Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

A Community's Right Relationships: Urban Gardening

phenoms's picture

    The difference that Humbach makes between rights and right relationships can be teased out within the debate on food security/sovereignty. Food security, as an ideal, is the right for all people and communities to have enough culturally appropriate food. Food sovereignty builds upon this by accentuating the importance of process in food acquisition. It places importance on community food systems, non-exploitation, and health.
    The issues of food justice and food security have always been important to me. On the surface, they are merely about food: having enough, access and availability. And on the surface, these are simple problems to fix, right? To fix hunger, farmers should plant more. Grocery chains should build stores in neighborhoods that lack them. But relationships always prove to be more complicated than their surface implications.
    If the root problem behind food security (or the lack thereof) really is simply the amount of food available in the world, then GATT and the WTO would have fixed that by making cheap food available on a global scale. However, these treaties/institutions have rather deepened existing inequalities: By making available cheap food from anywhere, local food and agriculture systems are unable to compete. By valuing rights (food security) over right relationships (food sovereignty), what was hypothesized as a solution to food security, actually became one of the problems. But, as Americans are starting to relearn, food is not merely a commodity, but rather deeply representative of the human relationships on either end of the chain.
    Local Foods movements, and in particular urban agriculture is a fascinating example of the intersection (or perhaps intra-action) between the discourse of rights and that of right relationships. They frame the necessity and vitality of right relationships within the discourse of rights. The Local Foods Movement describes the imperative of communities to build their own self reliant food economy, a closed (or at least less open) loop between producers and consumers. In fact, the language of ‘local food systems’ privileges close relationships between consumers and producers.
    Although Humbach supposes that it is not “possible to produce a right relationship by following a declarative knowledge of the rules of right and wrong” (11). While I agree that the justice of rights does not automatically lead to right relationships, I think it is important to create in order to force a right onto the cultural discourse.  I think there may be a more nuanced relationship between the justice of rights and the ethics of care. The framework behind many local foods groups is reliant on small infrastructure that relies on relationships rather than rules. There has often been a fear that a focus on large-scale production will inherently prevent growers from interfacing with local neighborhoods. This is essentially the basis of our current agricultural system now. We have the national laws because the current system (excluding local establishments) cannot function on the basis of right relationships. The USDA checks our meat for us, because we do not know the farmer for Tyson. These national laws  give citizens vital rights, but they are also a poor substitute for the ethics of care we see in smaller locales.
    I’ve been thinking a lot about the current divide within the local/urban agriculture movement, largely taking shape in differing resources and race. Community gardens began in many underserved urban neighborhoods as a supplement to the weekly food budget. They were born out of necessity, and soon developed into a more holistic approach to fighting neighborhood blight. They represented a productive and cheap use of vacant lot property that required little infrastructure change. Although not exclusively, the majority of these community gardens cropped up in primarily black areas like Harlem and Detroit.
    However over the past decade, as the local foods movement has gained popularity a much wealthier, and whiter, citizen has become the face of local urban agriculture. Although both groups espouse many of the same values, there remains a palpable divide between the farmers and consumers of both. The fact remains that the wealthier operations have the backing of a non-profit - meaning they have both funds and a more transient relationship to the community. If the project fails, they aren’t stuck living in its ruins.
    This problem can be contexualized in the city of Detroit. In recent years there has been an influx of white urban farming projects in Detroit (a city that is over 80% black), which leads to “a common perception... that this is a pet project to make them look and feel socially responsible,” (Forman)
    The rights framework is not enough to transcend a population carrying centuries fraught with contentious race relations. The only way to affectively overcome a divide so wide is to focus on a right relationship approach that views our entanglement as inescapable. We are morally obligated to one another. Our actions must move beyond the bland language of legality, and maintain a dialogue of curiosity and care between two separated populations.  As Humbach importantly notes, “Rips and tears in the fabric of relationships should be taught as occasions for mending, not as occasions to dissolve what still remains” (13).
    Two summers ago I was fortunate enough to receive CPGC funding to apprentice at a non-profit urban farm in North Philadelphia. Out of the eight other farmers there, I was the only self identified person of color. The farm had two sites. The produce from one went to a co-op in Mt. Airy (a wealthy and diverse neighborhood of Philadelphia). The other farm was located at a state run homeless shelter in Germantown, and the produce went to the kitchens.  While the organization was strongly devoted to social justice, and the people comprising it were devoted, caring, open, and honest, I felt uncomfortable with the stark differences between the populations of workers and communities.
    In mid July, about half way through the summer, three young black men came onto the main farm site. They lived in the neighborhood, and had been trying to create their own plot of productive, food-giving land. They brought a video camera, hoping to record certain practices to return to at a later time. The initial meeting was a little awkward, but we showed them around, and invited them back to work and learn with us. Over the next month, the three of them would stop by at least three times a week. It was obvious that our backgrounds and resources were very different; most of the time we inhabited completely different worlds.  But we worked together, sharing tips and stories. Ours was a more formalized, institutionalized organization, not only helping to disseminate healthy food, but creating capacity building possibilities on a truly grassroots level. By the end of the summer the urban farmers and the community gardeners had succeeded in creating a network that bridged the two groups. We met each others’ families, were present to help with their first harvest, and introduced them to more institutionalized forms of government help available. Contentious feelings of legitimacy and representation fell by the wayside through continued interaction in a way that the justice of rights could never accomplish.
    Oftentimes the rights framework used in urban gardening stresses right to food, and even, in special circumstances, the right of community development through direct grassroots involvement. But you can’t mandate relationships, and those rights manifest themselves in a diversity of hierarchical and horizontal patterns.  Although historically, there has been tension between “wealthy” urban gardening and the “community” urban gardening, coexistence is possible if both groups make the effort to collaborate and foster connections. We all want the same things, and both groups bring valuable perspectives and knowledge to the table. One of the most valuable aspects of growing food, is the fact that knowledge is passed down and across people - you really can’t learn it from a book. Right relationships are inherent in this movement, because the movement is built upon a practice that values human and species interaction.
    The right relationships of urban community growing spaces extends beyond those in the community, and creates positive externalities even for those who aren’t involved. Tying community agriculture back into the right relationships found in Food Sovereignty theory is simple, because the Food Sovereignty is premised upon lived democracy. The six tenets (or goals) of food sovereignty are

focus on food for people, not profit
valuation of food providers
localization of food systems
with local control
natural stewardship
knowledge and skill building

While all  of these objectives have been enshrined in doctrine, their emphasis lies not it compliance, but with ideological respect and understanding. Human rights are right relationships by enabling cultural value shifts, not for the dictator who tacitly acquiesce to them (although this shouldn’t be minimized. And ideologically, these rights don’t work, or aren’t valuable without the intentions of crafting right relationships. But what of the tripartite relationships formed between municipal government, the larger community and activists? If there are rifts and discomforts within the smaller urban gardening network, is there hope for the formation of right relationships, especially when urban spaces fight for the right to be visible, and perform acts of legitimacy.
    Community gardens often exist in contention with the state, living a precarious month-by-month existence, surviving until the city decides to develop on the land. This precariousness usually means that community gardens are transient affairs, existing and dissolving with the seasons. However, recently, there has been a push to achieve formal recognition from the state, in order to appear without fear of government repercussion. This has led into the very beginning of a right relationship formation between the state and civil society.
    Last week I went exploring some of Philadelphia’s community gardens, hoping to get some good pictures of people-people relationships. But, in my haste, I forgot that it was winter - the season in which people get in, garden, and get out again, forgoing the typical garden lazing that occurs in the summer months. Thus my pictures show an unintended result, something I was not looking looking for, but found nonetheless. The following are a compilation of my experiences with community gardens (in Philadelphia and at Haverford), and the types of right and wrong relationships I have witnessed there.  Part of being an activist, is being active, and muddling through situations that have no clear direction. The following community gardens, were all started by activists who attempted to ameliorate connections between all community members, and then (one step further) by forging a right relationship with government (in the absence of rights).

I’ll begin chronologically, with my first community garden experience at the Hope Garden sponsored by Weaver’s Way community programs.

I believe that creating right relationships with children is easier than with adults. They haven’t yet learned to mistrust; if we’re lucky, they haven’t yet learned skepticism. Creating right relationships with children is mostly building, as opposed to the harder more arduous task of deconstructing, then creating. We played together, which is how all humans are made to learn. We are crafted so that joyous moments stay with us, and thus form the best foundation for education.

This next example through experience occurred during that same summer. Philadelphia had received a surprisingly large number of Haitian refugee after the earthquake, and one particularly  generous lady had donated a few thousand dollars to create edible gardens for some of the families. For families who couldn’t speak English, didn’t have access to transportation, and were accustomed to growing a portion of their own food, edible gardens were a very welcome addition to their temporary backyard. In the picture, my co-worker Jen and I, along with two of the Haitian boys were tilling the soil preparing it to be planted.

This snapshot in time contains both an example of a right relationship, and a more entitled hierarchical one. That scorching hot day in July, there were many American and Haitian adults scattered around the backyard - all alternatively helping and relaxing. One of the American women in charge of the project was concerned about the heat, and kept reminding the Haitian children and adults to drink water. For some reason that I failed to articulate at the time, I was embarrassed. I’m not sure if I was embarrassed for the American women who was badgering the Haitians out of sincerest concern, or for the Haitians who had survived a traumatic earthquake only to be reminded by a privileged American of the importance of hydration. Or maybe I was worried that I would get lumped into this relationship, by virtue of my nationality and privilege as condescending and domineering.  I was ashamed she kept reminding adults to perform a basic bodily function. I was surprised that, despite this coming from a good and decent place she didn’t recognize the perpetuation of power structures in her own backyard.  
The right relationship example from the same day, was (like so many powerful links forged between people) a small moment of joy in the context of tedium. We were working at transporting the topsoil from one location to another: literally shifting buckets of dirt as our arms creaked under the weight.  Adam, my friend and supervisor, asked me (through my limited working knowledge of French) to ask the Haitians if they knew any work songs they could teach us.
“Est-ce-que vous savez quelque chansons de travail?”
shit. I hadn’t spoken French since senior year of high school. this was awful.
They didn’t know any, but they understood me! And Adam knew a few American work songs which we began singing and teaching instead. The curiosity of questioning and precariousness of  vulnerability (trying to make a connection through and above the language barrier) defined our relationships rather than the dictatorial quality of  the former experience.

Next we move on to our little community garden located behind HCA 19.


Last summer i was in charge of maintaining the garden and making it an inviting place of education and food for students who wished to learn and eat. There are many aspects of that summer that I would change with hindsight. But, one part of it that I loved was the number of students who would show up to work in the garden. There is a pervasive myth in our culture, that people will avoid doing work if they can. I think this is false. I believe people who feel alienated from their work, will not find purpose or (yes, I keep returning to this concept) joy. They will procrastinate and perfect avoidance strategies. But for those of us who find work that fulfills and satisfies - we will gladly volunteer our time to complete this “work.”

So far, my examples have focused on individual to individual relationships.  The next few examples will examine more abstract relationships between non-person entities. If relationships between communities and other institutions become institutionalized, do they automatically shift from relationships to rights? Can we have and sustain both?

This is a community Garden at the corner of 57th street and Wayne Ave in Philadelphia.


It exists, juxtaposed with this

The lunch tables of Mastery Charter School. One of those “Excellence, No Excuses” charter schools.

This is an interesting private/public relationship (although charter schools operate in the nexus of private and public themselves). The spoke with a women who helps work the land, and this is a rare instance of a truly communal space. Usually community gardens are divided into many small plots allocated to individuals or families. However, for the Garden at Mastery, all people farm together, and all people share the produce. Furthermore, the partnership between the school and garden appears quite strong. Mastery has ceded land to the gardeners, in exchange for what they see as valuable education and cultivation of social capital. This particular garden is lucky, it doesn’t need to fight for legitimacy to survive. It has the powerful backing of a school with resources, allowing it the extra power of permissible visibility.

The last garden I’m sharing with you here was on the corner of 45th Street and Pulaski.

In case it’s hard to read, the sign states that “this project was developed by the community and supported by the City of Philadelphia...”

As a Political Science major, I’m often torn between the normative role of government in a citizen’s life. One thing I can state for certain, is that success needs to be achieved both through bottom-up grassroots organizing, and top-down initiatives. Without support from one or the other, the movement will remain precarious. But government, especially municipal government in which small scale can err on the side of intimacy, should support community initiatives before anything else. This is an example of a right government/civil society relationship. The government isn’t mandating community gardens, it is quietly supporting those who express their desire.

We must remember that communities are thriving organisms beating with the lifeblood of engaged citizens. They do not survive through hierarchical expressions, but through horizontal demonstrations of activity and care. Communities are maintained through the legacy of active engagement. I would just like to conclude with some final words from a mural on Germantown Avenue.

Tell me. I forget.
Show me. I remember.
Involve me. I understand.