Urban Community AgriNomics (UCAN) is a nonprofit organization that offers Northern Durham the opportunity to learn agricultural skills and provides access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
While their primary activities center around agriculture and education on the importance of
healthy nutrition, the broader mission is to improve the health and wellness of the community. According to co-founder and executive director Delphine Sellars, UCAN’s goals include eliminating food insecurity through empowering people to grow their own food and creating an intersectional knowledge share through farming and renovating the land with a motley group of volunteers and participants (Personal communication, Sellars, Oct 2, 2020). To strive towards turning these goals into accomplishments, UCAN partners with local organizations to provide workshops, renovate land, teach agricultural skills, and run a farm. Their activities have not only empowered community members to eat more healthy foods that they grow themselves, but have also formed relationships between a diverse group of people who possess unique skill sets (Personal communication, Sellars, Oct 2, 2020).
Prior to founding UCAN with her sister Lucille, Delphine was the Extension Director for Durham County, distributing educational materials and alerting the public to important information that colleges and universities provide (Durham County, 2017). During her time spent in this position, she witnessed problems in access to resources that disproportionately impacted underprivileged people of color. The main disparities she saw included poor access to a good education, food deserts, and housing insecurity–- all of which especially disadvantaged youth in the community. Delphine and Lucy also recognized that diseases related to diet were plaguing these communities. They knew they wanted to change this (Personal communication, Sellars, Oct 2, 2020).
After Delphine retired, she and Lucillle decided to take matters into their own hands and create a nonprofit that would target the systemic issues affecting the communities they love. From their childhood living on a truck farm, they had been instilled with a plethora of information about vegetables, including how to grow them, what determines their quality, and ways to process and prepare them. Seeing firsthand the absence of fresh food in their community, they recognized that sharing this knowledge would be an important endeavor to empower others and to continue the traditions from their family (Personal communication, Sellars, Oct 2, 2020). Not only would starting a community farm bring vegetables and valuable information to the people, but it would also bring the sisters back to their roots in the land (Taylor, 2018).
Using connections formed during her time as county extension director, Delphine collaborated with the Triangle Land Conservancy to start the Catawba Trail Farm. The name of the farm comes from a series of paths that Catawba Indians once used as trading routes (Personal communication, Sellars, Oct 2, 2020). In the 1700s, the land became a plantation. The history of the site is important to the organization because they believe that it is connected to its use now; they wanted to reclaim the “neglected farmstead” and give it meaning beyond the disrepair into which it had fallen. Although they had to go to great lengths for the permit to start their farm, Delphine and Lucille were able to found UCAN (pronounced “you can”) in 2016, intentionally using an acronym reminiscent of President Obama’s famous slogan “yes, we can.” They aimed to equip their local community with the skills they had already learned because if they could farm fresh vegetables, then members of the community–- the “you” in this case–- could too (Personal communication, Sellars, Oct 2, 2020).
UCAN’s approach to empowering community members and fulfilling their mission includes providing access to the Catawba Trail farm, teaching agricultural skills with a STEM lens, advising how to prepare the vegetables for storage and consumption, and connecting people with each other. UCANs hold work days at the farm each week, and around 12 volunteers help community members tend 47 raised beds where they grow their crops. Further, UCAN hosts classes to teach people how to process and prepare their food (Urban Community Agrinomics, 2020). These activities lend themselves to building community among anyone who participates, and that often means people from different cultural and economic backgrounds. According to Delphine, the most impactful approach to help strengthen the Northern Durham community has been bringing together a variety of people with a broad range of skills and knowledge to work together towards the common goal of creating a beautiful farm (Personal communication, Sellars, Oct 2, 2020). In September alone, UCAN served around 700 community members (Personal communication, Sellars, Oct 2, 2020).
Connecting Theory with Practice
Social capital plays a significant role in helping UCAN facilitate learning within the community and in bringing people together to pursue a common goal. The idea of social capital emphasizes the importance of social bonds and norms to pursue shared goals (Pretty & Smith, 2004). In the case of sustainability, social capital describes the specific relationships and networks among people that allow them to pursue environmental goals. There are different ways to classify social capital, but they can generally be put into three main categories: bonds, bridges, and linkages (Keeley, 2007, 103). Social bonds link people based on a shared sense of identity while social bridges connect people beyond a sense of commonality (Keeley, 2007, 103). Linkages go even further to bring together people and groups from up or down the social ladder (Keeley, 2007, 103). By cultivating interpersonal connections, forming trust across groups within the community, and establishing new norms, initiatives, movements, and organizations can set a foundation for success. Social capital can be utilized to facilitate information sharing, resolve conflicts, make effective decisions, and increase adaptive capabilities (Pretty & Smith, 2004).
UCAN demonstrates a concerted effort to utilize social capital. During an interview with Delphine, she describes the people and community at UCAN as a shared family (Personal communication, Sellars, Oct 2, 2020). UCAN connects people from across multiple generations, races, and socioeconomic standings and unites people with diverse skill sets to exchange knowledge and work together towards creating a place to successfully work the land. Delphine told stories of local youth learning about vegetables and nutrition from community leaders and kids exchanging their family recipes (Personal communication, Sellars, Oct 2, 2020). Before the pandemic, kids from youth groups, school groups, and Eagle Scout groups would regularly attend workshops and other events at the farm. Delphine also recalls how people who know how to build buildings, put up fences, build chicken coops, manage bee farms, and plant orchards, taught and utilized their expertise (Personal communication, Sellars, Oct 2, 2020). These experts not only share their knowledge, but their work also makes a physical, lasting impact on the farm itself. Overall, community members that bring in social capital contribute to their communities while “gaining access to social and material benefits from being a part of the group” (Kingsley & Townsend, 2006).
Before the pandemic, Delphine also attended and spoke at conferences which helped spread the word about UCAN and further increased social capital (Personal communication, Sellars, Oct 2, 2020). She was often approached by other attendees for tips on how to start their own gardens. Delphine generously shares her knowledge, which helps foster and strengthen social bonds of trust and exchange. Through Delphine’s networking and willingness to share information, she has also heard about grant opportunities to help further UCAN’s mission (Personal communication, Sellars, Oct 2, 2020). More recently, Delphine has turned towards social media to promote UCAN’s work, which is fostering a new type of social capital called digital social capital (Mandarano et al., 2010). This type of social capital specifically focuses on building “public participation practices that embrace Internet tools” (Mandarano et al., 2010). In other words, it uses tools like social media to engage and mobilize an audience. UCAN builds digital social capital by utilizing Facebook and Instagram, and uses the internet to post about upcoming events and opportunities.
Although the pandemic has changed the way people gather and come together, UCAN is still able to attract a steady volunteer force to safely volunteer at the farm (Personal communication, Sellars, Oct 2, 2020). The pandemic created an opportunity to shift the strategy behind the daily routines at the farm towards a more efficient system. Social distancing has helped UCAN better organize work days by separating workstations and creating more sanitizing stations (Personal communication, Sellars, Oct 2, 2020). While this method expedites work, it achieves its purpose of separating people from each other. Despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, the strong social bonds that Delphine has fostered within the community have made UCAN resilient and adaptable.
Throughout the interview, Delphine frequently mentioned the importance of the people who contribute to UCAN’s work. She emphasized that there was no way for UCAN to accomplish what they had in isolation. It is crucial to connect with others of the same mindset and mission and bring these people together. By increasing the social capital in the local community, it also helps enhance the sustainability in the local community (Bridger & Luloff, 2001). Delphine has utilized social capital to strengthen UCAN so that they are resilient to current challenges, and she enabled UCAN’s continued success in their mission of reducing food insecurity and increasing access to nutritious food in the local community.
Asset-based Community Development
The asset-based community development approach is fundamental to UCAN’s success and vision. Since their founding in 2016, UCAN has been building on the capabilities and assets of the community. The physical farm and structures themselves embody the concept of building on what exists as opposed to acquiring something new. UCAN reclaimed an old farmstead—razing the old structure that was there and building a new one—with the hands of the community. The volunteers and board members are all locals, and as a result, UCAN’s mission and execution is self-contained within the community they serve.
Kretzmann and McKnight’s theory regarding a successful path to community development can help explain how UCAN has been so impactful. The authors stress an “asset-based, internally focused, relationship driven” approach to developing a community (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1996). They specifically highlight the importance of the local community being “mobilized and invested” and building on the capacities that already exist (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1996). UCAN does exactly this, finding locals in the community who specialize in various tasks. For example, people with knowledge of business and accounting help with selling the fruit and vegetables at the farmer’s market. Those with a background in farming help explain various gardening and farming techniques. In an interview with Delphine, she repeatedly stressed the importance of seniors and the role they play in teaching and guiding the youth and transferring knowledge across generations (Personal communication, Sellars, Oct 2, 2020). At UCAN, everyone has a role to play, and the organization’s success can largely be attributed to the commitment of community members involved.
Though the community members comprise the essence of UCAN, external help– often in the way of monetary support– is necessary. Delphine spoke about the importance of acquiring money through grants and about how some of the larger projects that she is hoping to accomplish, such as upgrading the facilities and connecting to the electric grid, will require substantial investment (Personal communication, Sellars, Oct 2, 2020). Though this funding likely comes from the outside, the effective use of the money is predicated on a strong organization that builds on the skills of the community. This is the model that UCAN follows, which is why they are in the position to grow and expand their impact as the necessary capital is acquired.
By embodying the asset-based community management approach, UCAN avoids the pitfalls that come with a needs-based approach to community development. A needs-based approach relies on external actors to provide services and creates a cycle of dependency. Some of the downsides to a needs-based approach, as described by Mathie and Cunningham, are a tendency for community members to look outside for assistance and a prevailing attitude of self-doubt that leads to disempowerment (2003). The approach taken by UCAN is the opposite. Instead of relying on outside institutions and “experts,” UCAN builds on the capabilities of the local people, instilling confidence in the people’s abilities and motivating them to take ownership of local problems and address them. Along the way, community members involved with UCAN learn important lessons in sustainability, healthy eating habits, and skills in planting and business. As a result, the community members are empowered to make real change in their own lives and in the community without relying on outside help. As Delphine and the other board members of UCAN have demonstrated, self-reliance and building from the ground up are critical to enacting sustainable and lasting change.
One asset that USRT is trying to gain through a recent initiative is the knowledge of the Catawba Trail Farm’s complicated history. By better understanding how the land was previously used and who worked on it, UCAN will empower participants through the process of reclamation. Working with local universities as well as indigenous groups, UCAN is hoping to disentangle a complex web of land ownership, land use, and the often oppressive systems and practices that influenced the area. UCAN sees this as an important step towards fully realizing the potential of the land. The process of mining for information about the land’s history will likely be as valuable as the information itself because it will require serious reflection and conversations with people who have different perspectives.
UCAN’s commitment to asset-based community development is both inspiring and effective, and they serve as a model for other aspiring community organizers who hope to foster an environment of inclusivity, accountability, and education.
Whether it is gleaning fruits and vegetables and transporting them to senior citizens or inviting the youth to learn how to prepare an eggplant that they grew themselves, UCAN serves to give the community the access and knowledge they need to improve their eating habits. But to take impact beyond simply surviving and into thriving, UCAN also works to create community among their members. The social capital that Delphine uses to support the community and the focus on the assets that everyone has to contribute lead to UCAN’s successful endeavors of disseminating the valuable knowledge they learned as children.
An activity exemplary of UCAN’s impact and ability to instill hope is Delphine’s belief that anyone could grow their own food– no backyard needed. To demonstrate this, UCAN provided buckets, soil, and seeds so families and individuals could start growing their own food. Further, they taught these community members how to care for their micro-fields. And finally, they provided a community of growers to support each other and to share what they learn. UCAN truly demonstrates that anyone can farm, no matter their background.
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