The UMBC New Roots project began in August 2014 when I was serving as an AmeriCorps volunteer at the International Rescue Committee (IRC). At the time, I was working with refugees in Baltimore, helping them learn about and gain access to improved nutrition and gardening through the IRC’s New Roots program. I had been struck by how powerful this program was—not just in terms of enabling improved food security and nutrition, but in terms of mental health and cultural reconnection. The program was popular amongst IRC clients and, unsurprisingly, we didn’t have nearly enough land to satisfy the demand. Many of these hopeful gardeners were part of the large population of refugees residing in Catonsville/Arbutus, the area where I was raised and continue to live in and attend school. This population, due to its distance from the Baltimore office, was underserved—especially in terms of gardening space. Thus the hunt for land began. I called and met with numerous churches, community centers, and apartment complexes. Despite my efforts, I was unable to secure any land. It was at this time that I approached Professor Jill Wrigley about the idea of a refugee garden on the UMBC campus. Soon, the general land hunt became an advocacy project to secure approval of the use of UMBC land.
After having worked on this project for months, and in anticipation of her Spring INDS seminar, Professor Wrigley offered this project to be one of several projects to be worked on in her course. At the time, the UMBC New Roots project was awaiting tentative approval from administration. Although I had already become exhausted and frustrated with the bureaucratic obstacles, I was optimistic that we would secure approval in the beginning weeks of the course and that the project would soon become something that students could—quite literally— dig into.
Unfortunately, the bureaucratic woes only heightened as the project became a confusing conundrum of: “who grants approval?” It became painfully clear to us that UMBC does not have any sort of process established for the approval of projects or the approval of campus land use. In addition, the lack of administrative transparency that we faced often left us confused and enervated. I was leading a group of students on this project and became increasingly frustrated that I was unable to offer them enriching and engaging tasks to work on. The biggest frustration occurred when we were granted approval by an administrator and legal counsel only to be told over a month later that they did not have the proper authority to grant approval. Was this process miserably frustrating? Yes, but at the same time, I have gained such incredibly valuable experience. Throughout this process I was able to gain an understanding of how the bureaucratic structure of a state institution functions—an understanding that I can extrapolate from and apply to a variety of bureaucratic institutions in our society. Additionally, in advocating for this project’s approval, I have had the pleasure of connecting with a plethora of wonderful faculty, staff, and students at this university that I otherwise would not have met. I do not regret the time I have spent working on this project because the insight, knowledge, and skills I have gained are things that will prove useful in the social action work I hope to do in the future. I also hope that all I have learned can be used by other students and faculty to advance their own projects.
In terms of advice for students who may work on this project in the future, I would say that it is very important to be both patient and self-motivated. Even if this project had received approval early on, I think the nature of the work warrants these skills. Communication between the students working on this project and the IRC staff and non-English-speaking refugee clients would have been challenging and time-consuming. Additionally, if the garden had been constructed this semester, students would have met the same delays and frustrations that the Food Forest group did. And most importantly: students must constantly remind themselves as to why they are working on this project. This project has such obvious and morally just goals, but it may be easy to lose the passion and intrinsic motivation when you are advocating on behalf of a population you never see. Perhaps engaging more with this community will be important for future work.
My conception of “Food Justice” has only become more beautifully complex as a result of this course. In witnessing all the struggles and triumphs of the various groups in this class, I have begun to realize that food justice means something different in every context. The projects in this class were diverse and allowed me to consider food justice in context of the natural environment, in the context of disenfranchised communities, and in the context of the economic market, to name a few. If anything, I have gained a richer understanding of the term “Food Justice” that will help me in advocating for its acquisition in the future.