Part 2: Outhouse to Hotseat to Hothouse

The second time in October visiting the SEEDS community garden in Durham, I met Mr. Duprey.  The first thing he asked was my name; the second was, “You ever get your hands dirty?”  He could smell the city on me.

Mr. Duprey was an elder African American, whose age was difficult to place.  He’d entered the ageless place of elder: slightly sunken bottom lip sitting presumably against the gums, white beard and a cap covered head. Dressed in work pants and a sweatshirt, he was a modest man with surprising curiosity and vigour in his conversational tone.

I was visiting SEEDS this time, in hopes of speaking with Santos, an organizer who coordinated DIG, the youth gardener group at SEEDS.  DIG enamored many onlookers like myself who found the idea of bringing inner-city youth together for farming a novel concept.  In theory, such a program was an inspired response to the confluence of difficult social factors: low-income neighborhoods saddled with health disparities, the expense of organic food, disengaged youth, urban detachment from natural environments.  I was half conscious of these assumptions scurrying around in my mind when Mr. Duprey disarmed my arms-length disposition.

The youth group hadn’t returned yet from their shift at the local farmer’s market, and as he hurried out to meet them, Santos suggested I wait with Mr. Duprey until their return. I would join them for lunch at in the SEEDS facility.

I sat at one end of a long lunch table for a half hour or so with Mr. Duprey, and fell into a form of grandchild-like admiration for the elder.  He warmed up to me after hearing about my stint in Costa Rica and about my time in New York City.  He volunteered, when he felt like it, with the SEEDS Garden and the DIG youth group, but his knowledge of farming dated back to birth, as he described it.

He mused about the bounty in his mother’s back yard in Durham, and laughed at its irony that its plentiful growth, likely fed by the outhouse that sat not very far from the edge of the garden plots.  Our conversation meandered from composting toilets—championed anew by current permaculture trendsetters—to the modern momentum of urban farming in places like New York City, where he’d lived also in some span of his evidently long adult life.

While he loved gardening passionately and had done so all his life, plumbing was his profession.  He remarked on the need for greater efficiency in home-building, and I spoke about “sustainable” architecture methods I’d read about that reused “waste” products as construction material.  We were mutually enthused.

I naively offered to email him the information, and he gallantly declined, “I don’t do email. I prefer not to be distracted by the computer and such things.”  Mr. Duprey’s sense of personal honor and humor made me want to send him on a blind date with my grandmother in Baton Rouge, that is, if he had been unmarried (taken!).

I felt I’d found an ally in the SEEDS garden community, and an ambassador to a home-grown Durham that was hidden from my view at ivory tower Duke.

The youth returned to the facility.  I became immediately self-conscious about my outsider-ness.  The group of 8 or so teens and Santos, the coordinator, sat down to eat lunch. Santos asked me to introduce myself and why I was there.  He was not particularly clear on my purpose, since we hadn’t spoken directly.  He’d only received an email forward with my general inquiry about exploring a “class project” with the youth group. I hadn’t heard back from him at all, but another SEEDS staff member assured me it was fine to stop by on Saturday afternoons when the youth met for lunch.  Without having spoken to Santos, I felt conspicuous.

Santos and all the teens, for that matter, appeared skeptical.  I introduced myself, and shared with them my mandate: to explore what gardening and farming meant to their (and my own) conception of community.  I explained I was a student at Duke University, and was taking a class called “experimental Communities.” I should have known that would set off red flags.  I proposed the idea of a video diary that they themselves would define.  The skepticism bubbled over.

“So what do you want from us exactly?”

“What do you want to do?”

“It sounded like you want to perform an experiment on us.”

“I know right, that’s what I thought!”

Santos remarked, “A lot of academic types come to see us.  We want to make sure that this is not just about taking something from this community for your own purpose that has no value to us.”

Oh no guys, that’s really not what I want. What do I want?  I had to rebound quickly.  I really just wanted to get to know the community, to share the joy of discovering our relationship with the earth.  And if I could contribute something of value, I would do so because I would be honoring that unformed youth gardener in me.  I would do so as an ally, not as an exploiter.  But how would I do that from my obvious position of privilege and my institutional mandate to explore a community-based project?  What was I doing here and how could I salvage my own intentions?

An AmeriCorp intern seated next to me, smartly asked—“Do you guys feel the community understands the value of what you do in the garden? How would you want to communicate that?”  Sigh, saved by the young professional organizer.  The youth reflected quietly within themselves.  Santos moved on with the business of their weekly meeting.  I observed humbly, calmed by the quiet presence of Mr. Duprey.

While I was slightly chagrined, I felt some veil had been lifted.

A week later, I visited the youth group again at the downtown farmer’s market, I received a warm hello from Santos, the-never-responding-to-my-continued-email-inquiries community organizer (blame it on his recent wedding), and some of the youth.  I was no long a complete observer; I understood better my position in this community.  Building trust is about getting your hands dirty, literally.  So I’d be back, to “dig” in with the DIG team and see what might come of it.

I’ll be back to the garden again to “get my hands dirty” and if I’m lucky, I’ll run into my unexpected kindred spirit, Mr. Duprey.

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About C. Sala Hewitt

C. Sala Hewitt
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