Archives

Earth Words

“. . . we go to poetry … so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.”  – Christian Wiman, poet

Gabriella Donofrio ’13 (left) and Alice Bowe ’13 sort and plant lettuces at Harvest of Joy Farm in Shelbyville, MI.

Amy Newday plants seeds in soil (she runs her own farm), and she plants seeds in students (she directs K’s Writing Center and teaches classes in the English department). Some seeds grow green crops. Others grow green poetry.

Newday recently completed a winter term course called “Ecopoetry,” and is currently teaching a spring term senior Capstone class called “CSA (community-supported agriculture) and Sustainability.” The two courses are an integral part of Kalamazoo College’s ongoing creation of a Center for Environmental Stewardship, teaching students about the impact of human life on their world.

“I feel a strong call to be of service to the earth and the non-human beings we share it with,” says Newday. “As I get older and get to know myself better and as our ecological crises worsen, this call becomes stronger. What I was curious to explore with my students in the ecopoetry course was—what does poetry have to do with ecological crises? Can poetry be a vehicle for transforming our relationships with the ecosystems in which we dwell?”

A farmer and a poet, Newday grew up on dairy farm in Shelbyville, Michigan. Her “Ecopoetry” course drew thirteen students, all of whom participated in a reading on campus to draw their class to a close. Each student read a poem from the textbook that had especially moved or inspired them.

Emily Sklar ’15 was one of those students, a biology major with an interest in ecological issues. “I love biology, although I’m not quite sure yet what I will do with it,” Sklar says. “I also love being outdoors, and I’m concerned about the environment, so I’ve been wondering how to combine all that. Science comes short on the ethical and moral aspect of ecological issues, so that’s why I took the poetry course. Poetry gives me another way to understand what’s around me, and the course has given me a blend of language that builds collaboration between scientists and poets.”

“Ecopoetry” is a relatively new term, if not quite a genre in its own right, Newday explains. “Writing about daffodils is no longer enough. Critics beat up poets like Mary Oliver for being what they call a ‘nature poet,’ writing about birds and trees. Writing about birds and trees is important, but ecopoetry includes the bulldozer that knocks the tree down and destroys the bird.”

Poetry can help us imagine possibilities … possible solutions to ecological crises.

Three main groupings of poetry compose the new genre, Newday says. As defined by Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura Gray-Street, the editors Newday’s class textbook, The Ecopoetry Anthology, poetry that explores nature and the meaning of life falls into the first group. A second group includes environmental poetry with a more political slant that may address social justice issues and is often related to specific events. The third group includes poetry about ecology, often in more experimental forms.

“In this course we explored how the language of poetry has shaped and reflected changing perceptions of nature, ecology, and humanity over the past two centuries,” Newday says. “We looked at what poetry can contribute to current cultural and cross-cultural conversations about environmental justice and sustainability.”

Students at the reading in March read favorite poets they had studied, such as, yes, Mary Oliver, and also Alicia Suskin Ostriker, Ralph Black, G. E. Patterson, Deborah Miranda, Tony Hoagland, Robert Duncan, Lucille Clifton, Lola Haskins, Sandra Beasley, and Linda Hogan. Some students also read their own work.

“I’m not a big reader,” Sklar admits. “But I fell in love with this poetry. What I had hoped would happen, happened. The facts in science are great, but poetry gives us a way to connect to people who aren’t scientists.”

The ecopoetry course, Sklar adds, helped her to solidify an idea for her Senior Individualized Project that she’d been mulling over for about a year. Her interest in nature, biology, ecology, and human responses to all three came together in a plan to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. Along with a K alumna, Margaux Reckard ‘13, Sklar began 2,200-mile adventure a few days after the poetry course concluded (see “Where the TinyTent AT?” in this issue of BeLight).

“Poetry can help us question,” Newday says. “We are losing all kinds of diversity in our world, and cultures and languages are being lost along with biodiversity. Languages each give us a unique way to see the world and add perspective. Poetry can help us imagine possibilities … possible solutions to ecological crises.”

Harvest of Joy farmer John Edgerton (left) discusses with students (l-r) Chandler Smith ’13, Caroline Michniak ’13, and Alicia Pettys ’13 different techniques for organic and sustainable planting.

In her senior Capstone course, “CSA and Sustainability,” Newday digs even deeper into building connections between students and the earth. Along with textbooks, she hands them trowels, hoes, shovels and watering cans. She takes her students to her own CSA operation, Harvest of Joy Farm, where she and partner John Edgerton practice sustainable and organic methods of farming.

The Capstone course, Newday says, offers students the opportunity to explore and experience food systems, agriculture, community building, education, economics, business, and food justice as an alternative to the mainstream food economy. If that sounds like it’s dealing with a great many topics—it is, and that’s the everyday life of a farmer.

Part of the course will take place in the traditional campus classroom, and for at least three hours each week students will work on the farm. They will help plan the CSA business, prepare the soil for planting and then plant a wide assortment of seeds and plants, maintain compost and learn about permaculture, and maintain and harvest the garden. Students will also experience the business aspects of running a CSA, the marketing and selling of vegetables to community members, and the relationships built between farmer and community members.

The course will also involve an ongoing blog of farm activities, and a student-generated on-campus collaborative project. Students will participate in discussions about their experiences and observations working on the farm.

In informational sessions held prior to the beginning of the course, Newday and Edgerton met with students interested in learning more information before making a decision to enroll.

“I was surprised how much I loved running a CSA,” Newday says to the students gathered to hear about the course. “The relationships we developed through the CSA were very rewarding. There’s an instant gratification when you give good food to people, and you see how excited they are to receive it, taste it, and share it.”

The concept of a CSA, Newday tells the students, is not the traditional business model of trading cash for product. “A CSA offers people the opportunity to invest in the kind of world they want to live in.”

The Harvest of Joy Farm is in its fourth year. At the beginning of last summer’s (2013) growing season, 45 members paid for 28 shares and half-shares in the operation, which provided the funds to cover the costs of farming. In return, shareholders receive vegetables and fruits each week during harvest.

“The course will help students to better understand the economics of farming, especially on a small scale, and to consider how small farms fit into the larger agricultural economy, in the United States and across the world,” says Newday. “Along with learning about sustainable agricultural practices, students will learn how to critically consider what it means to make environmentally, socially, and ethically sound food choices.”

To learn more about the Kalamazoo College Capstone CSA experience, read student blog entries, and view photos, visit kzoocsa.blogspot.com.  To learn more about Harvest of Joy Farm, LLC, visit harvestofjoyfarm.wordpress.com.

Out of the Ashes

The Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College’s first biennial Global Prize for Collaborative Social Justice Leadership (May 2013) attracted 188 entries from across the U.S. and 22 other countries. Three global prizes ($10,000) were awarded. The January issue of BeLight featured articles on two of the organizations that won awards: The Dalia Association and Language Partners. This issue features the third global prize winner: Restaurant Opportunities Center.

It was September 11, 2001, and Fekkak Mamdouh remembers having the morning off. He was to return to work that afternoon as a waiter at the Windows on the World restaurant, perched on the top floors of the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City.

Of course, his job was the last thing on his mind as he watched the aftermath of the terrorist attacks that day. He had been in the restaurant the night before, working a late shift. He feels lucky to be alive, but mourns the loss of 73 of his fellow workers who died. More than 350 other workers at the restaurant lost their jobs.

“They were my brothers and sisters, and they died,” says Mamdouh, a native of Morocco. “I wanted to do something about it. I wanted to honor their memory. A movement was needed.”

Advocating for better pay and working conditions for his fellow restaurant workers—the bussers, wait staff, cooks, and cleaners—was the way Mamdouh and others felt they could assure that those who were lost became memorials to the betterment of all who work in food service.

Members of Restaurant Opportunities Center accept the ACSJL Global Prize for Collaborative Social Justice Leadership.

Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) was born. And for its effort to improve wages and working conditions for restaurant workers, the organization earned one of the three $10,000 awards in the 2013 Kalamazoo College Global Prize for Collaborative Social Justice Leadership administered by the College’s Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership.

Mamdouh is one of ROC’s co-directors.

The restaurant industry, he says, is a behemoth in the United States economy (employing 10 million workers) and one of the only industries that grew during the Great Recession. It’s also home to seven of the 10 lowest paying jobs in America, including the two absolute lowest.

Restaurant servers in the U.S. have three times the poverty rate of other Americans and use food stamps at double the rate of their fellow workers across the nation. It is not uncommon, says Mamdouh, to find restaurant workers around the nation who are homeless.

The issues don’t end there, he adds. Ninety percent of workers in the industry have jobs with no paid sick days, and two-thirds admit to working while sick. Matters of race and class also abound. Workers of color earn on average $4 less than their white counterparts and are often segregated from the best paying jobs at restaurants. Many wait-staff work for much less than minimum wage, averaging about $2.13 and hour.

“It’s usually like this: ‘If you don’t like the job, if you have a problem with what’s gong on, then go home. We can replace you,’” Mamdouh says. “That’s the way a lot of owners approach things. But we have a right to a fair, equal, and dignified workplace.”

We are fighting the good fight.

In response to these challenges to fairness and equality, ROC organizes around three strategies: 1) Foster workplace justice campaigns that develop leadership skills of workers at high-profile restaurant companies to win policy changes and economic benefits; 2) Promote companies that are taking the “high road,” providing their employees with better wages and benefits than the industry standards; and 3) Support national research and policy development, that becomes the basis for local, state, and federal policy.

ROC has grown rapidly in New York City and across the country. It now counts more than 10,000 members in more than two dozen U.S. cities, and has chapters in Canada and Japan. During the next five years, they hope to count two million members in their ranks.

“This Global Prize from Kalamazoo College makes us more well-known. It increases our exposure,” Mamdouh says. “It’s going to help us a lot, and we can use it as leverage for more fundraising. But it’s more than money. It’s recognition by a wonderful organization that we are fighting the good fight.”

“We are growing leaps and bounds,” he adds, “But there are always struggles to overcome.”

In many ways, it starts with the consumer. No one would want a sick person cooking their food or a wait staff member berated and humiliated by their manager, then asked to put on a happy face, according to Mamdouh.

“Ten years ago no one cared about free-range this or organic that. Now people demand it. They can demand the same of restaurant owners, that they treat their employees with dignity.”

Restaurant Opportunities Limited has helped open restaurants under the nameplate “Colors” in New York City that is worker-owned and operated, serving as a positive, supportive learning environment for those who want to enter the restaurant industry. But the well-regarded restaurants also are destinations where customers can see how workers are supposed to be treated.

“Come down and see how it’s supposed to work,” Mamdouh says. “The food’s pretty good, too.”