An Urban Farm Teaches Millennials How to Disobey

Designers Accord

As a graduate student at California College of the Arts in San Francisco, Robyn Waxman became fascinated with the next generation of designers' role when it came to protest and civil disobedience, a place designers and artists have been focusing their efforts for centuries. Studying millennials, who are generally considered to be a group of participatory, positive, technologically-savvy 18- to 30-year-olds, revealed some interesting insights: This was a generation that had solid respect for the law and was reluctant to publicly criticize the status quo. "[They] are really concerned about defying authority," says Waxman, who is 39. "They are looking out for their future." As her thesis, Waxman proposed an intervention that helped redefine protest for the rising creative group—a form of engagement that would help educate and inspire them in how to take action.

"PRODUCTIVE PROTEST"
Holding a panel discussion at CCA—which Waxman dubbed a "teach-in"—at the school confirmed her beliefs about the overly polite, non-confrontational nature of CCA's students. The discussion focused on the idea of setting formal guidelines for corporate sponsorship at the school and to Waxman's mind was mostly even-keeled. But students described it as controversial, remembers Waxman. "Partially because of the subject matter, but mostly because one audience member—a department chair on campus—lost control during the Q&A at the end, with an outburst that included expletives." Afterwards, even though some students felt strongly opposed to sponsorship, Waxman had trouble engaging the students on a deeper level to even discuss the topic. It was obvious that the behavior of previous generations did not carry over to these students, who were not likely to join marches, sit-ins or rallies like Waxman had participated in as an undergrad during the first Gulf War. "How do I, as someone from a previous generation, help bring that to them?"

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She realized if confrontational behavior was not in their nature, then she would have to introduce a form of more perpetual protest. Waxman sought to have a group of students physically reclaim a strip of public land bordering the school's street, which CCA shares with homeless residents as well as day laborers. Waxman believed they could intervene agriculturally on the block—which was littered with hypodermic needles—by growing enough food for the neighbors. "We were three transient populations brought together by a piece of toxic land that held the potential for building community and for addressing a food issue," she remembers. Dubbing the project FARM (Future Action Reclamation Mob) she encouraged students through posters and other campaign methods to rally behind the cause, using language she believed would appeal to the Millennials. At first, Waxman planned to take over the land forcefully, but was encouraged by other students to ask permission. Amazingly, the city was so excited about the project they approved the site to be turned over to the group within a week. On the first workday, in March of 2008, more than 50 people showed up to convert the land into a farm.

CREATIVE COLLABORATION
Art students worked side by side with day laborers to convert the space into a permaculture environment that referenced natural, local ecologies, yet also helped to detoxify the soil, layering the ground with cardboard, compost, granite dust and mulch. Through a series of workdays or signing the FARM's "Manifestation" over 150 registered farmers have now contributed to the project, but the most surprising contributions started to appear without any direction from Waxman whatsoever. Donations of tools, materials and plants poured in. Architecture students designed a bench. Signage was produced for the farm, as well as directions for the verimiculture compost bin. A collaboration between industrial design and architecture students has constructed a rain-catchment system on the roof of CCA, to be completed in January, using leftover corrugated metal siding from the building's roof.

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The farm, which grows crops from strawberries to lettuce to oyster mushrooms, donates about half of its yield to Free Farm Stand, who gives them seedlings in return. Food is also given to the residents of Hooper Street. There are no rules for the garden as to who can or cannot eat from it, and Waxman says she often has to offer the harvest to homeless and food insecure people on the street.

THE FARM GROWS
If the Hooper Street garden transformed public space into productive space, Waxman also wanted the challenge of transforming private space into public space. Eventually, Waxman was able to convince her husband to convert their Davis, California, front yard into a second farm, which was installed around Halloween. With the dedication of about 40 University of California, Davis students—who actually do major in agriculture—the farm has already yielded lettuce in just over a month. Waxman plans an exchange program between the FARMs to share their expertise in design and agriculture.

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To further disseminate the program to an eager audience of other design schools hoping to implement their own FARMS, Waxman then designed a 56-page tabloid documenting the procedure which can be downloaded for free. All promotional materials and plans are available so other schools and groups can replicate the FARMs' successes. The tabloid itself is made of recycled paper and vegetable-based inks, and can be used for compost fodder after it has been read. Another FARM is planned in Sacramento.

COMMUNITY RESPONSE
Ironically, one authority figure FARM had to square off against was the founding school itself: At first, key faculty advisors were not supportive of the proposal. Even Waxman's own thesis advisor questioned the project's leaning towards civil disobedience as a green light for students act out in disturbing ways. "I would worry about what happens to the energy that seems to fuel protest," an email sent to Waxman read. "Some of the energy is transgressive; some is even sexual, I think." Although many skeptics of the school have been converted, others have eschewed Waxman's project as unworthy of a design thesis project and unkempt or ugly. Early on, Waxman heard comments like "If you wanted a garden, hire a gardener." and "So, Robyn—how does your garden grow?" One thesis advisor told Waxman her project is still the source of controversy in their department meetings

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Being confronted with such antagonistic behavior right on campus makes the peaceful protest of the FARM that much more successful as a project. "Protest doesn't have to be something that people hate," says Waxman. "That's what makes it so enticing for this generation." In a way, the FARM process becomes a very political, very personal, but still unprescribed way for designers to take part in a creative process—one that has a physical place for gathering and interaction—and that's what really appeals to Millennials. "It becomes a prolonged place of engagement, making a place their own, and taking things into their own hands," she says. Waxman hopes she's shown the next generation that there are ways to engage in collective action which are subversive, productive, and quite honestly, delicious.

[Workday photos by Navid Baraty. More photos can be seen here]

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4 Comments

  • Robyn Waxman

    Hi Evan- you are right. FARM is not radical. It wasn't intended to be radical either and this article doesn't describe it as radical. Saying that the Millennials don't engage in civil disobedience is a generalization and to generalize again, Millennials really dislike generalizations!

    The idea behind FARM was to offer a way for the next generation to engage in free speech -- in a way that connected with their cultural nuances. And while FARM is not radical, not everybody is able or willing to engage in civil disobedience. If we are to successfully bring about change, we must unite all who can be united.

    PS. The UC students rock.

  • Robyn Waxman

    Hi Robert- This is not teaching disobedience, clearly. There is nothing disobedient about overt reactions to events or situations in the United States. We are publicly and productively trying to make our opinions heard and it is a win-win, as you mention. Not sure why the article title has the word "disobey" in it.

  • Evan Schoepke

    Hmmn. Good article, good project, but hardly "radical". To say millenials don't engage much in civil disobedience or piss off the status quo is to my mind totally dismissive (just look at at the UC students). For more info about radical permaculture projects check out: www.punkrockpermaculture.com

  • Robert Brady

    How is this teaching disobedience when they asked for permission and completed essentially an urban beautification project for free? If anything this should be a post about how communities and governments can work together to create win-win situations (ie the government was relieved of a maintenance issue and the community was able to utilize a public space).