Sounds of clanking metal and laughter ring out through the Ecological Garden of the UC Davis Student Farm. A group of people work their way around the base of Fuyu persimmon trees. They fold out aluminum orchard ladders, climbing up with a surprising dexterity, and begin to navigate their hands through the light grey branches of the persimmon trees - plucking the firm apple-like fruit off and passing it to their peers standing below. They exhibit both a sense of glee and seriousness as they engage in this task, a momentary departure from their usual daily routines as students at UC Davis. They are all part of First Year Seminar titled, Understanding racial microagressions, hostile campus climate and community building from the margins: Community Cultural Wealth & Critical Race Theory. They are visiting the Student Farm this morning to learn about the resources provided by this space, and the efforts at the farm to create an inclusive environment in which students can connect with the land in meaningful ways.
Professor Natalia Deeb Sossa, the instructor of the course, is in the midst of the action, as she passes crates around for students to collect their hard earned fruit. A professor in the UCD Chicana/o Studies Department, in the the past 3 years she has coordinated with the Student Farm to have many of her courses spend full class sessions in the space, engaging in garden based activities tied to their course curriculum. Just this past spring, students in her CHI 113 class planted a Three Sisters Garden bed, a companion planting method utilized by many Native agricultural societies in North America. During this same quarter, her CHI 114 class made teas from medicinal plants found along the carefully maintained paths of the Ecological Garden, learning about both the beneficial and appropriate uses of these plants, as well as the necessary respect that must be shown when using plants with potent properties.
The group of students in this class represent efforts by the UC Davis Student Farm’s Community Table Project to address the visible and invisible barriers preventing greater and more diverse representation in outdoor educational spaces. This project has helped the way the Student Farm engages in a process of self-reflection around equity and inclusion: attempting to understand how the program works toward and at cross purposes with diversity and justice efforts in sustainable agriculture education. This process has included both inquiry into the events and intentions surrounding the founding of the Student Farm in the 1970s, as well as an accounting of current policies and practices.
Funding provided by the Global Food Initiative in August 2016 related to campus food insecurity, prompted the formation of the Community Table Project and provided an opportunity to the farm to dedicate staff time and resources to better understanding which departments, faculty, students organizations, and student leaders on the UCD campus were engaged in research, dialogue, and action around food security, foodways, land, and nature as a context for learning and healing. Professors in Chicanx Studies including visiting scholar and Ethnic Studies Chair at Woodland Community College Dr. Melissa Moreno, UCD Professors of Chicanx Studies Dr. Natalia Deeb-Sossa and Dr. Susy Zepeda quickly emerged as partners, along with faculty from Gender and Womens' Studies and students at the Cross-Cultural and LGBTQIA+ Resource Centers.
Specifically, from May 2017 to November 2018, 4 of Natalia Deeb-Sossa’s classes, representing approximately (~300) students, completed a total of (~eleven) visits to the Student Farm. While these courses were organized around diverse topics, from the Sociology of the Chicana/o Experience, Latin American Women’s Engagement in Social Movements, and Reproductive Justice, the themes of land connection, community health, farmworker rights, indigenous farming practices, ecofeminism, and decolonization movements are present in the literature and discussion of all of the syllabi.
Prior to each class visit, Natalia, with much support from Dr. Melissa Moreno, met with students and staff of the Student Farm to select and organize activities for each course. Drawing on best practices from outdoor experiential education, garden-based instruction, and social justice in nature-based learning, as well as knowledge from the discipline of Chicanx Studies and personal intuition, this group of faculty and students selected activities that included planting, harvesting, creating and reflection, many of which are adapted from Kids in the Garden curriculum - the Student Farm’s garden-based learning program for K-2 children.
With the careful guidance of Student Farm staff and experienced students, classes were introduced into the various spaces at the farm, and engaged mix of activities that involve the entire class or small groups. Some of these activities were done individually, such as self guided meditation in the garden. Other involved a greater group effort, such as preparing and seeding the garden bed with the Three Sister plants. Students were left free to choose the extent of their participation in the activities, and they were invited to view the experiences as personal and communal practices of action and reflection.
Through focusing on themes of (re)establishing connections to land, student response to the class sessions have shed light on some important mental health benefits to the student engagement in the Student Farm. Student reflections overwhelmingly share the common theme of a departure from the hectic and stressful environment they experience on campus, the resurgence of memories of working with their elders in home gardens, and the clarity of mind and spirit awarded by focusing on one’s experience in the outdoors.
These primarily first generation POC college students begin and continue to explore their own relationship to the outdoors - remembering lesson embedded in their memories and rekindling appreciation for the vibrant life around them each moment - experiences easily erased and forgotten in the drab and sterile interiors of higher education buildings throughout this country.
With UC Davis recent designation as Hispanic Serving Institution, the Student Farm hopes to continue these collaborations with the Chicanx Studies department. An analysis of STEM students that take classes within this department has shown that the retainment (persistence- new terminology per Raquel Aldana) rates of these students towards attaining a degree increases dramatically. Tied to this increase is a improved sense of belonging at UC Davis that CHI coursed help foster in first generation, POC students, messages reflected in the feedback provided by CHI course students who have engaged in the farm in the past 2 years. The Student Farm and the CHI department see great potential in increasing this impact through further utilization of the farm space, primarily through the development of interdisciplinary and culturally relevant STEM focused courses. As the HSI process develops at UC Davis, the Student Farm and Dr. Natalia and supporting CHI department members anticipate the exciting possibility of supporting Chicanx/Latinx students in innovative ways.