School Gardens and Social Change

Earlier this spring when I was doing outreach for the EATinG program, I found myself annoyed and disappointed with the language used to encourage students to volunteer.  In each classroom I visited, the main motivation used was the fact that volunteering can be used as a resume booster and a way to put you above others in the competitive world of college and job applications.  It seems as though it isn’t enough to say you can help your community, and as a result volunteering becomes an act only to propel oneself onto something better, rather than an act to better one’s community and environment.

On one hand I wonder, is it so bad to do a good thing for personal gain?  After all, creating a stronger, healthier community does have positive affects on the individual, and perhaps one will go on to enjoy volunteering for reasons other than resume building.  On the other hand I wonder, what it is that creates a society that so often views acts done without the motivation of personal gain as unusual or as something to be put off for when we have more time, which we never seem to have.

As I was growing up, my parents took my brother and I to nursing homes to pass out Christmas presents, involved us in “Green Up Day” every spring, and enrolled us in a school with classes that emphasized community service.  I learned through doing that interacting with my community in a positive way is fun, and a desire to help grew in me because of that.  Now I want to teach my students the importance of serving one’s community and environment, and the value of giving without the expectation of receiving.

On Monday I held a discussion with my student gardeners called “Charity versus Change,” a workshop from the Food Project’s Growing Together, by Greg Gale.  I wrote the words “charity” and “social change” on the blackboard and asked the students to call out words that come to mind for each category.  They had no problem with charity, shouting out things like helping, donating, sharing and giving.  When we switched to social change, they fell silent, with one girl throwing out the word donating again.  I helped them along by explaining how charity is an act done by a person of greater wealth for a person of lesser wealth, and is often a singular event that must be repeated in order to have a lasting effect, whereas social change is altering policies and laws in order to create a community that operates on equality, inclusion, and diversity.  It’s like the saying “give a person a fish and he/she will eat for one day, teach a person to fish and he/she will eat forever.”  Giving a fish is charity, and teaching to fish is change.

I knew this could be a difficult workshop for them—one girl is going into eighth grade while the other four are going into seventh, and I didn’t know what kind of community service experience they have had—but I wanted to challenge them to think about and understand the broad affects of this school garden and their work in it.  Since the garden started in 2009, vandalism at Hunter Elementary has sharply dropped.  Last summer there was only one instance of suspected vandalism, which turned out to be kids catching ladybugs in the garden late at night, and this summer there has been none.  As a result, the sense of community pride has soared.  Everyday passersby stop to compliment the garden, ask what’s growing, or just say hello, and our Thursday farm stand had people lining up before we opened for business this week.  Most importantly, though, this school garden has increased access to local, fresh food while teaching students the values and skills of organic growing, selling produce, and making community connections.

After we defined charity and social change, I asked each student write down their talents and passions and then identify ways they could use these things to create positive change.  As we went around the circle, the girls talked about using the internet to connect with others; drawing flyers to post around neighborhoods to create awareness about an event or issue; writing speeches, stories, or articles; teaching others how to rock climb and learn to interact with the environment in new ways, thus increasing an appreciation for the natural world.

We ended the discussion with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Everybody can be great.  Because everybody can serve.  You don’t have to have a college degree to serve.  You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve.  You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve.  You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve.  You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve.  You only need a heart full of grace.  A soul generated by love.”

I told the students, “This garden is an incredible thing to have in the community, and you are making it grow.  You could be doing anything this summer, and maybe this is just a way for you to make some money, but despite the reason you chose to be a student gardener, the fact that you are working here is making a difference, and you can feel great about that.”

Maybe they will go on to volunteer later in the summer, after their four weeks of work are up.  Maybe they won’t.  But at least they have heard it from me: their work matters, the food they grow and eat and sell matters, and this small piece of land in Fairbanks has transformed from an unused lot to a place of learning and growing because of them and all the teachers, community members, and Calypso farmers who support it.

Opening Up

I have been thinking more about patriotism.  After my last blog post, my cousin Amy asked me “what if you could never care about what a single person thought about you or your country again?”  I immediately thought I could love more freely, more openly.  It is such a simple answer, yet my mind still swirls with the enormous ideas of citizenship, country, love, and identity.

The subject of patriotism is a complicated one for me.  It seems  that to be a patriot one must close part of oneself off to the people and land that stretches out past the borders and thus attain an attitude that one’s own country is the supreme power.  This mindset requires defence and offence, but it has little use for neutrality or a deep questioning of actions.  While exploring the subject of patriotism in her essay “Jabberwocky”, Barbara Kingsolver criticizes the Smithsonian for cancelling an exhibit on the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and placing emotions over analysis.  “I’m offended by the presumption that my honor as a citizen will crumple unless I’m protected from the knowledge of my country’s mistakes,” Kingsolver writes.  She goes on to ask, “What kind of love is patriotism if it evaporates in the face of uncomfortable truths?  What kind of honor sits quietly by while a nation’s conscience flies south for a long, long winter?”  This question challenges the blindness that I often associate with patriotism, at least the form of it that has risen in the US since 9/11 and the fear tactics employed by the Bush administration.  Given the choice between a sweet dream and a hard truth, however, I’ll take the truth.

According to the Collins New Zealand English Dictionary, the definition of patriot is “one that loves his country and maintains its interests,” and patriotism is “inspired by love of one’s country.”  How can love maintain wars?  How can I hold the love I have for my home next to the violence that the US commits on the environment, in Iraq and Afghanistan?

My friend Sam once described to me how he learned to let go of something without losing the parts of it he cherished.  Holding a penny in a closed fist, he then turned the back of his hand toward the ground and, stretching his fingers out, revealed the penny in his open palm.  I understood then that it is not about clasping to love in order to defend it, but rather it is learning to hold it freely so it can be shared.  By letting go I risk the chance of losing, but I cannot let that deter me because I know the tremendous possibility of growth appears to the things and people who are not constrained.

What is patriotism but a way to express love?  There are many things about Karamea that remind me of the North Country: chopping wood, cows in pasture, the community that working the land fosters.  These things make me feel close to home even though I’m far away, and I’ve found that what matters most are not the borders I stand behind, but  what I love and how I express that love.

At the end of her essay, Kingsolver concludes, “A country can be flawed as a marriage or a family or a person is flawed, but ‘Love it or Leave it’ is a coward’s slogan.  There’s more honor in ‘Love it and get it right.’  Love it. Love it.  Love it and never shut up.”  So I will love the US and the world, and hold that love in an open palm.  I will continue to look further than immediate presumptions (including mine) and extend peace to all I interact with.  It may not always be easy, but I do not imagine that it is easy for the seed to spring its first stem through the soil.  When it does, though, the sun is waiting, already extending its warmth to the first tiny leaves.