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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Just Growing? Investigating Racial Inequity and Liberatory Potential in Brooklyn School Gardens

  • Author(s): Oyewole, Michelle Tokunbo Oluwaseyi
  • Advisor(s): Sweeney, Stuart
  • et al.

Well-resourced urban school gardens can provide extensive and varying benefits for students, operating simultaneously within a tradition of community transformation through urban farming, and the U.S. public education system. Benefits of school gardens include empowering, affirming, and engaging activities and relationships; knowledge about food and environmental systems; improved nutrition; stress relief; increased physical activity; and experiential education – but these benefits occur within an unequal society in which certain benefits and harms are more likely to occur based on race, ethnicity, class, gender, and other identity markers. One of many disparate risks is the exposure to environmental toxins in urban landscapes.

Using statistical analysis of surveys from adult and student school gardeners, soil samples, NYC Department of Education School Survey data, and public inventories of hazardous waste sites; as well as qualitative analysis of adult interviews and student open-ended responses, this dissertation addresses the overarching questions: How do school gardens provide personal and social benefits to students while minimizing environmental risks? What factors affect the distribution of these outcomes, and is the distribution just? Theoretical framing used to guide analysis is derived largely from social determinants of health, critical race theory, food justice, environmental justice, and social capital literature.

I investigate social, economic, and environmental disparities in Brooklyn, NY middle and high school gardens. Some of the main findings include: The budget and administrative support received by gardens increases with the school proportion of white students (n = 24 schools) (Chapter 1); White male students report the highest feelings of affirmation in the garden space, replicating a disparity that is also recurrent in classroom settings (n = 122 students) (Chapter 2); The number of hazardous waste sites near schools with gardens increases with the school proportion of Black and Hispanic/Latinx students, and with the proportion of low-income students (n = 31 schools) (Chapter 4). Lastly, in a chapter highlighting students’ direct words, I explore the potential of school gardens to promote liberation for racially minoritized students, proposing a four-part framework that builds on movements for justice with which the garden intersects (Chapter 3). Overall, the dissertation explores the benefits and shortcomings of Brooklyn, NY school garden spaces with a focus on marginalized student populations.

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