Radically hopeful cooperation in community food-growing

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In March-April 2022 the course on ‘Visual Storytelling about Community Food-Growing’ held its third and final instalment. Six participants of the cohort made engaging video stories; many more exchanged their experiences in the discussions.  This blog gives an overview of the insights gained, before introducing each story. 

The spring 2022 video stories had resonances with many from the first two cohorts of the course, namely: During the Covid-19 pandemic, people were seeking ways to overcome social isolation in ways that avoid the virus.  When learning about nearby community gardens, people had various ambivalent responses – hopeful, but also anxious about finding a congenial, safe place there.  Garden organizers made newcomers feel welcome at doing whatever activities suited them, be they solo or group tasks.  Some parents sought social activities for their children and then they became regular volunteer gardeners. Some people organized new gardens, attracting numerous volunteers.  (See Second Insights page about the autumn 2021 films.)

Across diverse forms and origins, community food-growing has created spaces for sharing skills, anxieties, hopes and wider experiences.  Such activity has elicited generous, reciprocal and empathetic relationships, where people get to know each other better.  As well as the intrinsic enjoyment, participants gain satisfaction that the food has socially beneficial uses by fellow volunteers, neighbours, community cafés and/or food banks. Participants value the contribution to environmentally sustainable food production, as a response to the climate crisis and as a model for wider replication. 

Similar patterns appear in the spring 2022 videos, as displayed on the Vimeo Showcase (page 2).  Moreover, these videos highlight group processes that generate enthusiasm, combine diverse gardening skills, share the skills, stimulate new friendships and so attract more participants. Staff brought social skills that facilitated those group processes. From an initial impulse to overcome social isolation, a community-building process has stimulated a greater social involvement and collective ambition through the initiatives.  They have been prefiguring a creative societal cooperation, perhaps even an alternative agri-food system, as a form of ‘radical hopefulness’.  Here are brief introductions to the video stories:

Wash House Garden, Glasgow [film by Jac Reichel]: This is both a market garden and community garden. It grows fruit and vegetables to sell in a veg box, sent to about 35 households a week, while sending any surplus to grocers and restaurants. Although it is in an urban setting, ‘You can really be in a magical place with nature. But I really like being with people. I think there’s something really meaningful about doing it as a group of volunteers and staff’, says a volunteer.

Allens Cross Community Garden, Northfield, Birmingham [film by Anna O’Brien]: This garden emerged from the local community association. A parents’ group sought to involve their children in gardening; then parents started to enjoy it and returned regularly. As one volunteer emphasises, a staff member generates enthusiasm: ‘I like it because Jackie just gives you a job: just get on with it. And it’s actually fun because it’s relaxing.’  Volunteers keep coming back and make new friends.  An arts project has been installing items relevant to the garden; this encourages adults and children alike to engage with creativity and play.

Ashford Clumps Allotments, within Talking Tree‘s Community Allotment and Orchard scheme, on a site allocated by Spelthorne Council [film by Emma Rommer, ‘Nature & Community’]: At a Climate Emergency Centre, the café advertised an available allotment.  It was turned into a community garden growing fruit and veg to supply the café and other users.  In the film, the storyteller interviews fellow volunteers, who say about the common garden there: Gardening is a way to share skills, to work with generous like-minded people, to improve our mental health, to appreciate nature and to rebuild self-confidence after the Covid-19 lockdown. ‘We need to knock down those walls that we’ve built that keep us separate from everyone else.’ By socialising with these communities, it has provided ‘a sense of radical hopefulness’, says the film.

Growing Opportunities Project, run by the charity Ideal For All, near Oldbury [film by Alistair Russell, ‘Stepping In’]:  The video highlights the garden’s benefits to participants’ mental and physical well-being.  These benefits come from a sense of camaraderie and selflessness in a space where people jointly work the soil.  They feel inspired: ‘Everyone has a story to tell. and everyone has something to teach you.’ It’s great that there are such spaces and opportunities within such close proximity to people, says the film.

Grow Together, High Wycombe [film by Richard Andrews]: Near the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, when this space was completely overgrown by weeds, it was taken over by a new management as a community garden. Through a big group effort, volunteers cleared the space and installed raised beds. Newcomers were helped to learn skills for composting, as well as for growing fruit and veg.  Some of the harvest goes to a food bank as well as to volunteers.  As one said, ‘The joy is the companionship, sharing the learning, especially as we all were so isolated during the pandemic.’

G3 Growers Glasgow, in the communal ‘Back Garden’ of Glasgow West Housing Association, Finnieston  [film by Viola Madau, ‘To Grow an Apple’]: How did the gardeners grow apples? This was the impressive result of a group effort combining many tasks and skills for them. It meant: saving seeds, putting them in the seed bank, creating compost, creating a rainfall collection system, building the polytunnel, watering seedlings there, pruning the trees, ensuring proximity for pollination, etc.  The film describes this cooperative skill-sharing. ‘How is this a radical act of hopefulness? You may think our apple grower is right in front of a Tesco shop’, says the film, thus hinting at an alternative future.

Wider Implications of the video stories

Community food-growing can be seen in a wider context: For several decades, social cooperation has been channelled into narrowly instrumental or transactional forms, especially for coping with social inequalities, work stresses and competitive pressures of the job market. Social contact was being increasingly structured by social media. This marginalised traditional empathetic cooperation, whereby ‘we send empathic signals to another person that we are attending and recognising what they are doing or thinking’.  People have felt a social need to recover ‘the value of face-to-face relations’, said the sociologist Richard Sennett.   

The Covid-19 pandemic further constrained in-person contact, thereby shifting inter-personal contact to public parks and social media.  As a significant exception, the government’s Covid-19 rules permitted small groups to do gardening together.  Its practical tasks became a rare opportunity for rediscovering and remaking inter-personal relationships. 

Neither simply work nor leisure, group food-growing is a voluntary ‘civil labour’ which builds community.  This activity features playful relationships with fellow gardeners, the natural world and its domesticated garden-forms.  Successful initiatives depend on participants’ empathy with each other’s feelings, inspirations, enthusiasms and hopes. These practices have been facilitated by staff and regular volunteers bringing relevant social skills, sometimes called ‘people skills’. 

Beyond such benefits to themselves, many participants see group food-growing as promoting better ways for our society to organize and feed itself.  This activity builds capacities for an environmentally sustainable, socially equitable agri-food system.  Community food-growing strengthens the relevant capacities, skills, enthusiasms and pleasures. This offers a radically hopeful basis for building community, towards creating a better future, both through and beyond community food-growing.  Video stories provide means to highlight, share and spread such experiences. But also, the process of creating the video stories generates deeper engagement and reflection amongst participants, directly strengthening the community food-growing initiative.

Julia Jung
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Marine Social Scientist

Julia holds an MSc in management of marine biological resources from the international IMBRSea programme (2020). She is interested in using participatory approaches and action research for community-based environmental management. Julia is also highly interested in the use of technology for outreach, innovation and teaching within communities and in higher education.