and this bothered Liz. She had come to
see that the US was not innocent. Her friends’ lives had been
upended by the wars America was fighting; she felt her cowork-ers in Kabul, her translator in Iraq, had done more to serve
America during that war than had many American citizens. So
when the soon-to-be president talked about banning Middle East
refugees, it felt personal to Liz. And when he was elected, Liz
thought, Maybe this isn’t the country I thought it was.
But Houston didn’t feel like the America she didn’t know.
As an antidote to election night, Liz watched again the Houston
episode of the Anthony Bourdain show, Parts Unknown, which
had aired just a week or so before. Filled with stories of immigrants and refugees and the descendants of slaves, and featuring
all their delicious food, one segment focused on the Congolese
farmers from Plant It Forward. Oh yeah, that group, thought Liz.
Love those guys. A couple of weeks later, feeling the pull to do
something more, she checked the nonprofit job boards to see
who was hiring. Plant It Forward was looking for a president. Liz
took the job just before Trump’s inauguration.
People can be afraid of what they don’t know. Liz tries to be
sensitive to this when she talks about how Plant It Forward helps
refugees assimilate into the Houston community, about how it
opens a door at that dead-end corridor of low-wage jobs, o=ering
a path forward into the American Dream. But Plant It Forward
also reaches out to other parts of Houston, including those that
are home to people who are potentially fearful of refugees. Liz
says it puts a familiar face—the face of the farmer at the Saturday market—on the refugee crisis abroad. It’s harder to be
fearful when refugees are your neighbors, when you eat the food
To welcome refugees here is also to
carry seeds of tolerance, as if on the
wind, back to relatives and friends
in home countries.