Iris is a New York City high school student who took a college preparation course. She visited the Park Slope Food Coop as part of her course. It is one of the oldest member-owned businesses in the United States. The members work in monthly shifts to gain access to ethically sourced, affordable food and goods. The course Community Roots teaches students about the larger issues related to food and place as well as the social and political aspects of these issues.
She recalled that when Iris shared her experience with her family, “They said That is white people’s cuisine!” Iris and her family were originally from St. Vincent, a Caribbean island. They had never heard of the co-op. Through their own lived experiences, they also realized how racism and white privilege shaped the foods that people could choose from.
Callaloo is a type of amaranth that’s used in Caribbean food. (Shutterstock)
Iris was attracted to the alternative consumer model of the co-op. Iris’s membership gave her and her family access to affordable staples, familiar foods, and healthy food. Iris joined the co-op as part of her journey to become a vocal advocate for women and immigrants.
Iris completed a degree in critical Black feminist study, followed by a law degree focusing on environmental and immigration rights.
Brooklyn is growing a course.
Community Roots students are planting seeds in the Brooklyn Public School Garden. (Pieranna Pieroni), provided by the author
Iris’s Community Roots course is about linking ecology and justice. College Now is a free program for college transition that is a collaboration between the City University of New York Department of Education and the City University of New York. Jennifer, who is one of the authors of this story, mentors Pieranna. Pieranna is the other author of the story and the director of College Now.
Community Roots makes the city itself a classroom. Place-based Learning is a key component of teaching and Learning. Urban gardening is a great way to learn about food, consumer culture, and social activism while also learning about relationships and land.
Read more: How to teach kids where food comes from – get them gardening.
The food justice emphasis of Community Roots emerged from an experience of conflict between a university and a community garden. Pieranna was a member of the thriving community garden that was located on the periphery of the campus where she was working. She invited local high school students who were enrolled in College Now courses during the year to participate in unstructured gardening in the summer.
Pieranna formalized this activity into a service-learning class as student interest increased. The number of students who were interested in gardening grew. The course took a turn when gardeners and advocates for community greening opposed the college’s plan to destroy the garden in order to expand the parking lot. As sustainability issues became more prevalent in city discussions, the irony that a city college killed a community garden for a parking lot caught attention.
The garden was eventually razed, and the land adjacent to the expanded parking lot was used as a small college garden. Community Roots was denied access to the garden for several years. Lessons learned about displacement and power in relation to colonialism and gentrification histories helped reroute the course.
New York City is blessed with a vibrant network of school and community gardens. The course included other urban gardens, as well as grassroots food-related groups such as the Park Slope Food Coop. Both Pieranna and Jennifer were members.
Planting seeds for change
Raven, who was raised in Coney Island as a child, remembers reading the book The Pedagogy Of The Oppressed by Brazilian educator and theory Paulo Freire in Community Roots. Freire developed a method called problem-posing, in which teachers and students work together to teach and learn. They are interested in themselves, their relationships, and the ideas that influence them.
In one of the gardens, tomatoes, and chard are being harvested. (Pieranna Pieroni), Author supplied
Pedagogy of Oppressed made Raven reflect on her high school experience — what Freire refers to as the banking model of Learning, where the teacher deposits information in the mind of the student. Raven captioned the cartoon she made about her high school education:
“It is like the teacher opens our skulls and puts something inside …”
Community Roots explores the work of Freire, as well as other liberatory pedagogy traditions. The course focuses on the students’ lived experiences and encourages the development of Critical Consciousness.
Read more: Acting out: theatre class where students rehearse for change
Raven contrasted her high-school experience to the newer critically engaged style of Learning. She returned to Community Roots as an undergraduate program mentor, where she adeptly hired her near-peers in land-based education.
Raven led the class through a walking tour of her neighborhood to show how the Coney Island area was rebuilt after the 2012 Hurricane Sandy. The boardwalk, tourist attractions, and developers who had already set their sights on this area intensified their efforts for a neighborhood that needed investment. Local businesses, community gardens, and other amenities that were popular with the locals were lost. Long-term residents are being pushed out by new luxury towers, increased rents, and upscale businesses.
Raven, who is majoring in Sustainability and working as the school hydroponics manager, is dedicated to helping communities build resilience for all.
Teaching for transformation
Sunflower is one of the many flowers that are grown in Community Roots Gardens. (Shutterstock)
Community Roots is a class that attracts students such as Iris, Raven, and their children: immigrants, first-generation college students, and children of immigrants. Each student has a rich, deep experience of food and places that are meaningful to them, as well as their relationship to these. The Learning begins in the garden and then moves on to other themes and parts of the city. Students’ leadership abilities are strengthened when they make connections with others through critical thinking.