Eco Forum Facilitates Gardening, Learning, and Activism
In the middle of the constant construction of East University is an oasis of healthy greenery. The East Quad Garden, located next to the front entrance to the building, was the idea of two Residential College (RC) professors, Dr. Virginia Murphy and Dr. Charlie Bright. Murphy and Bright serve as faculty leaders for Eco Forum. Eco Forum, a peer-educating group run entirely by students in the RC, maintains the garden.
I contacted a leader of Eco Forum, Darian Razdar, and learned about the evolution of the East Quad Garden and Eco Forum. “Eco Forum was started by Clement Turner and myself to provide space for students to discuss environmental issues, organize community events to collectively engage with environmental activism, advocacy, and awareness, as well as to facilitate student engagement with the East Quad Garden,” Razdar explained. “Before this forum existed there wasn't a regular student place for this discussion or action to happen in the RC, so Clem and I went ahead to create it. We see ourselves contributing to the discourse on environmental justice in the RC and around campus.”
As a student interested in sustainability on campus, Razdar considers Eco Forum to be one of the most valuable experiences he has had during his time at the University. He describes it as a place of constant learning, with many different sources contributing knowledge to the forum.
“Often I think that I learn more outside of the classroom environment... Eco Forum is one of the best examples. From being involved in this forum I feel more keyed into the environmental debates going on around campus and in larger contexts,” Razdar said. “I also see myself doing something with this awareness—I am pursuing sustainability leadership as a Graham Scholar, working in community agriculture and looking forward to studying urban planning and geography in graduate school.”
Razdar related some of the struggles of getting the plans for the garden through the bureaucracy of the University and East Quad. The garden has been in the works for several years but had to go through many levels of the administration for approval.
“Thankfully Virginia Murphy and the East Quad Garden Planning Committee did a lot of the hard work of getting the garden into the ground.” Apparently, Murphy initially struggled to secure funds for the garden, but recently was awarded grants that will allow the group to add compost bins and a greenhouse. The group also had to compete with an alternate vision of the space that some wanted for exhibiting student art. Since then, the group is focused on building the garden as an opportunity to both educate and unite the community.
Although the group is relatively new, they’ve been successful in educating other students about sustainability and the environment, in and outside the realm of the garden. During the past year, the group has had two successful growing seasons; investigated sites of environmental injustice and participated in grassroots activism in Detroit; and collaborated on a food justice panel that attracted nearly 150 people in the spring.
“I'm probably most proud of how engaged we've been given that we're only a year-old student group,” Razdar said. I also spoke to RC professor Virginia Murphy. She views the garden as a way for students to learn about the cycles of their food. Students have continued collaborating with Murphy to manage the East Quad garden.
“I hope that through both Eco and Food Forum, the students learn that cooking healthy food is not difficult,” Murphy said. “I also hope that through this hands-on educational process the idea of growing our own food becomes less daunting.”
Hannah Butterworth, a junior in LSA and an Eco Forum leader, worked as the garden intern this summer and was in charge of planting and managing the garden. She mentioned the garden’s positive impact on her personally, and on the community at large.
“I believe that growing food together cultivates a community-minded student body. It takes care and consideration to bring a garden to harvest,” Butterworth told me. “I hope that the students who interact with the garden start to think about the unsustainability of our current food system. By showing people that they can take an active role in the growth of their food, I hope that we can encourage them to think more critically about their typical consumption habits.”
The garden exists to shorten the distance between people and the process through which their food is grown. Razdar and Butterworth encourage students interacting with the garden to think about the how this garden is part of a more sustainable food system.
“As a student of a large public university, I'd say we have to always be cognizant of how our institution practices sustainability,” said Razdar. “Fortunately our university has a lot of public information in the form of sustainability reports, and many channels to engage with issues of sustainability academically.”
Razdar would like to see more discussion and action sustainability normalized throughout U-M. He has noticed more dialogues about the environment at the RC than in other undergrad settings. Razdar feels this is due to the supportive nature of the RC faculty, who are often very receptive to initiatives that create cultures of sustainability.
“That's one main reason why East Quad dining holds successful Meatless Mondays, and why we have a growing community garden. However, it still seems to be something students pursue on the side, especially if they can't do so through courses. That's one of the reasons why we made Eco Forum: to prioritize sustainability in campus life.”
About the Author: Rebecca Lerner is a Planet Blue Ambassador and assists with efforts to promote sustainability. She is a U-M student studying English and Screen Arts and Culture and is working as a writer with the Graham Sustainability Institute.