Urban Agriculture in North Minneapolis

May 11, 2016 / By: Karen Lally, SCP Intern

This semester, Todd Lawrence’s Ethnographic Writing graduate course partnered with the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization (MWMO) and the Land Stewardship Project through the Sustainable Communities Partnership to learn more about urban agriculture in North Minneapolis. The MWMO seeks to learn about the motivations, barriers, and benefits of urban agriculture for residents in an effort to effectively engage with community members who participate in urban agriculture—and to encourage others to participate.  (Watch the project film here.) MWMO is interested in urban agriculture as a practice that may reduce the speed and volume of storm water runoff and improve water quality. Urban agriculture has other benefits as well, including increasing food security and building community. The objective of the Ethnographic Writing course is to gain information about the difficulties, complexities, and limits of ethnography. The partnership provides students with a hands on opportunity to collaborate with and learn from a community group of which they may be unfamiliar, and the partners and research collaborators are able to use the final products created by the students in ways that are beneficial for them.

Some might be surprised that an ethnographic writing course decided to become involved with the Sustainable Communities Partnership, mainly because the class itself is not actually structured around sustainability. The class explores questions about objectivity, the limits of representation, and the ethical responsibilities of writing about others, to name just a few.  The sustainability piece of the class was incorporated through field work, by listening to the stories and practices of the urban agriculture community. But the project goes beyond just sustainable practices, which is where the ethnographic field work plays a key role. As professor Todd Lawrence explains, and as students have gleaned from their interviews and conversations with the farmers, urban agriculture is an act of empowerment, community, politics, business, resources, and self-sufficiency. Perspectives, backgrounds, and motivations behind their involvement with urban agriculture in North Minneapolis varies among individuals and leads to a unique experience and collaboration within the community. Understanding the motivations, barriers, and benefits of urban agriculture, as MWMO seeks to do, requires close attention to beliefs, practices, language, and narratives of the urban farmers themselves, which is why an ethnographic writing course was a good fit for this project. As graduate student Destinee Stamer states, “I hadn't really thought about urban agriculture as having to do anything English related. Once I immersed myself in the project…English is a lot more than just reading and writing. It's also about how you interact with people. The relationships that you develop. A lot of that can be enhanced through reading and writing. This plays on so much more personal skills with people. I found a lot of value in that.”  She adds, “We are all people and we go around doing our daily lives. But doing those daily tasks are the things that we should be noticing and recording and trying to understand about people that are different than us.”

The course itself was designed in a way that allows students’ backgrounds and interests to influence the focus and style of the final project. The process of gathering information, conducting field work, and organizing the material into a narrative that is honest to the research collaborators’ experience is a complex one. Students began the process at the MWMO offices in Minneapolis, meeting with community members who had been invited to speak with students about their experiences with urban agriculture. After the first round of interviews, students transcribed and reflected at the conversations from the meeting, using the time to choose a focus for their projects. Once done, students had the opportunity to conduct follow up interviews and work in the field to gather more information. Though the presentation of the field work, the visual aids, and the style of writing differs among the various projects, all have a commitment to accurately representing the practices and beliefs of the urban farmers in North Minneapolis to the best of their ability. Because students interviewed different people, each project will be unique in its own light while still remaining tied firmly to the broader and overarching goals of the North Minneapolis urban agricultural community.