Sowers and Reapers: Gardening in an Era of Change (2018-2019)


Gardening is often seen as an apolitical relaxation pursuit. Yet in a time when neighborhoods are rapidly changing, gardens have become a place of race and politics, where history, contention, expression, resistance and negotiation meet. At the same time, the presence of an immigrant work force—landscaping companies largely staffed by migrant Latinos—means that the country’s divided opinions over immigration are at play among the plants. There is also a hidden kind of migration in the types of plants home gardeners buy for their gardens: Home Depot, Lowe’s and other big stores import plants from Mexico, Colombia and other countries, ensuring an ecosystem shift toward non-native species.

Creating a resilient garden means paying attention to the life histories of individual species and how they interact with others in the community. But just as importantly, it means understanding why, how and to what purpose humans craft gardens. How does gardening shape identity? Do gardeners see their land as expressions of creativity or history, or even resistance? Gardens have plants, but also fences and walls. Where do gardens divide? 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 heirloom plants are fading and non-native species threaten to take over?

Project Description

This Bass Connections project seeks to bring humanities tools to the issue of environmental justice and migration. The project team will document how Durham residents in the College View, West End and Watts-Hillandale neighborhoods are engaging with issues around climate change, environmental justice and gentrification through their gardens. This work will draw on human rights approaches, oral history, gardening history, documentary photography, digital mapping and exhibit curation.

The team will also visit local community gardens, including Seeds in the Cleveland-Holloway neighborhood of Durham; Earth Seed, an African-American collective in Chapel Hill; and Transplanting Traditions, founded by Burmese refugees in Carrboro. These spaces have become contentious as debates over gentrification, refugees and immigration intensify.

The team will partner with the Humanities Action Lab (HAL), a coalition of universities, organizations and public spaces that collaborate to produce community-curated public humanities projects on urgent social issues. Students and stakeholders in each city develop local chapters of national traveling exhibits, web projects, public programs and other platforms for civic engagement. Projects travel nationally and internationally to museums, public libraries, cultural centers and other spaces in each of the communities that helped create them.

Anticipated Outcomes

Contributions to HAL’s national exhibit on environmental justice and migration; stand-alone exhibit focused on Durham for display in Durham County Main Library; material featured on HAL website

Student Opportunities

Students will conduct research directly with subjects, contribute to the public-facing materials for the HAL exhibit, participate in digital mapping, photograph gardens and subjects and help adapt and modify the research goals. Graduate students will also participate in research and oversee student work, including coordinating writing, photography and scheduling.

A doctoral student in documentary studies, cultural anthropology or environmental studies will serve as a TA in each semester.

Students will be evaluated through peer-to-peer evaluations, self-described goals, the production of public-facing materials and the ability to set and meet deadlines.

Duke undergraduates and graduate students can apply for this project team beginning on January 24. The priority deadline is February 16 at 5:00 p.m.


Fall 2018 – Summer 2019  

  • Fall 2018: History and meaning of gardens, debates around environmental justice, history of Durham, techniques of oral history; identify gardeners to interview and photograph; create digital map of selected gardens; field trips to community gardens, farmers’ markets and soup kitchens
  • Spring 2019: Continue research, begin to assemble elements for contribution to HAL exhibit that will travel (including to Duke) in 2019-20
  • Summer 2019: Two or three undergraduate team members complete the submission to HAL in the first weeks of the summer


Course credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding

Faculty/Staff Team Members

Saskia Cornes, Franklin Humanities Institute
Robin Kirk, Arts & Sciences-Cultural Anthropology*
Barbara Lau, Franklin Humanities Institute*

Community Team Members

Pauli Murray Center for Social Justice
Valerie Johnson, Bennett College
Elizabeth Shulman, Durham County Library
Tim Stallmann, Counter Cartographies/SAVAS
Mayme Webb-Bledsoe, Office of Durham & Regional Affairs

* denotes team leader


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