Several days ago I was approached by a young woman named Megan Maurer, asking if she could interview me for her master’s thesis. I agreed on one condition. I told her that, for every question she asked me, I’d ask one of my own. What follows are her responses to my questions.
MARK: As I understand it, this is more of a “welcome back” interview than one of our standard immigration interviews, right?
MEGAN: Yes, that’s right… sort of. I worked here in Ypsi for Growing Hope from 2008 to 2009, doing youth garden programming mostly. During that time I lived in Ann Arbor, though. There are a lot of different reasons for that, but I loved Ypsi, and working in Ypsi. Then, I left Southeast Michigan to go to graduate school in cultural anthropology. When I was designing my dissertation project, I ultimately decided that Ypsi was a place I needed to come back to, and I made the decision to locate my research project here. I came back up and lived here for the summer of 2011, and ultimately moved back in September of 2013. So, yeah, in many ways it’s a welcome back, and a hearty one at that. I’m amazed at how generously people have welcomed me back into their lives, and how easy it’s been for me to settle in and feel like I really do live here.
MEGAN: My research project focuses on understanding the relationship between community gardening and civic engagement here in Ypsi. There are three different levels to this question. First, I want to know if community gardening gets people more involved in civic life, or if community gardeners are already pretty active in their communities. Second, I’m interested in the reconceptualization of civic life in the United States. I think people work together to make their cities better places in a lot of different ways, not just through the traditional institutions like PTAs, the Rotary, and other organizations that we might think of at first. But we (social scientists, that is) don’t know a whole lot about what those ‘different ways’ look like, how they get started, what impact they have, etc. I think community gardening is an important example of this different kind of civic life, and studying it is a great way to learn more. Finally, I’d like to develop a set of ‘best practices’ for how community gardens can have a broader impact in their cities and plug people into other community efforts, not just in Ypsi, but across the entire country.
To accomplish all this I’m doing an ethnography of community gardening and civic life in Ypsi. Right now that means I’m interviewing all of the community garden stewards that I can find and attending a lot of different meetings and events, getting a feel for what kinds of activities gardeners get themselves involved in here. And soon I’ll be starting a set of case studies with 4 to 5 of our local community gardens, following them from the planning stages all the way through the gardening season. This will involve hanging out with folks, participating in garden work days, and interviewing gardeners. Hopefully I’ll get to be a community gardener myself! There’s also a small comparative component, in that I plan to interview some backyard gardeners around town, to see if there’s much of a difference in civic engagement between backyard and community gardeners. It’s going to be a busy summer!
MARK: I’m curious as to how much scholarship might already be out there, not just about community gardens, but about other activities that could be considered “gateway drugs” leading to deeper civic involvement. For instance, one wonders if anyone has studied the biking community in Portland… Are you aware of anything similar?
MEGAN: That’s a tricky one. As an academic, I want to say there’s nothing else like my project, but that’s not quite true. There’s been quite a bit of work in cultural anthropology on the kinds of alternative political and civic organization that emerge around urban issues, a lot of it around housing, parks, and public space (cf. Gregory 1998; Holston 2007; Low 2004; Mitchell 2003). This work has deeply informed my own. There might also be some work in other disciplines, but I’m not so familiar with that – I’m thinking about folks who work on new social movements in sociology. It can be hard to get into the research from other fields! As for research around specific activities, like gardening or biking, not so much. People do research on these topics, but I haven’t really seen any studies that try to approach them as forms of civic engagement. I know someone who’s started to look at hackathons in this way, but I think they’re still in the research and writing phase with that too. So I’m not really doing anything crazy new, just connecting the dots in a different way. I think a study about biking in Portland as civic engagement would be cool, if anyone’s looking for a dissertation topic!
MARK: I’m also curious as to how you quantify civic engagement. It seems relatively easy, for instance, to weigh the produce that comes from a community garden, and draw conclusions in terms of impact. But, when you’re talking about follow-on civic engagement, it seems really difficult to quantify. One person, for instance, might join an anti-GMO Facebook group, or maybe even start a blog, as a result of getting involved in a community garden, whereas someone else might actually start volunteering at a local school, helping to set up a sustainability curriculum. How do you account for that disparity in terms of depth, etc? What, in other words, are the metrics that you’ll be tracking?
MEGAN: That’s a great question! The easy answer is that I do strictly qualitative research, so I’m not really trying to quantify anything. But that’s kind of a cop-out. A better answer would be that we don’t right now have a really consistent way of gauging these different forms of civic engagement; a lot of it is left up to interpretation by researchers, or based on what participants themselves see as civic engagement. There’s nothing inherently problematic about that, but it would be nice to have some more specific ways of determining what counts as civic engagement, and to what degree – things that could be incorporated into a best practices guideline or evaluation. One of the things I’d like to accomplish with this project is to come up with a list of activities that I identified as civic engagement and a description of the impacts I observed these engagements having. I’m not yet sure what all is on that list; it’s a work in progress right now, and I’ll be editing as the year goes along and I learn more.
MARK: You kind of hinted at it before, but I’m wondering if your research might also shed light on how to structure community gardening arrangements so as to enhance the likelihood that gardeners might find their way to deeper, more substantive involvement in their communities, beyond the piece of land that they’re caring for. In other words, do you think this might yield a handbook of best practices that could be used by those individuals starting community gardens?
MEGAN: I hope so! By comparing different community gardens, how they organize themselves and how they use their space, I plan to see if there are any connections between these things and broader, deeper community involvement. If I find a connection, I’ll definitely share it.
MARK: So, what was it that first brought you to Ypsi from Ann Arbor, where, if I’m not mistaken, you’d moved because your boyfriend (now husband) was going to graduate school at the University of Michigan? Was it Growing Hope?
MEGAN: Yep, I first moved to Ann Arbor with my boyfriend in 2007, and worked at the Peoples’ Food Co-op for a brief while. I decided I wanted to do something a little different than making quinoa tabbouli though, and ended up applying for an AmeriCorps VISTA job at Growing Hope. The job interview was my first trip to Ypsi. I rode the bus, and remember sitting on the planter outside Deja Vu to collect myself before going in (this was when their offices were downtown on Washington Street). I got the job, and that became the first of many bus, and bike, trips to Ypsi.
MARK: I’m sure you’re not the first young woman to find herself on the planter outside of Deja Vu, waiting for an interview, and pondering a new career…
MEGAN: Ha! No, I’m probably not the first.
MARK: It’s kind of an aside, but, as you mention buses, I’m curious what you think of the local debate we’ve been having lately concerning expanded bus service.
MEGAN: To be honest, I haven’t been following this debate closely, and don’t know any of the details, so I’m reluctant to make any specific comments on the debate. I should be more informed about this, no? Anyway, in general, I’m all for expanded bus and public transportation service. And that’s especially true here in Ypsi where there are so many crucial resources that are inaccessible without a car. And, even if you have a car, but you’re a tree-hugger like me, it’d be great to be able to take the bus out Whitaker Road, for example. I love AAATA and would be thrilled to see it go more places.
MARK: I assume, to a large degree, you came back here to conduct your research because you had a network here, knew the folks at Growing Hope, had a sense as to the scope and scale of Ypsi’s community gardening infrastructure, etc. But, I suspect it’s also the case that you wouldn’t have come back if you hadn’t liked the community. With that said, I’m wondering what it is about Ypsi that resonated with you?
MEGAN: Yes, my network here had a lot to do with my selecting this location for my project. But you’re also right that the community did resonate with me. I think there are two main things that drew me to this place. First, there’s a degree of frankness and honesty among Ypsilantians that I don’t often see elsewhere, and find really refreshing. Obviously I’m speaking in generalities here, and there are always exceptions. But I’ve found that folks here are pretty candid about their opinions and experiences of the city, both good and bad. It’s kind of hard to articulate really. For example, I was at a meeting the other day and everyone there was white. And folks at this meeting said, “Hey, look around, we’re all white. We don’t really represent all of Ypsilanti. How can we get more African-Americans involved?” And then we had this amazing conversation about how to build relationships with a more broad and diverse community. This would not happen in a lot of places I’ve been, but it’s not that surprising to have it happen here. That kind of honest self-awareness is attractive to me. Even the debate around the Water Street Flats development is surprisingly candid. People are willing to put their very different visions for the site out there and own them. Which brings me to the second thing that really resonated with me–this sense of ownership. Like I said, people have really different visions of what Ypsi can and should be, but what they all have in common is this sense that Ypsi belongs to the people who live here. And that folks can have a say. It’s amazing to see folks not just talk about what they want, but actually go out and make it happen. Whether it’s sticking a community garden somewhere, starting a summer program for local youth, or going to City Council and speaking publicly, there’s this ethic in Ypsi that if you want something to be different than you should work to make it so. Again, this is generalizing, but it’s something that strikes me time and again.
MEGAN: I’m a from a small town, Mt. Vernon, northeast of Columbus, Ohio. My parents are Ohio State grads, and my initial move to Ann Arbor caused a bit of a good-natured ruckus. Before anyone can ask though, I root for my own alma mater, the Kenyon Lords and Ladies.
MARK: You made me resort to Google. And, in the process, I learned that your university was founded by a man named Philander Chase. I think that might be one of the best names I’ve ever heard, especially as it belonged to a bishop who founded a rural school so as to protect his students from the immorality of drink and dance.
MEGAN: It’s pretty spectacular. We actually have a song about Philander Chase, though the version we sang had some rather uncouth interjections, which I guess also calls into question the success of his mission.
MARK: Were you passionate about community gardening, or even gardening in general, before coming here, and taking the job at Growing Hope?
MEGAN: Hmmm, yes and no. I grew up gardening, and, during college, I worked taking care of other people’s gardens. So I’ve always been around gardening and loved it, but it wasn’t my raison d’etre. In college I focused a lot on environmental issues (which was a passion since my childhood viewing of FernGully), and got involved in this big local food systems research project. I did some research on the local farmers’ market, and found myself becoming a very passionate advocate of local food movements. Much of what I found during this study corroborated other research that was coming out at that time, pointing to the fact that most local food advocates were white, middle to upper-middle class, and well-educated. In other words, it wasn’t the world’s most inclusive movement. This was kind of where I was when I moved up here and took the job with Growing Hope. And it was by working with Growing Hope that I started to make the connections between urban gardening, local food, and social justice.
MARK: As the subject of race has now come up a few times, I’m curious to who how diverse our community gardening community is in Ypsi. Do you have a demographic breakdown of the individuals you’ll be interviewing over the next several months?
MEGAN: Right now I don’t have a breakdown, though that’s one of the things I hope to glean from this project. There’s definitely a racially and ethnically diverse population participating in community gardening here in Ypsi, but I don’t have any sense for how representative it is yet. Stay tuned!
MARK: During the time that you were away from us, when you were in Kentucky, what did you most miss about Ypsilanti?
MEGAN: So many things! Being able to walk or bike nearly everywhere. The food, from Beezy’s to Dos Hermanos tamales, and everything in between. My friends and all the familiar faces up here. And I know I’ll catch some flack for this, but the snow. I grew up with winter, and really missed it down south. (They claim they have winter, but really it’s just a lot of cold rain and ice… ugh!) But I don’t want to sell Kentucky short! So, to be fair, up here I miss the beautiful hills and trail running, “my” coffee shop, all my friends there, and being able to walk to Kroger.
MEGAN: Oh, that’s an easy one. An Indian restaurant, obviously.
More seriously though, it’s a difficult question. I can’t think of anything specific that Ypsi lacks, except maybe a theater (a thought that’s not unique to me; I borrowed it). The stuff that comes to mind is stuff that many cities lack, namely resources. Resources to repave the roads, build bike lanes, improve the schools, pay staff… that kind of stuff. I guess, if I could bring anything from the other cities I’ve lived in, it would be a few good breaks, you know?
MARK: How long do you intend to be with us, and, once you’re research is done, where do you think you’ll go?
MEGAN: I’m definitely going to be here through November. After that, who knows… In a perfect world, I’d stay here. But both my husband and I are in academia, so that means we go where the admissions offers or jobs are. I honestly have no idea where I’ll end up after this!
[If you enjoyed this discussion with Megan, be sure to check out other Ypsi Immigration Interviews.]