Wednesday, February 11, 2015

When A New Seed Was Planted

            It was October 2013, my final semester at the George Washington University, and my research was beginning to gain momentum. I learned about the gardening program at the Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus (THEARC) through City Blossoms, an organization I had worked with while interning with the Environmental and the Great Outdoors Division at DC Parks and Recreation. The garden manager for THEARC, Ms. Kate, invited me to visit and garden with the two young men she supervised, Marley and Marcus.
While riding the green line to the Southern Avenue Metro Station, I kept glancing over my post-it notes where I had drawn a map showing me how to get to the garden from the station. It was almost as if I was waiting for the pen ink to jump off the paper and make a run for it. As I stared through the train’s glass window, I observed each passing unfamiliar metro station while repeating the interview questions in my mind. I was also aware that I was the only white person on the train. This wasn’t a new experience, but I was still getting used to becoming a minority in less than 30 minutes. Working outside of the District’s NW quadrant had already triggered my identity crisis about what it means to be a white middle class American, and moments like this train ride prompted a snowball effect of questions. For example, I wondered how the two young men I was about to interview would perceive me, and whether they would be willing to be interviewed in front of the cam-recorder my geography advisor had suggested I use to document information for my paper. I wasn’t comfortable interviewing anyone with a camera yet- I felt impersonal and rude. Especially because I was concerned that there would be an inherent distrust towards me that I felt was justified. I made a promise to myself before I ever picked up the camera that the most important aspect of any conversation or interview would be for the interviewee to feel comfortable at all times, camera or no camera; response or no response.
           Large metallic letters stood out from a distance, welcoming visitors to THEARC. The tall and wide windows at the entrance allowed the morning rays to shine through and dance on the freshly polished floor. Home to eleven of the District's nonprofit agencies, and serving children and adults East of the River, THEARC radiates a contagious energy of strength and hope, which reassured me that I had found the right place. Once I signed in with security at the front desk, I found Ms. Kate, Marley and Marcus in the garden down the slope from the large parking lot in front of the building. Together, we spent the next few hours digging up old grass and preparing new garden beds. As we worked, Marley and Marcus shared their lives with me. They told me personal stories of how they grew up, what it’s like to be a father, to belong in a gang, and their experiences working in the garden. Some of their stories made me laugh, and some of them made me thankful that the Boston Red Sox’s hat I was wearing helped conceal the tears forming in my eyes.
Prior to each interview, I explained that while the objective was for me to learn how gardening had affected their lives, it was ultimately their story and an opportunity to express their opinions. I was surprised with how open and honest Marley and Marcus were during their interviews. They told me that they had some things they wanted to say. I ended up walking away carrying the voices of two young men who provided evidence for why we need to reconnect ourselves to the outdoors, and an example of what happens when the right investment is made socially, environmentally, and economically.
            The videos enabled me to share Marley and Marcus’s stories with my friends and family. When I saw the profound affect Marley and Marcus’s voices had on everyone who watched the videos, I realized that I couldn’t just write a paper. I needed to find a way to help spread the information I had been collecting that would reach a broader community, faster. I also believed that filming Marley and Marcus gave them a voice and enabled them to speak for themselves, which is why I inserted two short videos of their interviews here. I do not need to speak for them, nor should I. But I do believe that these voices, among many of others along the Anacostia Watershed, need to be heard, and my hope is that the documentary series will help foster the environmental and social conversation we can no longer afford to avoid.