Posted October 30th 2010 at 9:18 am by
in Philadelphia Mill Creek Watershed Analysis

Access to Storytelling and the Earthkeepers of West Philadelphia

EarthskeepersThe Earthkeepers, summer 2010. Photo by Anne Whiston Spirn.

The Earthkeepers, a team of high school community gardeners from West Philadelphia, want to tell the world the story of their garden.  Aspen Farms has been a landmark in the Mill Creek neighborhood of Philadelphia since the 1970s.  It hosts a gazebo, a mural, plots for local people, and plots for the Earthkeepers to discover the life cycle of, and market for, the food they eat.

As the director of CoLab media projects, I often work in partnership with the various community groups connected to CoLab to help them augment their media programs.  This month I went to Philadelphia to work with the Earthkeepers, connected through an MIT Urban Planning course that is analyzing water preservation strategies in the same neighborhood.

I found fourteen capable teenagers led by Sister Alia and Sister Safiyah, two of Philadelphia’s most recognized gardeners (the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society awarded them first prize in a gardening contest this summer).  The Earthkeepers wanted to make a movie about their garden, a project I believe in and want to continue to work on.  But given that I’d never seen the high school computer lab they use and we didn’t know if the computers were loaded with movie-making software, we decided to start with a media project that was more likely to be realistic given the constraints.

And, in just a few intense hours, the Eartheepers launched a blog, made their first three blog posts, and even wrote an about page for their site.

To start, we split the group in half: media producers and web designers.  We did a collective brainstorm with the media producers on the various ways they could tell their story.  Two decided to write poetry about their garden and three of them decided to do video interviews with the Flip camera I brought.

The rest of the students and I went to their school’s computer lab to make the blog.  There were several problems.

The school blocks access to many websites, including wordpress, the free blog-making site.  One of the students knew a workaround.  They use https:// rather than http:// to get on Facebook and all the other sites they want to access. Despite this workaround, we were stalled; we had to re-enter the ‘s’ in https:// every time we clicked through to a new page.

Additionally, the school computers wouldn’t let students download photos from email or the web and then upload them to wordpress.  After seeing a big red X appear as our header image after each of five tries, one of the students suggested that our header photo might be appearing on regular computers.  To test her idea, I opened my personal laptop.  Since the internet required a password, I went to the teacher in the room next door to ask for it.  She informed me that no one knew the password; I would have to hand my computer over to the tech guy to let him set it up.

It was after 6:00, so the school tech guy was gone.  Finally I resorted to my cell phone.  Fourteen students gathered ’round my iPhone to see what the site looked like with the image they uploaded.

We went back to the media producers to see what they had made.  They had two poems, three video interviews, and one recording of a poet reading her work.  They learned how to log in to wordpress and create their posts.  Hankering for a piece of gum, I left them in front of the computers while I searched my bag.  By the time I found my gum, the students had figured out how to load their posts and clicked publish.

As a last step, I checked the computers for video editing software so that we could process their video interviews.  The computers did not have Windows Movie Maker or any other program, as far as I could tell.  Far from archaic, the computer lab is a clean space with several neat rows of black flat-screens.  I had assumed upon entering they would have Movie Maker.

We were running out of time, so I loaded the videos from my own computer when I got home – easy enough, but the students didn’t get to learn how to do it, see what a shaky camera looks like, or make decisions about what questions to cut.

Upon further exploration of where the Earthkeepers could make their media in the future, I learned that the local community center at which they meet has neither computers nor internet access.

In sum, it seems as though a teenager in West Philadelphia who wants to tell the world a story about her garden has a long row to hoe.

Please take a moment to listen to Earthkeeper Erica Adeleye read her poem about gardening.  See her full post here.

Videography by Cashmiere Mond.

The life a garden beholds is one of beauty.

A place where you can be one with nature and all creations.

From the birds to the bees, to the weeds and the leaves.

We all need a little dirt to grow!

The funny thing about a garden is that beauty lives within its gates.

And you will relize under it all something not so beautiful.

Thorns and weeds, grow there, the bugs may scare you and the soil may be messy, but they all help to create vivid colors.

Sweet aromas, and sensations, fruit and vegatables alike, play an important role in the gift of life.

In the garden where all is simple, pure and scerene.

For more information on the Mill Creek Watershed, please visit the West Philadelphia Landscape Project (WPLP), a decades-long commitment to the people and landscape of West Philadelphia, where Professor Anne Spirn has been working since 1987. For the latest on the WPLP, please visit the WPLP Blog.

2 Responses to “Access to Storytelling and the Earthkeepers of West Philadelphia”

  1. Brandon B. says:

    I think that it is wonderful to have a group of high school students who are not only interested and active in gardening, but share their experiences through a blog post. What a great and productive way for youth to spend their time. It is unfortunate that there were so many obstacles for the students to be able to access WordPress to be able to post a blog. Perhaps the school could change some of their security features in the computer lab for this seemingly worth while cause.

    Best of luck to all of the students involved with the garden and the blog.

  2. [...] middle school students in West Philadelphia. In the post below, which was originally published on CoLab Radio, Alexa describes her experience with the Earthkeepers and showcases their efforts to share their [...]