Environmental Studies Students Connect with Urban Farms in Cleveland

May 31, 2019
Erin Ulrich ’18
Janet Fiskio motions with her hands, speaking to a student, against a whiteboard that reads "peer review"
Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and Comparative American Studies Janet Fiskio with a student in her course, American Agricultures Photo credit: Michael Hartman

For nearly a decade, Janet Fiskio and her students have been studying and visiting urban farms in Cleveland. Students in Fiskio’s American Agricultures course, which is cross-listed in environmental studies and comparative American studies, contextualize the history of black agrarianism in the Rust Belt. They are immersed in this history firsthand through field trips to Cleveland.

In recent years, Fiskio and her students have taken field trips to Vel’s Purple Oasis , a grassroots urban farm located in Cleveland’s University Circle. Cleveland-based wellness advocate Vel Scott founded the Oasis in 2008, which serves as a hub for healthy food in the neighborhood. Scott has since expanded its reach by partnering with schools and organizations in Northeast Ohio. The Oasis was also a site in this past year’s Connect Cleveland program for incoming first-years.

Fiskio, associate professor of environmental studies and comparative American studies,  was introduced to Scott in 2010 through Oberlin alum Brad Masi ’93,  founder of the New Agrarian Center . Fiskio, whose scholarship focuses on environmental justice and agrarianism and food justice says that her work with Scott has significantly influenced the course of her research and teaching.

“I feel like when you start studying the histories of Black agrarianism and immigrant labor, you recognize that, ethically, you’re compelled to make some kind of change,” Fiskio says. “Students are often saying, ‘I never knew this history. Now, I’m going to have to think about agriculture differently.’”

Scott and Fiskio have collaborated and supported each other in myriad ways. Fiskio’s students have supported the Oasis through grant writing, garden and building upkeep, and by working as summer interns. In 2015, Fiskio and Scott were awarded backing by Oberlin’s Green Edge Fund to rehabilitate the Don Scott House, a community food center named in honor of Scott’s late husband. Along with environmental studies professor Rumi Shammin, they also jointly authored ‘‘Cultivating Community: Black Agrarianism in Cleveland, Ohio in Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies in 2016.

students sitting in semi circle in chairs
Students in Janet Fiskio's class.
Photo credit: Michael Hartman

By learning the histories of economically prosperous African American neighborhoods in Cleveland, students gain perspective on the origins of contemporary urban Black agrarianism. In addition to the Oasis, American Agricultures students also visit Chateau Hough , a Cleveland vineyard and winery founded by Cleveland native Mansfield Frazier.

Third-year environmental studies and comparative American studies double major Nathan Carpenter says the class trip to Chateau Hough enriched his learning in the course. ‘‘It was really valuable to talk with [Frazier], who is actively engaged in the world of urban farming and to hear about the different tradeoffs that must be balanced in that work,’’ he says. “I found the experiential elements of the class extraordinarily helpful in expanding my understanding of the topics we were learning about.”

When American Agriculture students have visited the Oasis in previous years, they spend the day gardening and lending a hand, but they also hear Scott’s story firsthand. Oftentimes, the trip sparks in students a continued interest in food justice. Throughout the years, Scott has mentored numerous Oberlin students and alumni who have supported the Oasis through grant writing and by conducting research.

“I think the course is self-selecting in that students who come to the class are already really committed to working in agriculture and food justice and want to learn more,” Fiskio says.

Scott says that the continuation of the Oberlin-Oasis relationship will support the longevity of the Oasis’ mission.

“Oberlin students and faculty can help us by continuing to share their vast knowledge of food justice and grant writing, and by bringing busloads of enthused, knowledgeable students to share their unique gifts and talents in helping us to continue to build and maintain the Oasis,” she says.

Biology and environmental studies double major Juan Contreras ’19 says the field trip to Chateau Hough gave him a real-world look at the concepts he studied in class. “It’s in moments like these where I can see my liberal arts experiences at work, my majors informing each other, and all of that contributing to a productive and active classroom.”

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