Synchronized Human and Natural Flourishing

October 4, 2016

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Brian Bollinger is the Executive Director for Friends of Refugees in Clarkston, Georgia.  Friends of Refugees, founded in 1995, is a non-profit organization whose mission is to empower refugees through opportunities that provide for their well-being, education, and employment.  

I once read a quote from Karen Kearney at Georgia’s own Koinonia Farms that said, “Pay attention to what works in the garden, for what works in the garden may one day work in the world.” That echoed in my mind as I sat at the INSS conference this year. Considering all the ways that action and learning can connect around social sustainability, a clear picture of synchronized human and natural flourishing struck me most. We’re here to ruminate upon what will bind human and natural flourishing together, in our learning and action, as it ultimately is bound in our eco-system and biosphere

Out in Clarkston, Georgia, we have a diverse sphere of stories to tell: refugees and immigrants from over 100 countries, along with a host of long-time Georgia natives, building life together in what is, to the surprise of many, one of the highest density ZIP codes in the entire Southeast, at over 7,000 people per square mile. You want to figure out what can “work in the world”? Clarkston is a garden to watch. 

At Friends of Refugees, our vision is to see folks experiencing “Abundant life in flourishing communities.” The Jolly Avenue Community Garden is one of our 7 community development programs where that is most visible, a bustling Third Place, seated for 7 years now at the vertex of 10 apartment complexes and 3 schools, where nearly 100 families have a garden plot to call their own. Some 10,000 people can walk to this garden in a matter of minutes. I once joked to John Lanier of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation that we’re creating a Serenbe for the working poor. But in all seriousness, this is the seed of New Urbanism for factory workers. It’s also a cutting edge model of permaculture design and progressive civil engineering, with some of Georgia’s tallest Hügelkultur bioswales and the kind of site design we hope will become the baseline someday. 

What makes the garden great above ground is that it provides powerful opportunity for the most marginalized members of a resettled refugee family: the elderly, who often cannot survive jobs available in the factories at their English levels. In their home country, they were honored: bastions of medical, political, legal and social knowledge. They made their lands resilient. But when they come here, much of that is invalidated by being in a completely different land. So they ask the question, “What do I have to contribute?” One answer is that they bring with them 4,000 years of agricultural knowledge, with which they can build family food security in this food desert

On each 120 to 150 square foot plot, a family can produce crops hard to afford on a working poor budget: chili peppers, eggplants, a variety of distinctive okras and much more.  Perhaps the most unusual crop grown is chin baung, a roselle relative of the red sorrel.  This nutrient dense, leafy green is the most consumed vegetable in Southeast Asia and is used as a thickener and flavor enhancer in soups, stew and curries.  Because the soil composition here is a rich Pacolet Sandy Loam (arguably the best soil in Georgia for growing vegetables), chin baung grows like a weed.  Not only can a refugee grandmother provide nutritious food for her family but she can also harvest, bundle and sell the crop to her community for almost half the price of what it costs in some of Atlanta’s popular Asian-focused food markets.  Her monetary contribution can be over $1,000 a year.  And just like that, she begins to take hold of some power over the purse and the restoration of dignity that comes with it.

As different ethnic groups come together they share their ideas of what grows best and how it grows best.  Friendly competitions build resilient community. And a healthier community, because, according to several of our gardeners, this locally grown food “just tastes better” and is therefore consumed more readily.  Also, gardening is a demonstrated treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a syndrome common to refugees who have survived torture, trauma and war.  For our families to be able to participate, hand in hand, in the act of creation is fundamentally restorative.

The Pacolet Sandy Loam soil, found in only 5% of DeKalb County, is further enriched by an irrigation system called a hugelkultur bioswale. The system began as a Boy Scout Eagle Project with the help of a tree company’s donated dead trees.  In the rear of the garden, the volunteers began to dig giant trenches up to 100-feet long and several feet deep.  Next, the trench or infiltration pool was backfilled with dead trees and wood chips piled three feet above the ground creating a six-foot hydrophilic void that is ideal for collecting rainwater. This void becomes and acts as a sponge, detending storm water and rain. After the storm, it flows out from the underground swales, where a lens forms and plumes upwards, watering the garden from underneath.  This “lensatic pluming” also flushes rich nutrients from the decomposing tree mass downhill, further abating the inorganic clay in the soil with organic biomass. 

From a civil engineering standpoint, the whole system is designed to infiltrate a 100-year flood event, not discharging any of the water into the county’s storm water system. Beyond mere permaculture, part of Resiliency is declaring that storm water and rainwater are resources, not nuisances. We are determined to use it, not send it away and then pay someone to pipe it back to us…that is what we expect of ourselves, what our gardeners need, and frankly what our donors require of us – that we steward their resources very, very well.  We hope this civil site design will become a model for the future of practical environmental design and construction in Georgia.

At Friends of Refugees’ Jolly Avenue Community Garden, success in strengthening community resiliency combined with improving physical and mental health demonstrates how innovative design and partnership can lead to a socially sustainable space. It becomes a place where human and natural community flourish, where community assets, ancient knowledge, history, tradition and social capital all advance in concert. We do this as stewards for the next generation, whose resources we borrow today.

I’m glad that the INSS conference didn’t set out to “solve” social sustainability and resiliency; instead it set out to open our eyes and ears to stories of systems that will work, of gardens, cities, and solutions that have the potential to “work in the world”. As our Director of Agriculture and Nutrition, Erin Davenport, will warn you, it is always wise to start small when building a garden (and a community). “Those who are interested will show up.  I think one mistake people make when starting is looking, first, for as many people to join as possible.  If you start with focusing on the garden and being open to whoever comes to join you, the success rate will far exceed your expectations.” “What works in the garden, may one day work in the world.”