Unearthing the Grass Roots: Organic Community Gardening in a Detroit, Michigan, Low-lncome Neighborhood
Seamans, Jennifer L.
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The situation of low-income people in urban areas of the U.S. has been a preoccupying interest of mine as an activist for the last two and a half years. During the winter of 1997, I discovered that in Detroit community gardening had been recognized by many to be particularly advantageous to marginalized people. Community gardening made sense to me for other reasons as well. My interest in it developed as I lived on two organic farms in the Netherlands and Germany during the summer prior to this research. My little experience in gardening from growing up with a rather large garden outside Ann Arbor was strengthened during that time, as I learned from experience that intentional community was cultivated in between the plants. 1t has also become important tome as I think about low-impact, sustainable living as a lifestyle choice. My experiences of the summer of 1997 were something I never could have anticipated. I loved participating in the effort, and getting my hands dirty in the process, but what seems possibly more important is that I learned more about the nuances of community organizing as well as my own capacity for working in this type of group environment. It is more plausible to me now, looking back on previous community gardening experience, that much of the community-building comes from simply working in proximity to others with whom one shares a world view. The combination of these interests, in addition to my work experience in Detroit during the winter of 1997, brought me back to Detroit and living at the Catholic Worker to complete my senior project on the effects of gardening on a low-income neighborhood. I was interested in developing a close relationship with one project as much as possible, and assessing the nature of the community organizing that went along with gardening. The research I originally had in mind was focused more on the outcomes of the gardening project for the people who participated in it. I wanted to know how getting fresh vegetables would improve their life, as well as the extent to which gardening helped alleviate the burdens of poverty. Sociologists have vastly differing views of the utility of community organizing. Rubin and Rubin look at it from the perspective of the power imbalance present between marginalized communities and governing bodies. Milofsky sees it as a force which mobilizes resources that would normally not be available to poor people. Jamison sees conflicts in this type of work, which stem from diametric collectivist and bureaucratic tendencies. If only it were as easy as snapping fingers for low-income people to gain power and influence in our democracy! In this case, even a process as intense as community organizing through gardening has seemingly little effect specific to that goal. However, it seems that other aspects of life have changed for the better. It becomes evident, as I look through my work, that one theory is inadequate in describing all of the phenomena surrounding the gardening project. There are strains of the gardening experience which are enriched by each of them.