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Mapping Entanglement: Witnessing and Acting in our Built and Natural Environments

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            When I began to formulate this fourth and final webevent, my intention was to continue searching for connections that could be formed between environmental health organizations and food justice groups. My plan was to think “group to group,” make official organizations talk to each other. But, then I began thinking about the individuals for who these organizations act and thinking about ways to connect individuals rather than exclusively the entities that seek to represent them. Kaye reminded me of Witnesses to Hunger, a project by Drexel Univiersity’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities.  Witnesses to Hunger began in Philadelphia in 2008 and asks women caring for young children who have experienced hunger and poverty, witnesses, to document their experiences. The project was created because “too often, policies and programs are created without the participation of the people who are most affected,” Witnesses to Hunger seeks to include the voices of those women who’s lives are directly affected by welfare related policies in the dialogue surrounding these issues. Here is a video from the project website:




This project inspired me to think about ways in which we all bear witness to events in our own lives, which are inevitably connected to the lives of others. I was reminded of Paul Farmer’s discussion of “bearing witness” to poverty. He writes that “bearing witness is done on behalf of others, for their sake” (Farmer, 28). However, Witnesses suggests that we can also bear witness on our own behalf, that individuals can be the presenters of their own experiences.

I was particularly struck by a section of the Witnesses to Hunger project titled “Environment,” which chronicles the way in which the witnesses interact with their local built environment. 

This notion that we can all “witness” our interactions with our local built and natural environments is useful when considering the potential for alliances not only between organizations with environmentally related goals, but also when considering ways that these organizations can connect with individuals (and those individuals with one another).

The core of this final project is a proposal for a online “Land Witness Network,” where individuals and organizations can locate points of connection with their environment on a map and share their interactions with it. The hope is that through a documentation of the interactions between individuals, organizations (especially those with food justice or environmental health goals) and their local environments, new entanglements can be formed between parties with distinct, but related goals. The most valuable part of such a forum, would be the potential for a shift from being a witness to one’s own environmental interactions, to an actor in the shaping of future interactions and the landscaping of the local community.

In the process of researching potential designs for such a site, I encountered the Environmental Witness Network , a website that is currently under construction, but ultimately will use web-based mapping to document the location of facilities with significant environmental impacts in order to foster awareness of their existence (and hopefully mobilize action) within the communities in which they are located. The SkyTruth Environmental Witness Network, appears to mainly focus on operations such as quarries, sand companies, and oil refineries. While the actual interactive interface is not yet up and running, the SkyTruth blog gives examples of some of the environmental issues the network may emphasize: oil spills, drilling, mining, etc. My own website will seek to emphasize personal experience and relationships with local surroundings, in an effort to establish a diverse narrative of our experiences with our own environments as well as mobilize future action.


Website Goals:

  1. Establish a forum where anyone is free to meditate on and share their relationship with the local built/natural environment
  2. Create a visual representation of the stories of both individuals and organizations by having submitted content linked to a map
  3. Move participants from just witnessing to thinking about ways they can act and begin to shape their local environment
  4. Thus creating the potential for lines to be drawn between organizations and the experiences shared by local communities or individuals – allowing for a visual representation of entanglement and a way of fostering new relationships between participating parties.


Theoretical Grounding:


"There are no solutions; there is only the ongoing practice of being open and alive to each meeting, each intra-action, so that we might use our ability to reason, our responsibility to help awaken, to breathe life into ever new possibilities for living justly.” (Barad, x)


The Goals of this project are in large part influenced by Barad and Humbach, who both implore us to examine the way we form relationships with one another and the ways in which we examine those relationships. By creating a virtual space, with a fairly low barrier to entry (though access to a computer is by no means an insignificant barrier to entry – something I would like to improve about this model), I have strived to create a model for a forum in which people from many different geographical and cultural backgrounds can participate fully. By creating a space for free exchange of experiences and documentation of collaborations I hope to facilitate the creation of “right-relationships” between the participating parties. Humbach defines right-relationships as “human relationships in which each (or all) seek, without abandoning themselves, to be attentive and responsive to the needs and emotions of one another, quite apart from considerations of entitlement” (Humbach, 2). This site has the potential to foster such relationships because everyone is investing something of themselves in the project. This project uses the notion of witnessing, not to document the plight of others, as Farmer uses the term, but rather to create a space to which anyone could make a meaningful contribution.

Barad adds that in the quest for justice we must recognize that “there are no solutions…only the ongoing practice of being open and alive to each meeting” (Barad, x). It seems to follow that a forum like this, which allows for dynamic interactions between participants allows for and celebrates new meetings. I have strived to propose a space that can be “remade in each meeting,” a growing web of collaboration of expanding meaning, and exponential impact (Barad, xi).


                                                                  Precedent/Pre-Existing Intra-action:


 In beginning to formulate this idea, I have decided to focus on our local area. The Philadelphia region is home to a plethora of Environmental Health organizations and Food Justice Groups. There is also a healthy presence of urban and community gardeners throughout Philly and the surrounding cities. In investigating these parties, I realized that many held similar missions, but sought to achieve their goals in distinct ways. There are also plenty of examples of neighborhood “clean-ups,” which have arisen from within the communities rather than being fueled exclusively by outside organizations. These examples of potential overlap between groups, and collaborations between individual communities and local organizations suggest that the presence of potential for the interaction this website seeks to expand.

The website would allow a space for such interactions and shared goals to be mapped and shared by witnesses in the form of thoughts, stories and photographs, in the hopes that mapping such connections could inspire future action.


A Few Examples:

West Rockland Street Community and Pennsylvania Horticultural Society


In May 2011,  several residents of West Rockland Street, in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, organized an event they named “Grow This Block!”

Grow This Block! was a day-long community project in which  community members pooled tools and planted gardens in their yards in order to add some natural beauty to the block.

An article published on the day noted that Grow This Block! encouraged community members to play an active role in shaping their living environment, by allowing them “to work on their own yards and beautify their lives. [Residents] are able to improve their living space and take pride in their homes and the community as a while.” (                        


Plants were donated by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS), an organization based in Philadelphia. The mission of the PHS is to “motivate people to improve the quality of life and create a sense of community through horticulture” (PHS). PHS sponsors many community gardening initiatives and launched the Green City Strategy in June 2003, which sought to invest in greening vacant lots and open spaces throughout Philadelphia. This is just one example of PHS support for bringing horticulture to Philadelphia’s communities.


For a video clip from Grow This Block! click this link



 The Food Trust and - Local Schools, Grocery Stores, Corner Stores


The Food Trust ( is a food justice organization in Philadelphia dedicated to “ensuring that everyone has access to affordable, nutritious food.” The organization was founded in 1992 and works with many sectors of the community to move toward its goal of providing all Philadelphians with access to healthy food.


The Food Trust is a wonderful example of an organization that is entangled with many communities and institutions within those communities.  The organization has many educational initiatives, like the Kindergarten Initiative(  in which they go into local school classrooms in hopes of teaching students and their parents about good nutrition and how food is really grown.


The organization also helps bring grocery stores to urban areas that lack access to fresh produce by providing financial funds that allow individuals to pay the price of opening new grocery stores.


One benefit of mapping the entanglement between already established organizations like The Food Trust is that it provides a visual indication of involvement with local communities that could prompt individuals and organizations to consider ways that they too could collaborate with the heavily entangled group.



Collecting Perspectives:

My research led me to many examples of interactions that involved non-profit organizations with explicit social justice and policy goals. But I wasn’t coming across many accounts of personal interactions with the land or food justice issues. I wanted to start finding active witnesses, individuals who were not only experiencing their environments, but also somehow shaping them. I reached out to several community gardens and met with some of the gardeners who are involved with them. My goal was to begin getting a sense of what it could look like to have individuals sharing images and experiences with the land they inhabit. I hoped to begin compiling a narrative of the local environment.


Last week I had the pleasure of meeting with three gardeners from the Friends Community Garden in Havertown, PA and one gardener from the Schuylkill River Park Community Garden.


What follows is a mock-up of the interactive map where individuals could upload their narratives to the website. This is followed by excerpts from those conversations and images of the community gardening experience, captured by these gardeners themselves.



Friends Community Garden   - Havertown, PA


Friends Community Garden was established by the Old Haverford Friends Meeting. It is an organic garden and just finished its second year of growing. There are 36 plots, each about 20 by 25 feet. Most gardeners live in the neighborhood around the garden, though some come from as far as West Philly.


Bonnie M. – 



Tanya G. –


Doug D. –



Schuylkill River Park Community Garden – Philadelphia, PA


Established in 1982, the SRPCG houses 70 plots range from 10’ x 10’ to 10’ x 20’. The garden is open to members of the Center City Resident Association and each gardener may hold a plot for 6 years before turning it over. The garden is extremely popular and currently has a waitlist of over 40 people hoping to get a plot. The SRPCG is an organic garden. It also has some connections with PHS, through the City Harvest program, which allows gardeners to donate their extra crop to soup kitchens and food banks.


Joan W. –




Concluding Thoughts:

While the structure of the proposed website is heavily influenced by Barad and Humbach, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the ways that Judith Butler can contribute to this project. In her second Flexner Lecture this Fall, Butler, speaking on the topic of alliances and coalition building, proposed that “what is most important is those forms of mobilization animated by the heightened awareness of the cross-sections of people at risk” (Flexner Lecture 2). If executed well, I believe a website like that I have begun to outline here, has the potential to highlight the “cross-sections.” Allowing individuals to share their experiences, without prerequisites or expectations, creates space for us to see the points of intersection, and as Barad would add, to appreciate freshly revealed patterns of diffraction.

Hopefully a project like this one, would create active witnesses, that is, individuals and organizations that are ready not only to report on what they see, but to try to shape what they see. It is often the case that as single individuals, we feel that we lack the resources to affect such change; my hope is that by literally mapping our entanglement and being able to observe common goals and regions of operation, resources can be pooled and witnesses can be mobilized.


To Bonnie, Doug, Joan, and Tanya: Thank you all again for being so welcoming and happy to talk with me. I really appreciate your time, thoughts, and contributions to this project. Thank you for sharing a few of your stories with us.




Works Cited

Barad, Karen Michelle. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke UP, 2007. Print.


Butler, Judith. "Bodies in Alliance & the Politics of the Street." Flexner Lecture. Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr. 14 Nov. 2011. Lecture.

"The Center for Hunger-Free Communities." The Center for


Hunger-Free Communities | Solutions Based on Science and the Human Experience. Web. 16 Dec. 2011. <>.


The Food Trust: Ensuring That Everyone Has Access To Affordable, Nutritious Food. Web. 10 Dec. 2011. <>.


Heller, Emilly. "Germantown: Flowers Give Neighborhood New Life." Philadelphia Neighborhoods. Temple, 28 May 2011. Web. 9 Dec. 2011. <>.


Jih, Diana. "City Harvest « PHS Online." PHS Online. Web. 10 Dec. 2011. <>.


Leiser, Burton M., and Tom Campbell. Human Rights in Philosophy and Practice. Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate, 2001. Print.


Schuylkill River Park Community Garden. Web. 12 Dec. 2011. <>.