I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough, we must do. ~Leonardo da Vinci
(This is a slightly abbreviated version of the presentation that I gave in Ethiopia in May, 2016 for the SCUPAD conference)
This reflection, I think, speaks to the power of individuals, to our growing processes, and to the way we help each other. This is a story about listening and learning how to listen and about working with people to address problems on their own terms. It’s about creating space for these little experiments that create a sense of possibility and then watching them grow.
The work I am presenting is my process of discovering agriculture and building community and I’m sharing it with you because I think what I’ve learned can help in your work and because these are the stories that I want to tell. Stories that I can embody and share for people who don’t have a voice.
I went into urban agriculture because I saw its potential to change landscapes and engage people, but it changed me more than anything. I cried with people, laughed with people, ate with people, grew with people across projects, across continents, across languages. I went into urban agriculture because I had this big glorious dream that it could change the world. It can. It does. But it is also just a tool in the larger scheme of giving people a space to be people. In these spaces I’ve seen people realizing that we belong to each other and we will take care of each other. I saw this across projects, across continents, across faces.
How does this work? What is the power in these spaces? Food brings people to the table. It’s a good starting point. Dirt grounds people. Gives them something to root into. A little space that is theirs in a world that often doesn’t provide much space. Plants make people a little more tender and a little stronger. You have to be gentle but you can also see how much plants can endure. It’s a relationship. We give them water and protection and love. They give us food. Agriculture gives you a space to experiment, to learn non attachment, to learn commitment, to learn responsibility, to learn consistency, to learn how to work with people, how to share with people, how to empower people, how to pacify people, how to choose your battles.
What we are facing is huge and I think we are all seeing it. Over 50 percent of humanity lives in cities right now and this is projected to grow. Seven out of 10 people will live in cities by 2050. As cities grow, land is consumed for development, with detrimental effects to urban and periurban agriculture.
And urbanization is not going hand-in-hand with widespread economic growth. With urban dwellers more dependent than rural populations on whatever food they can afford to buy, it’s tied closely to livelihoods. The amount spent on food in urban areas is 30% more than in rural areas but for less calories. Living in an urban area now seems to mean we lack access to land, natural systems and food. All of these are commoditized and instead of food being a right, it becomes a privilege.
So, what follows are projects that I’ve seen working to create these more resilient communities and food systems. These spaces of possibility and these spaces where we can support each other in the act of survival.
Salt Lake City
My work in urban agriculture began in Salt Lake City with a series of projects. I went into my projects with all of this data on urban agriculture and food and income security and a love and smattering of knowledge of plants. Straight out of school. I was prepared! I was in charge! It was all great and much of it totally useless. Agriculture is just a catalyst for something bigger. The food security I’ve seen came from people meeting each other and sharing food. The income security came from people making connections in the garden and getting each other jobs.
As a student, I sat down with the clients at a homeless shelter and asked them what they needed. I was not even totally sold on the idea of urban agriculture yet. But over and over it came up that they were concerned about the quality of food they were feeding their children. There were no vegetables. There were no fruits. So we started to grow them. It was a small project. We had no space so we adapted and used pots. Any interested residents could have a pot and a plant and start learning to grow. It gave people something that was theirs in a transitional time, something to grow into, and a seed of possibility to carry with them.
I pursued two other projects in Salt Lake City. At Neighborhood House, a nonprofit daycare, preschool and senior center, I organized stakeholder meetings, garnered support from the community and local nonprofits, worked with students to develop a design and plan, and had loads of support in all aspects of the project… except for funding. I received one small grant and spent a few months begging for materials. We decided on building the raised beds out of straw bales both because they were cheap and so we could mulch them back into the soil each growing season to start restoring the land. I spent $500 on this entire project that has since evolved into a thriving farm.
In 2009, we built the People’s Portable Garden. The City government has a tendency to buy land and hold it for development for years without doing anything with it. So there was a large plot of this covered in weeds in the middle of a low income neighborhood where people took good care of their houses and yards. Blight is a word that came up often in my first meetings with the neighborhood. The city was creating blight. So we changed it. I partnered with a local nonprofit, we petitioned for $50,000 in funding, a pie in the sky number, and got it. We spent a month doing a community design process, spent 20 hour days building garden beds, leveling the property and approximately one day and 100 volunteers putting it all together. It is called the People’s Portable Garden because it was meant to be temporary. We assembled everything so it could be taken apart and moved. It should have moved in 2013 and is still there and does not seem to be going anywhere any time soon.
The gardeners are long term residents from the surrounding neighborhood and, prior to the project, many did not know each other. Johnnie Mae and the Coopers had lived a block away from each other for a decade and had never met. While we were building the project, Johnnie Mae’s husband’s health started failing. They lived alone in a corner house and as soon as word got around they were inundated with food and offers to help. The Coopers in particular reached out and would come over at a moments notice to help Johnnie Mae with whatever she needed. Her husband passed and the community was there. Soon the Coopers started having health problems and again, the community was there. The goals of this project centered around beautification and food security but I saw that what we created was much bigger than that, much stronger, and much more pervasive. If this project does eventually move, those connections will remain.
This was my first experience with this type of social capital and networks of relationships that occur in these communal spaces. It sounds romantic. It is. And I’ve seen in happen over and over again…
Shortly after this project I moved to Guatemala. I went for a visit and ended up staying for a year and a half. I worked with two different agriculture and food security nonprofits. I learned a few good things and mostly that I didn’t want anything to do with the world of international development. I saw more awful projects than good. I saw people entering communities and telling them that their way of living was wrong. But mostly I met a lot of amazing Guatemalans. We talked, laughed, ate mangoes. I planted corn and sesame with them, and made tortillas. All very much to their detriment since my rows of corn were diagonal and my tortillas were roughly the size of a nacho.
Campesino a Campesino
One important technique that I learned in Guatemala is the Campesino a Campesino (Farmer to Farmer) methodology. This methodology pushes against the condescending nature of how most community and NGO work is done. It is a simple, people-centered approach that makes this radical assumption that the people you are working with can learn by doing and come up with their own theories. It teaches them how to set up experiments, analyze them, and share the results.
The situation in rural Guatemala has been dire for years. After a 33-year civil war that essentially amounted to attempted genocide of indigenous populations, the country seems to have found some semblance of peace. The tension is still there and the distrust is palpable. People are understandably afraid to organize, speak out, and trust the government. This history is layered upon newer, interconnected problems of gangs, drugs, the unending march of sugarcane, and the third highest child mortality rate in the hemisphere.
Campesino a Campesino is a movement that is trying to bring more autonomy to farming communities. That it gives smallholder farmers the ability to access, adapt, create, use, and defend their knowledge on their own terms is huge in a myriad of ways. It empowers people on this base level of controlling their lives. It gives them information to fight against the encroaching threats of Monsanto, sugarcane, and climate change. Agriculture is a practice that is constantly needing to change and adapt to fit our changing world. It is all just one big experiment in humanity and how we feed ourselves. It is hyper local, it is sensitive, it is evolving. Campesino a Campesino gives people a voice in how this evolution happens.
So what it does is teach people how to set up experiments. But what is experimenting? If you only went to a few years of school would you know what it means to experiment? If your entire livelihood depended on a few acres would you feel comfortable with this idea of experimenting? Many of the farmers we worked with had only gone to a few years of primary school. The concept was foreign and frightening despite the fact that we do it fairly instinctively. You are always experimenting in agriculture. Trying, failing, trying, succeeding, continuing and then starting over. So we would talk with them about this process, how to do it methodologically on a small test plot, and then give them a forum to voice their results.
What this typically looked like in practice was organizing group plantings where farmers could learn about or propose experiments and help each other with planting their fields. We would follow up throughout the season and then organize a group harvest and a conference in each community where the farmers could come and ask questions, give results and suggestions. Then we would plan for the following season. If a test plot was successful, we would help them to expand it. If it failed, we would help them try something else.
In this Guatemalan context we were competing with Monsanto and government representatives who would travel from village to village and hand out seeds and free fertilizer or pesticide. For awhile their seeds and inputs would outperform other methods. But it is difficult to go back once you start. The balanced ecosystem of your soil is thrown off, leading to huge infestations of pests and weeds that can only be fought with additional Monsanto chemicals. I saw this cycle and saw farmers hooked on the inputs that often cost more than they make in the season. We would encourage them to try methods that could transition them off of chemical intensive agriculture.
This work was inspiring in many ways but most importantly how it inspired farmers to build their own knowledge and know how to use it. We would start the process in a community, ensure it was working, be there as support, and then step back and watch it grow. It again came back to this idea of building networks of knowledge and support that allowed people to imagine and implement new possibilities.
I think what this work confirmed for me is that I am not seeing industrial farming as a solution to the problems we’re facing. Farming is not and cannot be mining and we are treating it like an extractive industry. We can’t continuously deplete the soil and replace what we take with chemicals. It is not a solution and it is not something that can sustain us. Growing food in depleted soils leads to food depleted of nutrients. We get what we give and we have not been giving much. We need to see farming and do farming in a way that contributes to the environment and builds the soil. We need to hold on to the particular knowledge of our particular places because this is beyond the competence of any large agribusiness or centralized power. We need small farmers.
I also worked with women’s groups in Guatemala. Both groups of women were confined almost exclusively to the home. Both groups were able to attend our meetings because their husbands were also working with the organization. Beyond any food security measures or agricultural techniques that came across in these meetings, these women were given a voice, a support group and a life outside of the home.
We would work on whatever the women’s groups identified as an issue. Cook stoves, community improvements, healthcare and agriculture were the main themes while I was there. One women’s group I was sent to work with had requested techniques to grow without “poison.” They recognized the effect on their homes and families. Their husbands came home sick from the fields. Their children developed skin disorders. Kidney failure was a common aspect of life. The men were less likely to experiment since their crops were their livelihood. The women chose to try different methods. We built a greenhouse so the highland women could farm their own vegetables and create local markets. They worked to develop techniques without pesticides or herbicides. Collectively they grew medicinal herbs, tomatoes, greens and chilies to supplement the families’ diets and to sell excess locally.
Information was exchanged, new techniques were learned but I think the most important realization for all of us was that these women were strong alone and stronger together. They helped each other start businesses with the new crops and recipes. They supported each other through problems at home. These meetings were a place to talk, process, grow. For all of us. I again saw projects acting as a catalyst for building social capital and giving people a space to support each other.
East New York
I left Guatemala for a job in New York City to build community gardens and urban farms in East New York. I applied for the job on a whim and then had two weeks to make the transition. I was given access to four lots of 2500-5000 square feet and told to turn them into growing spaces. When I arrived, I went to check them out and found 6 lots full of years of garbage and I found a community that was ready to take them over.
So we began to build. I coordinated materials, volunteers, and cleanups. I learned more about the New York City waste disposal system than I care to know. Picture a demolished house that is plowed into its own basement and then covered with 15-30 years of garbage. We found bones, bricks, swimming pools infested with spiders. And little by little, we cleaned them up. We capped them with landscape fabric and a thick layer of mulch. We built raised beds using recycled scaffolding lumber from NYC construction. We did this together as a community, and we planted together as a community.
I had grant reports that would require me to weigh the quantity of food we were growing when it felt like what we were growing couldn’t be quantified. We had 26 chickens in an urban area where the most animal life kids will see is a rat or cockroach. We had immigrants from Latin America working alongside immigrants from Bangladesh. Neither of which spoke a word of English. Both would consider the other a friend. Sure there were misunderstandings and arguments. Sometimes a chicken would disappear because it was “sick” and that chicken without a doubt never recover. Read: ended up as dinner. And we worked through these issues as a community. We supported each other through mental illness, family strife, breakups, losing jobs. We celebrated each other and our achievements.
A big part of our goals in East New York was food security. One in four of the city’s children – nearly half a million – live in households that lack sufficient food. One in 10 seniors struggles against hunger. Food pantries and soup kitchens are running out of food, and the food they do have is often heavily processed with high levels of high fructose corn syrup, sodium, and sugar. Healthier food tends to be more expensive, harder to find in low income neighborhoods, and more time consuming to prepare, thus forcing many food insecure families to rely upon cheaper, more highly processed, less healthy food. The economic and physical barriers to fresh food access have contributed to citywide increases in obesity and diabetes.
What I saw in East New York, and what I saw our projects addressing, was a lack of access to food. The only places available to buy food were corner stores that carried highly processed foods and perhaps a banana or two. In order to buy produce, residents would need to take the subway or bus in a lengthy commute to a supermarket. Once they arrive, the food is often too expensive. We worked with corner stores to try to get more produce into the neighborhood at affordable prices, and then grew our own. Another organization with similar goals started a neighborhood market where local gardeners could sell their produce and value added products every weekend. We were building a community food system because people don’t just need food “security”, they need food dignity. The ability to choose the food that they need to feed their families, not just settling for what they can get from the local pantry or corner store but having the ability to choose nutritious, healthy, real food.
From New York, I received a Fulbright grant to go to Mauritius. I was trying to do a community based mapping project around climate change and the felt impacts of climate change on a small island. I was there for a big goal that I placed a lot of expectations on but what I was seeing was very different. I saw that talking about climate change at a community level was not productive. I saw that if we spoke of pollution and food, that people connected. With pollution they could see the problems and see the solutions, and it honestly addresses a lot of the same issues we come across with climate change. In the end it is an over-consumption, a delusion that we can take whatever we want and it will all work out.
In Mauritius, there are these really literal examples of over-consumption that we could point to. Sugarcane for instance. This crop that is not even food that consumes all of the land and is then exported. Mauritius literally exports the sweetness of its land. There is pollution at a grand scale with one of the highest per capita pesticide use in the world, an overfilled landfill, and mountains of plastic that wash ashore. The idea is that the ocean can take it, and she does. She churns it up and breaks it down as best she can, and then sends it back ashore. The future beaches of our world are made of plastic. For me, Mauritius took all of the world’s issues and put them in miniature. These were the reasons my project shifted and I was lucky enough to have the flexibility to let it.
What I ultimately ended up doing was cleanups, community film screenings, community photography projects, presentations at schools, building gardens out of recycled materials, community based mapping workshops, consulting on green roofs and sustainability projects, writing for local magazines, and helping with a food sharing program.
The food sharing program Manzer Partazer is the work of some of my favorite people that I met in Mauritius and I was lucky to be able to contribute in small ways to this inspirational project. In Mauritius there was a break in the food distribution chain. It’s a similar problem everywhere. The rich take more than they need, they throw the rest away. Roughly 1/3 of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally (1.3 million tons). We saw this everywhere. Hotels, supermarkets, etc. And we saw these areas of poverty. I worked with kids to build gardens at their schools and was told most of the kids got their food at the school, not from home. They were very quietly subsidized by the school employees. So Manzer Partazer connected the dots and closed the loop. They worked with NGOs who knew the stories that would break your heart and who knew how to distribute the food. They connected them with hotels and supermarkets through existing transport networks. So the hotels, in vehicles they used to bring employees home after work, also brought food. The NGO representative met them at a designated drop off location and collected and distributed the food. It is essentially a zero cost initiative beyond the time it takes to coordinate the connections.
This was a different aspect of food security and creating connections. Seeing a need, seeing a glut, connecting the dots. The effect was powerful. Food in bellies, people seeing that others cared, the wealthy witnessing their waste.
What I’ve seen and what I hope to leave you with is this idea of the power of building relationships. How can we use our fields and our practice to create these spaces of possibility and inclusion? How can we use our skills to inspire people to take care of each other? How can we be catalysts to start the changes we need to see in the world?
It so often feels like many of the world’s problems are too big, too complex, too scientific sometimes for any solution. But really the only way we have to tackle these issues is together, probably with a series of small steps that turn into big leaps that turn into a more equitable planet. It sounds romantic, and it is. But survival isn’t romantic and relationships are what we need to adapt to the world’s complex issues.
I’ve been overwhelmed over and over again… across projects, across continents. But I want to leave you with this: don’t be daunted by sophisticated arguments that tell you that small actions are meaningless in the face of tomorrow’s problems. I have seen the power and the meaning of small actions by small groups. We are given a brief moment to grow and to make things better and more equitable. So start where you are, use what you have, go, do.
People’s Portable Garden