This research project was largely an anthropological ode to the contemporary histories of urban farming and seed saving in the Bronx. I fused my last undergraduate research project, carried out during the 2017-18 academic year, into this project that has taken a more creative, visual approach. The inspiration for this was born from the positive feedback I received on our poster for the showcase in the spring. On the poster, I tracked migration routes of communities affected by urbanization of the early 20th century with seeds and beans relative to their cultural foodways. I told the story of the contemporary uprising of urban gardening in communities of color through visuals and captions containing my research points. The food justice movement, having sprung up from burnt out lots in the 70s, mass displacement and terrible food policy, is resilient and powerful. This makes for a visually-rich as well as politically profound moment of history that I feel compelled to unearth and respectfully honor. This project helped my academic experience go full-circle—taking the typical archetypes of methodology to the street—drawing inspiration from both academics and the everyday person putting the actual labor into what is shaping the movement on the ground.
Our research so far has taken an unexpected turn, incorporating more of a conversation of seeds and climate change into the mix. A recent New York Times feature, titled Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change, by Nathaniel Rich, inspired us to touch on the irreversibility of climate change and the role of seed saving in this moment of time. In a seemingly hopeless political and environmental climate, how does seed saving/banking/engineering outside of the lab have a stake in it all, and what does that look like? We are posing this additional question to those within the movement we are conducting interviews with. This is adding some rich audio content behind the moving visuals we are capturing. Our accomplishments thus far are gathering visuals and audio to piece together creatively. The time and focus this project requires is a challenge, however this experience has shaped my time management in a transformative and self-disciplined way. We plan to pursue this film project beyond this research grant, and hopefully enter it into small short film festivals.
My mentor has helped me grow exceptionally as a dedicated researcher. Her support and encouragement has motivated me to develop my research beyond the start and end date of a grant. Her questions challenge me and push the research to incorporate narratives that are so often neglected in the larger picture. I am extremely grateful to study and research under someone as accomplished and brilliant as Dr. Denise Santiago.
Currently, we are still in production of the short film, with the working title, From Seedling to Harvest: A Transformative Model of Community Empowerment. We have worked diligently to record the growth of a radish plant, of which I will time-lapse into the storyline for its symbolism and for a nice visual effect. This aspect was inspired by the incredible documentary, Seeds: The Untold Story, directed by Taggart Siegel and Jon Betz. The process of interviewing and dissecting interviews to choose audio clips from that fit the storyline has been difficult and tedious, but fun nonetheless. I am mostly using interviews from the last undergraduate research project I completed on urban gardening in the Bronx. My interviews for that project were very engaging and raw, making this prime material for the short film. I am very conscientious about getting consent from all people involved in the making of the film and I am overwhelmed by the excitement and willingness from friends in the food movement to get involved.
Dedicating the amount of energy and time to a big creative project like this atop life responsibilities is definitely a challenge. Having to budget a creative project is also difficult, but I was able to purchase lenses for my phone camera instead of a professional camera which was definitely cost-effective. I feel successful in pursuing a film project because I have no previous experience with it, and it is coming along beautifully. I definitely plan to pursue funding further for it to develop it to my true vision. I feel that what I am creating could really have in impact in drawing people into the food justice movements of New York City, specifically the South Bronx. From this project, I am learning that taking risks in your research and stepping outside of the box is exhilarating.
The working title of this project is From Seedling to Harvest: A Transformative Model of Community Empowerment. The purpose of this project is to document the extent to which community farms (specifically in the Bronx) have saved and exchanged seeds during dire times. This project will take a creative approach toward exploring the formation and development of seed banking in disenfranchised communities from 1970s NYC-present day. The changing landscape of New York City has both threatened its biodiversity while simultaneously and unintentionally thrusting underserved residents into food sovereignty movements. Practices such as seed-saving and protecting pollinators were—and continue to be— key acts of resistance. The food sovereignty movement holds an array of intersecting stories and important narratives of those that have invested true sweat equity to the cause. I feel that the language of the food movement is often times co-opted and compartmentalized in a way that is unproductive, and visual art can be a medium for a just way of expression and repossession of community agency.
In terms of methods, I have created a production schedule, where we will be using case-study research in the Bronx to create a storyline that is organic. We have recruited friends and colleagues to be an audience to our process, offering feedback. The storyboard is set and film shooting has begun. I will be learning the basics of editing and formatting for this project. I have no previous experience with film production as a medium for my research findings, and this challenge is exciting.
What a journey this has been! My introduction to official research via the Undergrad Research Grant has really influenced my journey toward grad school and beyond. Through the hard work, triumphs and challenges of this process, I am glad to say that I have really fallen in love with research and I am currently looking for research fellowships for grad school. Being critically reflexive through this process has also steered me toward new interests and questions about related topics, such as seed saving. My current research project centers urban agriculture, gentrification and Crit Race theory. Through my research, seed saving has emerged as an extremely inspiring means of resistance and survival for small farmers in the city, belonging to networks of seed saving channels and communities. I have previously examined the cultural weight of this practice for a capstone essay last semester, and I would like to revisit it with deeper field research. This is the basis behind my ambition to re-apply for another grant for the summer with my mentor, Dr. Denise Santiago.
Our current research project has blossomed in the kitchens of small farmers, on plots of land ravaged by winter, and via email with food justice advocates that trot the globe with intentions for food revolution. This has been an extremely rewarding journey and one that I would love to continue. To see theory in practice is a mind-opening experience, connecting academia to the world in which it spectates. The community health profiles I am building are almost at completion, and I am currently gathering more historic background of how and why community farms/gardens emerged in these areas to begin with. The histories, as I am seeing it so far, mirror present-day conditions of food insecurity, land sovereignty and health disparities throughout the boroughs I am looking at. The only challenges with this project, I would say, is studying urban farms in the off-season of harvest limits the amount of community members I meet in their natural elements. This, in turn, limits the amount of voices I get to incorporate. However, I have learned so much from this project, and I plan to infuse my recent learnings into summer research on seed saving and community.
Data collection for my research project is heavily centered around harvesting season. The project examines three urban farms in different boroughs of New York. I have made a substantial amount of progress with researching context for each farm. This would include population, demographics, health profiles, and more. I have conducted three very useful interviews that I have transcribed. I am making connections to my theory with the interviews, and exploring now more than my original chosen tenet of critical race theory to examine. I could, however, improve on continuing to set up interviews, as the season is over for growing and harvesting, and most farm coordinators have their sights set on grant writing and spring planning.
From the data collected so far, I feel that I am experiencing theory in practice, making this experience as raw as ever. I am pulling more nuanced questions from my interviews, like “Does having white managers reaffirm or denounce the basic claim of critical race theory, that racism permeates every aspect of life? There is no yes or no answer for this complex question, but from what I am witnessing on these farms, it is highly situational. Looking at managerial positions through a critical lens has been very interesting, but at the opening of harvesting season of early spring, I have community members on my radar for interviewing. I feel that I need to incorporate many more stories, voices, and opinions in my research. I want my examinations to be well-rounded, displaying polyvocality in my narrative. This experience thus far has my ambitions high, and my sights set on presenting my research at a conference next year.
Our working title for this project is The Geographies of Food Justice: Urban Farming & Empowerment Through the Lens of Critical Race Theory, which will be a study of three urban farms situated in increasingly gentrifying areas. Through standard methods of data gathering and interviewing, we are compiling information and testimonies to draw conclusions about the ways in which race functions as a means of exclusion from implementation of, and participation in, the farms. This research will be significant in bringing nuance to the ways in which we view food justice and community gardening. We plan to discuss the shortcomings of “external social justice change agents” as well as the concessions communities of color have made in order to maintain funding from predominantly white institutions. My goal is to present our research at the annual Notre Dame Peace Conference in the form of a Ted-talk. We also want to develop a 5-minute film on the geographies of food access and desertification, and develop an accessible paper for publication.
I plan to achieve making concepts of critical race theory easier to understand for everybody, through examples and application of the theory to the practice of our everyday lives, as this is my over-arching rationale behind using this theory. We will be using primarily qualitative methods to examine people and the phenomena of their work. Our research looks to theorize around these experiences, giving voice to communities largely forgotten in the mainstream narrative of food justice. Although our evaluations will take quantitative data into serious considerations (health profiles of the communities, household income, etc), at the forefront of our research, we are looking to honor participants’ voices and stories using interviews. I am spending a set number of hours each week to create community profiles for each farm around health, income, demographic and scarcity of affordable markets selling fresh produce. I am also aiming to conduct at least one interview a week. I anticipate seeing first-hand how interdisciplinary the food justice movement is and should be, as well as exploring the ways to make implementation an inclusive process.