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Not a Chain Link or a Picket Fence: Social Justice Pedagogy in an Urban Garden Project


social justiceTara Affolter is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Education Studies at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont. She has spent the bulk of her career in high school classrooms, teaching English and theatre and working for social justice in public school systems. She is keenly interested in finding ways to build fully inclusive communities within schools, colleges, and universities.

There was a flurry of activity as I stepped into the urban garden that students from my college were helping construct at the Bronx Academy of Letters (BAL). Ben was attempting to set up boards to roll the wheelbarrow up the steps; Kenny was kicking a soccer ball with his siblings (waiting for the next load of dirt to arrive); Janet was checking the radish plants and Jacob began ushering me to the garden beds.  A tour began and the four students pointed out the raised beds, different plants, and the barrels they had acquired and sawed in half to use as planters.  Their stories bounced off of each other, overlapping into an excited and slightly more adult version of “show and tell.”         
I was just about to praise the work when one of the students asked,  “Has anyone talked to you about the fence?” This was soon followed by a barrage of things that needed to be discussed during my brief check-in at the garden.  “The cucumber miracle,” “the strawberry compote demonstration,” and various tensions between four intensely dedicated and equity minded young people approaching the work with overlapping, but sometime divergent lenses.  In the exchanges that followed I glimpsed the complexity and challenge these students had truly undertaken in building a garden at an urban middle school.

"Environmental justice is seeing the environment as this piece of a very large puzzle in establishing equality and equity…but it is the glue that ties in everything. It establishes health and it establishes core human needs that will help anyone pursue whatever empowerment or whatever betterment they need to beyond the physical needs. But we first need the environment…the air we breathe, the food we eat, in order to function as human beings. Once we are at that level we have what we need humanly in order to pursue what we need socially."
Kenneth Williams, Middlebury College
student and founding member of the BAL garden

Building a sustainable urban school garden  (which had been initiated by a few of the dedicated teachers at the school) and creating meaningful environmental educational programming was certainly an important goal, but the project was far more than that. These students had committed to approaching all of the work by centering equity and utilizing social justice pedagogy and practices in all lessons. Each of the founding members had made connections to the intersections between environmentalism and issues of race, class, and poverty. There was an eagerness to do more than ponder these connections but instead enact environmental justice at a local and personal level.  In the following pages, using journal entries and interviews with the students, I seek to chronicle and analyze social justice pedagogy that took place in this garden project.

Burning hot
releasing it’s rage
the sun bores down
on the garden and us

Growing plants
stand tall and proud
under the sun
cloud passes cloud

The biggest gift to us all
A garden to share
Baring fruits and growth
friends and family create
a wall of connections.

Destiny, Grade, 6
Bronx Academy of Letters

Participants and Community
The four teachers featured in the study were all rising seniors at Middlebury College when they helped found the garden.  With backgrounds in environmental studies, education, economics, geography, sociology, and political science the four students attempted to bring multiple perspectives to address this absence in their studies. This, coupled with a deep need to connect college life to home, led them to secure grants that would allow them to physically and monetarily support of the garden project.


Mr. Williams
Kenneth (Kenny) Williams is an Afro Caribbean male who identifies strongly as a New Yorker from the Bronx. Kenny attended The Beacon School, a New York City public high school located on 61st and West End Avenue.  Of all the teachers in the program, Kenny identified the most with the students in the garden program. The following excerpt from Kenny’s journal demonstrates the level of commitment and connection he felt in this project along with his reasoning for pursuing the project. He wrote,

"Coming from three years at Middlebury College in a community very demographically different from the community surrounding BAL, some of us had concerns about what we represented and how that translated to our interactions with the school.  Coming from the Bronx, I finally felt the potential connections I could make between college life and life back home.  For a long time at Middlebury College, I had difficulties discovering what I could bring back to my community – the sole reason I pursued higher learning – from this institution.  The parts of the Bronx that I know look, feel, smell, and sound completely different than the Middlebury College community that I have lived in for the past 3 years. It revitalized my academic experience to observe to directly make a connection between two places I once saw as very different. I grew up in a similar community that now surrounds the garden – a similar demographic, a similar community structure and interaction with the community. The students we worked with during this summer reminded me of friends that I’ve had while growing up in New York."

For Kenny taking on this project finally allowed him to bridge a gap between Middlebury and his home.  He frequently spoke of “empowerment” and providing students with the tools they would need to critically analyze their world and impact their community.

Ms. Rodrigues
Janet Rodrigues is a multi-racial woman who identifies strongly with her Mozambique heritage. She also stresses that she is a New Yorker.  Janet attended The Beacon School with Kenny. As to her identity in the garden she felt, “the students saw me as a woman of color, but I think being a woman was probably the most important part of that to them.” 

As the only woman in the program and the person who happened to have the least amount of gardening or environmental studies experiences, Janet felt isolated at times and yet adamant that her voice be heard in terms of not creating a top down structure in the garden. She stated,

"I guess was trying to honor the fact that not everyone needs to have these values and not everyone needs to have the attitude about the right things to eat—we shouldn’t project these ideas onto the students. Yet despite the tensions and questions that emerged for Janet around the garden, her passion for the project was quite clear.  For her, the garden provided a way to access some of the rich resources offered at Middlebury College and share those with the BAL students."

Mr. Udell
Jacob Udell is a white male. He stated he, “chooses to identify as Jewish because of the way I dress.”  (Jacob wears a kippah, as part of his faith tradition.)   Jacob is drawn to the ties between Judaism and the growing food justice movement. He attended Heschel School, a private Jewish day school located on 6oth and West End Avenue in New York City.            

Only a minute walk away – “up the hill,” is The Beacon School where Kenny Janet attended. Yet despite the seemingly aligned social justice vision of both schools, and despite attending high school within the same block, there was limited interaction between the students at the two schools.  Kenny and Janet did not meet Jacob until they arrived at Middlebury College. Heschel students only knew of Beacon existed because Beacon’s women’s basketball practiced in Heschel’s gym.

Heschel athletic teams traveled great distances to play other private Jewish schools, but never played against Beacon, just a half a block away.  Depending on whether one talks to Kenny or Jacob, both of who were on the basketball teams at their respective schools, the fairness of the match up between the teams is in question. And while such jesting is in fun, it also points to the ways that we divide students based on perceived differences and deny them opportunities to connect in even the most basic ways. 

One obvious reason for this divide was, as Kenny pointed out, “in New York, if you are in a different building you are in a different world.”  However, race, class, and, cultural divisions between the public and private schools also fed this distance.  In building a garden together Kenny, Janet, and Jacob were also seeking to deconstruct the various cultural bubbles that divide people in urban communities.

Mr. Blackshear
Ben Blackshear was the only member of the teaching team that was not a New Yorker.  Ben is a white male who attended private school in Florida. Having grown up in a rural setting in the south required him to negotiate a multitude of differences during the summer project. For Ben, this was his first time living in a city and he discovered early on that the urban/rural divide he felt expanded to include a “race and class divide.” Ultimately, Ben saw the garden as the common bond that would allow all the participants to connect beyond this divide.  He stated, “the great thing about a garden, once you plant something it will continue to grow whether you are still wondering if that was the right decision or not.” He stated, “I think part of this work was a desire to explore that and whether I thought that my love of farming could be used to bring equality and justice to marginalized people or was in danger of becoming this elitist thing.”

The Students

Most of the BAL students who participated in the garden during the summer lived in the subsidized housing across the street.  Their ages ranged from 10 to 12. All the students came from an African, African American, Afro Caribbean, Latin American, or Latin Caribbean background.             

The Mott Haven neighborhood of the South Bronx, where BAL is located, is a community that constitutes one of the poorest congressional districts in the U.S. The area is chronically under-served, with over half of the population below the poverty line and a plethora of health and nutritional issues.  With only are 12 grocery stores in all of the South Bronx serving 88,000 people, (a sharp contrast to the 35 grocery stores on the Upper West Side for 60,000 people) the neighborhood is a  ‘food desert’. (Zelkha, 2011). According to Winne (2008), food deserts are “…places with too few choices of healthy and affordable food, and are oversaturated with unhealthy food outlets …” (p. xviii-xix).

Recognizing the enormity of the problem, the dedicated faculty and students at BAL committed themselves to a vision of establishing health and environmental education opportunities for their community. They procured a small grant to help facilitate the creation of a vegetable garden and begin a nutrition program. Kenny, Jacob, Janet, and Ben worked to attain more funding through grants, joined forces with BAL and the garden began to grow from an idea to a reality.

Show don’t Tell: The struggle against top down knowledge

All of the teachers in the garden were very concerned about being outsiders and promoting a particular brand of environmental elitism. Thus, they approached each lesson with a critical lens and spent time reflecting on what they were doing and why. The need for this critical focus was brought into sharp relief much earlier in the project when the teachers observed a lesson and cooking demonstration from a local chef.  In the following journal excerpt Jacob explains how the lesson served as a cautionary tale for the teachers as they moved into the summer phase of the garden.

"One of the teachers had invited a chef from the growing network of urban garden and farmers markets in the city to come do a cooking demonstration for the students. It seemed like a perfect segue into the summer’s project and a fun activity to connect over. As soon as the chef started her demonstration, however, it was clear to me (and, given the looks I received from Janet and Ben from across the room, to them as well) just how problematic the whole thing was. Each of us had been trained, to different extents, in critical race theory and social justice education, and it was as if we were watching one of the examples of dominance in an assigned article. The chef, who was cooking a strawberry compote and preparing a summer salad, constantly belabored the superiority of agave nectar over refined sugar, of how great spinach tastes ‘If you just give it a shot!’, and the necessity of Dijon mustard in any respectable salad dressing."

"What happened a little bit later in the demonstration, however, was what truly stood out to me about the day.
As the chef and her assistants were asking questions about gardening, vegetables, or sustainable systems, the students knew every answer. They knew what part of the plant spinach was, they knew what composting meant, and they knew the basics of how to care for a crop. On the one hand, their sharp responses were a testament to the students’ talent as well as the dedication and love of their teachers.  But on the other hand, I couldn’t help but wonder: how much of the demonstration actually had to do with the empowerment of these students?  More than anything, the demonstration felt self-congratulatory and was symptomatic of the ways in which teaching about food access and the urban environment can serve to simply reproduce the same hierarchies they attempt to alleviate. These students knew exponentially more about the process of growing food than I had as a 6th grader, yet what good was it for other than to fire back answers at the next chef who comes into to cook for the class? "

"In some ways, this was the exactly the problem that our team and the teachers from Bronx Letters were trying to address; we hoped that the garden would offer a space for students to act upon the knowledge base they already had, thereby deepening it.  But what if our summer program became simply a five-week version of the strawberry compote demonstration, yet another place for the students to be introduced to an experience that someone from outside their world had decided was important for them?"

Jacob’s insights here bring up a myriad of issues crucial to examine when enacting social justice pedagogy. In this example, students were asked to attend to small discrete pieces of knowledge rather than making larger connections to inequity and systems of power.   Freire (2000) clearly spells out the function of detaching such memorization from larger critical reflection.   He asserts, "The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world."

An example of resisting the “banking approach” to education came in what was first described to me as the “cucumber miracle.” The cucumbers in the garden were struggling to thrive.  The students and teachers had tried different soil, different watering regimes and, after consulting a local expert, were transferring all the plants from pots to various plant beds. This was a tedious task involving carefully separating the roots of the plants. The four teachers seemed to have differing approaches to this task and some were very strict and exacting about how the process was done.  Here, Janet explains her contrasting approach,

"Once I showed them I let them how to transplant the roots, which was pretty tricky, I just stepped away and let them do it in the way that they interpreted without me correcting them or monitoring too closely. It turned out that side of the bed where my students put their plants ended up growing while the other side, the one my colleagues more closely monitored, ended up dying or not growing that well. Just the simple fact that they survived was almost a feeling an affirmation for me.  We don’t have to be in complete control of these students. We can be honest about not knowing and we can just work with them and make mistakes …"

In a time when teachers become more pushed to prep for tests instead of teach and student learning is narrowly represented by a test score, Janet’s musings on making mistakes and learning from students seem even more powerful.  Given that she herself was no master gardener, she stepped aside and let the students learn, thereby transforming positions of power and privilege in the interaction and allowing the teacher to learn in "dialogue with the students,” (Freire, 2000)

The Garden: A Call to Action

"I guess you could see the garden as a human body as long as we felt good about the health of the garden; we could branch out into understanding the health of the community. The garden, whatever problems would happen, let’s say rats would come in or dead birds would fall into the garden or we have some infestation would happen, it would signal to us—its not, cause we know we are putting enough energy in—so we were figuring out what other factors were contributing to it. So it was that mutual relationship between understanding the community and what we are doing here."
Kenny Williams

One of the major goals of this project was to help students critically think and analyze the world around them. In Kenny’s words, we see how the garden can act as a catalyst to a larger understanding of the “mutual relationship” between the community and the garden.   To that end, one particular moment in the garden’s story stands out.  Students noticed trash had been blowing into the garden from the nearby grocery store. Furthermore, rats from the store’s dumpsters were coming to the garden and eating the produce in it.  Given that tending the garden and harvesting the plants was one of the tangible results of this work, the presence of the garbage and rats was very troubling.  In response, there was a discussion on ways to address the problem, a brainstorming session on possible solutions and the students from BAL wrote letters to the grocery store outlining their concerns and suggesting possible solutions to this dilemma. When the students felt like the letters were not being taken seriously they drew up a petition and were gathering community signatures urging the grocery store to address the problem. Near the end of the Middlebury teachers’ time at the garden the students had scheduled an appointment with the manager to talk to him about the issues.  For Kenny this marked a significant moment of autonomy for the students.  He stated, “The kids were going to talk to the manager, they knew it was the end of our time there, but they were still going to do it.  I mean, they were scared saying, ‘I have never sat down and talked to an adult like this,’ but the were ready and they were going to do it.”

The title of this piece and the introduction both refer to “the fence” issue that challenged the bonds between all of the teachers (Middlebury and BAL) involved in the garden. Some of the teachers from BAL wanted a fence around the garden. This was not because the teachers were provincial or controlling, (in fact it was their commitment to a new vision of the courtyard space that made the garden possible), rather they wanted to keep the garden as its own space, marked as somewhat sacred, as if by stepping into the confines of the garden you were stepping into a more peaceful world. The BAL teachers also had pragmatic reasons for wanting a fence; they wanted to be able to have a clearly defined learning space in which to focus the students’ attention when lessons were conducted there.  And while the Middlebury teachers understood this urge to cordon off the space, they were deeply concerned the message that sent about how the garden related to the larger community and the sense of inclusion.  The solution they arrived at was one that honored both ideas while creating something new. They joined a few of the beds in the front of the garden to resemble a wall. In doing so they invited interaction rather than protection because tomatoes and peppers grew from these plant beds thus showing that the garden was present and thriving and also a part of the school that needed to be honored.

Perhaps the solution for the fence is the best symbol for the hope and sustainability that such a project can produce. To truly embody social justice pedagogy one must incorporate the multiple stories and perspectives of the people within the learning community and deal with the challenges and needs named by that community. In the end, Destiny’s poem, quoted in at the start of this piece, guides what can be if one undertakes equity and social justice in order to expand how we define and delineate who is “in and “out” of our community. “The biggest gift of all/ a garden to share/…Baring fruits and growth/ friends and family create a wall of connections.”  The garden represents one small “wall of connection” between students, teachers, and parents from different backgrounds and communities. This example of communities joining around a vision of environmental justice allows us to get a step closer to, in Kenny’s words, “…having what we need humanly in order to pursue what we need socially.”
Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum. (Original work published 1970)

Winne, M. (2008). Closing the food gap resetting the table in the land of plenty. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Zelkha, C. (2011, August 2). So, what‚ is the new jewish food movement? A movement for justice. Pursue - action for a just world. Retrieved November 21, 2011, from

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