Planting Seeds

It’s one thing to talk about social justice in the classroom, quite another to actually apply it in the community, says David Wible ’18.

So when the opportunity arose to help find a location for an urban farm in the food desert of nearby Chester, Pa., he pounced.

“The idea that I could be heavily invested in an impoverished city, working for real, practical change, was the impetus,” says Wible, of Glassboro, N.J. “What better place to serve and teach than Chester?”

And what better way to learn, to effect real change for Chester, than to listen to its community partners and residents?

Wible and nine other Swarthmore students did just that for 10 weeks this summer in the Chester Community Fellowships program of the Lang Center for Civic & Social Responsibility. The students each held internships in places such as the Chester Housing Authority (CHA), Crozer Chester Medical Center, and College Access Center of Delaware County, while collaborating on the search for farm space.

The roots of that search trace to 2008, when CHA and Swarthmore students created a community garden at the Ruth L. Bennett Homes in Chester. The Urban Tree Connection recently expanded the garden into a community farm that offers youth recreation, at which Swarthmore students volunteer

Looking to replicate that success, these organizations enlisted the Chester Fellows to find and evaluate locations for another urban farm in the city. The students would bring their various academic interests to the table and get a crash course on public policy.

“It’s exploiting the students’ knowledge base and giving them new skills, which is the distinguishing aspect of the Lang Center,” says program manager Debra Kardon-Brown, the Center's assistant director for student programs.

The students used GIS-mapping technology to survey neighborhoods for all types of empty lots before local officials steered them to municipal properties to avoid land access issues. They analyzed properties’ sunlight, sloping, condition, and lot size as well as the histories, demographics, and civic resources of particular areas.

Importantly, they also met with stakeholders from all corners of the city — from the mayor’s office, grocery stores, hospitals, and churches to the police — to inform their work.  

“I became aware of how intricate the social, economic, and political landscapes are for something as simple as a vacant lot,” says Davis Logan ’17, of Richmond, Ind.

Sites near General Pulaski and Veterans Memorial parks rated highly. But what the Chester Fellows deem a moment of serendipity tipped the scales: an official from the Chester Community Improvement Project expressed interest in a community garden near East Gateway Triangle Community Center to start a gardening program for kids.

Hearing this request from the community “legitimized” the Fellows’ efforts, they say, confirming interest and need. And when they visited the Bennett farm together, the students saw the benefits of introducing children to farming.

“Working there with the kids, whether planting seedlings or digging for worms in the soil, was especially rewarding because of the unbridled joy they take in these ‘earthy’ and oftentimes very dirty activities,” says Tyler Huntington ’18 of Danville, Calif.

Wible relished the time he spent with “three sweet children, less than 10 years old all together, who had decided that harvesting tomatoes was a combination of eating, throwing, tasting, and dropping them. They were elated, and angelic.”

The Fellows presented their data and recommendation of the East Gateway Triangle location to the government officials, community partners, and Chester residents at the end of July at the Lang Center. Their presentation skills, boosted by Doug Willen of Information Technology Services, and breakdown of data dazzled their guests.

“I think the cohort did a very good job of dividing the final project to make the best use of everyone's expertise,” says Stuart Arbuckle ’17, from Medina, Ohio, who contributed the decision matrix for site analysis.

“We put something together that we couldn't have managed alone, and yet our 10-person group wasn't riveted and divided,” adds Wible. “It was a great experience in democracy.”

Their data informs a major grant request the community partners will submit to the USDA. Only time will tell whether it brings a new farm to Chester, but the students already achieved the goal of building relationships with their neighbors to the south.

“When we first began, I felt like a complete outsider to the [Chester] community, but over the course of the summer I could sense a growing familiarity with the place and people around me,” says Logan.

“Especially in community work, everyone has something valuable to bring to the table,” says Meghan Kelly ’18 of Wolcott, Conn. “And when everyone works together, magic happens.”