date. Spring 2012
location. Dallas, Texas, U.S.A.
My Role: Lead Instructor and Design Research, Refugee Empowerment Services at Catholic Charities of Dallas
Problem: Catholic Charities of Dallas was floating around the idea of building a community garden in the Vickery Meadow neighborhood, where many of the organization's refugee clients live. However, we wanted to get a sense of the community's interest and how the project could be sustained.
Process: I conducted a series of interviews and focus groups, with the help of translators, to determine the level of interest, feasibility and potential uptake of a project.
Outcome: After a series of interviews and follow-ups with more than 15 clients, I presented the results my colleague who was the project coordinator. An MOU was signed with Dallas ISD and the Vickery Meadow Youth Foundation for land and development of the project. Clients were assigned plots of land and began planting, along with a governance structure for the community. The community garden is still thriving today.
The City of Dallas was already willing to donate land that was originally property of Jill Stone Elementary School across the street from the parcel of land that would be the community garden. The challenges and questions we had for the project were less about the supply-side, but around the human factors that would ensure the utility and sustainability of the garden.
Our target participants were a diverse group - resettled refugee families (especially the older generation) from Bhutan, Burma, Somalia, and Ethiopia - coming from different cultural backgrounds, homelands, and farming techniques. Would they be flexible and adaptive enough to adopt to the gardening practices different from their farming techniques at home? How would we select our gardeners? How could we ensure that the plots will be sufficiently used and maintained? Would the purpose of the garden be a supplemental source of food security, a productive livelihood or to promote healthier living and community?
The Interview Process:
We interviewed a sample of refugee clients from different ethnic backgrounds (Bhutan, Somalia and Burma) and of both genders. We conducted interviews in their home environments, where we were able to have direct observation of their lifestyles. The interviews were often conducted in pairs with family or neighbors so interviewees could build answers off of each other, with presence of translators.
Our questions were designed to assess behaviors and attitudes on gardening and farming. They included how time is spent day-to-day for their resettled lives in the U.S., life farming in the refugees' home countries, assessing their interest level and time available for participating in a community garden.
We incorporated review sessions as a part of the action research cycle, which then helped plan a second round of questions to ask. Based off the questions and patterns that emerged from interpreting the first round, the second round would assess the extent to which refugees' gardening interests and habits were aligned with the land, soil and tools we could provide. We then logistical and technical questions that included the types of vegetables planted, type of farm they had, and who among their friends and family would help maintain and grow the garden.
Through thematic content analysis, we found overarching themes revealed from our interviews. The most apparent was how the refugees expressed excitement at the possibility of a community garden. Their enthusiasm and hope for the project was less in the interest of food security it may provide, and more for the sense of community, productivity and purpose as well as a healthier lifestyle.