Gardening for Social Change: Exploring Environmental Justice in Durham Gardens

December 5, 2019

For many residents, gardening has evolved into a pursuit that involves more than creativity, dirt and sweat.

Student in the field
Team member gardening at the Briggs Community Garden (Photo: Chris Teufel)

In today’s rapidly changing neighborhoods, gardens are increasingly viewed as expressions of environmental justice, climate change and migration. How does gardening shape identity? Do gardeners see their land as expressions of creativity or history or even resistance? What happens when community gardens meant to serve poor populations end up in gentrified areas, with the families priced out of an area “improved” by that very garden? And how do gardeners see the global effect of climate change on their worlds, where some plants are becoming extinct and non-native species threaten to take over?

Last year, a Bass Connections project team used oral history, photography and other humanities research methodologies to examine environmental justice and migration in three Durham neighborhoods. To document how residents of College View, West End and Watts-Hillandale deal with issues such as climate change and gentrification, team members interviewed local garden owners about what growing plants means to them, how they experience the current environment and how they view justice. In addition, team members took photographs of the gardeners’ yards and recorded their stories and gardening experiences. 

Durham’s historically African-American neighborhoods are closer to incinerators and factories, and further from green space and parks (courtesy of Durham 150)

As a part of their Bass Connections project, students contributed material to a Humanities Action Lab exhibit on environmental justice and climate change. The exhibit follows 22 communities as they explore the roots of climate and environmental inequality. Launched in Newark, NJ, in October 2019, the exhibit features over 20 photographs, interviews, student essays, audio excerpts and two videos produced by the team members.

The team also brought to campus a Durham-specific exhibit that builds on the team’s partnership with the Pauli Murray Center for Social Justice and Human Rights as well as three community-based gardens and garden clubs: Blossom Garden Club, Year-Round Garden Club and Briggs Community Garden

Team members in the Briggs Garden
Team members visiting the Briggs Community Garden (Photos: Chris Teufel) 

“The members of Blossom have gardened in Durham for a number of years, and as a result, they have witnessed the effects of climate change firsthand,” team members wrote in their essay on the Blossom Garden Club. Students interviewed five participants of the club, including Susan Concannon, Dale Gaddis, Bebe Guill, Cavett French and Elisabeth Stagg, to investigate the evolution of the Blossom over time and learn more about its long-standing culture and identity. 

“Blossom’s current members are passionate about the environment and conservation issues. Their devotion is evident not only through their community engagement and educational activities, but also through the methods they use to care for their gardens. Many of the Blossom women use sustainable gardening practices and grow indigenous plants, which supports the native ecosystem. They garden with local wildlife, resource conservation, and the future of Durham’s landscape in mind.” –Spencer Ganus 22, Clare McKenzie 21, Matthew Sima 20 and Shom Tiwari 20

Year-round club
Team member Surafel Adere (far left) chatting with participants of the Year-Round Garden Club; club members planting flowers (courtesy of Sowers and Reapers project team)

While working on their exhibition, team members also spoke to the members of the Year-Round Garden Club. Joe Wilson, Paul Lyons, Jackie Jones, Doretha Richardson and Cynthia Davis shared their experiences with injustice, social change and gentrification and told students all about snow ice cream and persimmons, as well as taught them how to sweep the yard and talk to plants. 

“As Durham continues to become gentrified and our climate continues to warm, we look to the model of the Year-Round Garden Club; a family-based, community-centered club of faithful gardeners working together to grow and beautify their communities. They are an inspiring example of the potential for the garden to resist the negative impacts of global change on a personal scale.” –James Robinson 21, Caroline Kealoha 20, Rachel Radvany 22 and Surafel Adere 20

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