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


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

Team Outcomes to Date

Project team website

This Team in the News

Updates from Environmental Justic Bass Connections Teams

Bass Connections Class Based at the DHRC Looks at Community Gardens for Environmentally Sustainable Solutions

Farming as Experiential Learning: An Interview with Saskia Cornes

Looking at Durham Community Gardens for Environmentally Sustainable Solutions

Garden planted in bathtub.

Team Leaders

  • Robin Kirk, Arts & Sciences-Cultural Anthropology
  • Barbara Lau, Franklin Humanities Institute

/graduate Team Members

  • Giulia Ricco, Romance Studies-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Surafel Adere, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Rand Alotaibi, Earth & Ocean Sciences (BS)
  • Sharmi Amin, Environmental Sci/Policy (AB)
  • Grace Chun
  • Alyssa Cleveland, Environmental Sci/Policy (AB)
  • James Daubert, Computer Science (AB)
  • Jordan Dozier, Environmental Sci/Policy (AB)
  • Spencer Ganus
  • Will Graham, Environmental Sci/Policy (AB)
  • Emma Herold, Biology (BS)
  • Caroline Kealoha, History (AB)
  • Clare McKenzie, Environmental Sci/Policy (AB)
  • Elena McNiece, Environmental Sci/Policy (AB)
  • James Robinson, Environmental Sci/Policy (AB)
  • Matthew Sima, Biology (BS), Environmental Sci/Policy (AB2)
  • Daniel Song, Computer Science (BS)
  • Christopher Teufel, Biology (BS)
  • Shom Tiwari, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Sierra Winters, Cultural Anthropology (AB)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Saskia Cornes, Franklin Humanities Institute
  • Mayme Webb-Bledsoe, Office of Durham & Regional Affairs

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Pauli Murray Center for Social Justice
  • Valerie Johnson, Bennett College
  • Elizabeth Shulman, Durham County Library
  • Tim Stallmann, Counter Cartographies/SAVAS