It Takes a Village to Raise a Garden

Written by Gabrielle McNamara
Fall 2016

Starting from the bottom up is difficult for anything, but it’s especially difficult when there is no obvious trajectory. You have to make your own path as you attempt to follow the footsteps of others, trying to learn from others’ mistakes and instead learning from your own. Unfamiliar territory plagued my whole journey of creating a proposal for the garden, and although I began apprehensively, I pushed forward confidently in the end.

At the very beginning of this semester, I decided to take on a project I knew nothing about. I thought it would help me get some experience in the workings of local government. The project was to create a proposal for a new community garden in North Berkeley, a collaboration with UC Berkeley via Professor Altieri and the City of Berkeley via the office of councilmember – and now mayor elect – Jesse Arreguin. My job was to assess the need and want for a garden in the community. I originally thought I would just do a simple survey of the community and maybe a public forum for community discussion. I didn’t realize how much research would actually go into it, such as surveying, comparing grocery stores, evaluating income disparities, interviewing other community gardens, and more.

In some ways, I feel that I was starting as a freshman again. I was in unfamiliar territory doing unfamiliar things. You’d think it’d be easier to adjust every time, but alas, this was yet another one of life’s challenges. I learned quickly that I couldn’t apply all the knowledge I had gained from school into this project. I also couldn’t gain the necessary real-world skills for this project on my own. I was extremely grateful to have great mentors and a great team along the way as I genuinely couldn’t have done this project without them. Never before had I seen the extent of resources and hard work of the campus community, especially the ESPM departments.

While I was working on my project, I was going through my own emotional turmoil. I frequently became discouraged for many different reasons. I visited a dark place where I was certain that this project wouldn’t work. Part of the issue was that I was holding this project as a representative of my future efforts out there in the “real world.” If this project failed, were my dreams of helping communities really viable? What real difference could I make in the future of food systems if I couldn’t even implement a simple community garden? I couldn’t convince myself that starting a community garden would be a challenge for anyone. Coming out of this, I have gained a lot of respect for the people who run community gardens; they must’ve felt more heavily about the obstacles they faced over years compared to my one semester.

A realization I had really pushed me out of the dark place. What didn’t sink in until near the end of my project was how unique it is. This isn’t just a community garden I was working on. This is a collaboration between a public university and a local government for mutual benefit. The goal was to provide free classes to community members and teach them how to grow their own organic foods. Most importantly, the ultimate goal was to have a successful standard for other future school-city collaborations on urban gardens throughout the bay, especially in food insecure areas. This ultimate goal motivated me and refocused my efforts towards pushing this garden. It’s amazing how looking beyond the immediate context can give something so much more meaning.

And to my surprise, the immediate context was not so unimportant. I learned how looks can be deceiving when finding out how many low income residents there actually were in this seemingly wealthy white neighborhood. This was increasing motive that this garden could achieve a very meaningful immediate goal: to unite a community divided by income disparities. Although this is an idealized goal, I have learned that some ideals are worth reaching, as long as you remember the real possibility that it might not turn out like you expected.

While I was coming out of the dark place I had visited, when I was surveying the community in person,I caught a glimpse of the community and my future outside of the college campus. A real community is dedicated to improving their community and following through. I have been really disillusioned by berkeley’s overworking student culture that focuses strongly on networking but never solidifying their connections with others. Students do what needs to be done, not beyond, and I worry that many in Berkeley are not wholeheartedly dedicated to anything. I am glad to see that it can be different for my future.

Looking back, I am grateful that I chose to take on this challenging project. I have not only learned so much from it, but it is something that, with enough effort, will remain in place well beyond my years here in Berkeley.

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