Meet Kelly Carlisle: Woman Warrior for East Oakland’s Underserved Youth By Marion Gee

KellyCarlisle, Acta Non Verba

Kelly D. Carlisle Founder, Executive Director, posing with her youth participants for the photo that graced Sunset Magazine’s Best of the West in March. Image courtesy of David Fenton at

Kelly Carlisle has been seeking a life’s mission for a long time. At 9 years old, she had nothing to do, nowhere to go, no program to join that her family could afford. “I remember feeling lost, wondering what am I going to be and where am I going to go?”

Even after attending college and working in tech during the dotcom boom in the Bay Area, she still felt she needed a mission and decided to join the Navy shortly before 9/11. “I didn’t want to just be a consumer. I wanted to be something that made a difference in the world.”

During the long nights on-board her ship, she discovered Stephen King’s Dark Tower series and Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness. The books cemented her determination to be a woman warrior, like the main protagonists of these books. At the same time, she questioned whether the Navy was the right vehicle to make a difference in the world.

Then, a series of random events sparked her own quest, like the characters of the novels she loved, for justice and opportunity in East Oakland. When Kelly returned to the Bay Area she decided to start a garden with her daughter on their balcony. Shortly after, she read several articles highlighting Oakland’s 40% high school drop out rate and the FBI’s ranking of Oakland as the 5th most dangerous U.S. city. Suddenly, her mission became apparent: start a community garden for youth to learn about nutrition, food, and themselves, providing that alternative path she never had.

Kelly immediately bought the book Non-Profit Kit for Dummies and followed its first instruction: Tell everyone! Through family she eventually connected with Cynthia Armstrong, Director of the Tassafaronga Recreation Center in East Oakland, who was interested in starting a garden on their property. Kelly summarized the fateful meeting as follows: “Cynthia marched me out here and said you can have all of this!”

She had the idea, the partners, the place, and the name, Acta Non Verba: Youth Urban Farm Project – now Kelly needed financial support to get the project off the ground. In 2011, Rose Foundation’s Northern California Environmental Grassroots Fund, one of the first places to which Kelly applied, recognized Kelly’s passion and and gave Acta their very first grant.

Since then it’s been a whirlwind of success on the farm, with the kids, and in the media. On the ¼ acre they grow a variety of produce including cilantro, squash, strawberries, kale, tomatoes and more. Since 2011 over 200 kids have participated in their summer and spring camps. Now there is more demand than they can meet. New pilot programs like a food stand and Community Supported Agriculture box are underway. With Kelly’s help, thirty youth participants opened savings accounts. While the farm stand proceeds are still small (last year netted $764), 100% of those proceeds go directly into the kids’ savings accounts.

Most importantly, to Kelly, the “work is showing children that there is something, some alternative to what they see every day. I hope that the children are learning that your passion can take you places…open doors for you and change your life.”

Achieving this success wasn’t always easy. Kelly faced a lot of the growing pains many small grassroots groups face like developing a Board of Directors. With these challenges, Kelly found Rose Foundation to be her most hands-on, supportive funder. “Rose Foundation is visionary. You recognized Acta was scrappy, you believed in our vision, and you provided patience and support, helping us succeed and understanding that while we had the passion, we didn’t come to this work with a degree in non-profit management.”

With our Grassroots Fund training scholarships and hands-on mentorship and support from Rose Foundation staff through our Community Leadership Project grant, Kelly grew and structured her board, enhanced her fundraising, and developed her leadership skills through the Rockwood Leadership Institute.

While attending Rockwood, Kelly made a friendly new connection that resulted in her meeting President Barack Obama! When asked about her take on the chance encounter Kelly explained, “Be nice to everyone you meet because you never know what amazing things can come of it.”

In just three short years, Kelly Carlisle (above left) went from launching Acta Non Verba to meeting President Barack Obama. Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon

In just three short years, Kelly Carlisle (above left) went from launching Acta Non Verba to meeting President Barack Obama. Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon

Before dining together and exchanging common stories of community organizing, the President shared his thoughts with his guests: “Kelly Carlisle served our country in the Navy…more recently, she founded Acta Non Verba …And in a tough part of Oakland, California, she started an urban farm where local children can grow and sell fresh food, which Michelle would appreciate very much… thanks to Kelly, these boys and girls are not only learning the value of hard work at an early age, they’re changing how they think about themselves and opening their minds to what’s possible in their lives.”

The President is a relative latecomer in recognizing Kelly’s successes. She was featured in numerous media outlets including The New York Times and ABC, and was even named the “Best in the West” in Sunset Magazine’s March edition. She was recently invited to represent the Women’s Farmer Veteran Network in Turin, Italy at Slow Food International’s Terra Madre, an exclusive gathering known as the “Olympics of Food” where she will be joined by fellow Rose Foundation grantee Esperanza Pallana of Oakland Food Policy Council.

Speaking to Kelly recently, she was still riding high from her meeting with the President. Her voice excited yet rough from a sore throat, she asked, “Does this mean I have peaked? Is it all downhill from here?” We don’t think so – we know there is so much more we can expect from Kelly and Acta. The name of her organization is the perfect embodiment of Kelly and her quest – “Deeds not words” (the motto of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy) and, in Kelly’s book of deeds, there is still more to be done.

To find out more about or get involved with Acta Non Verba, go to To learn more about the Grassroots Fund, check out

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