Environmental Sustainability Student Blogger Study USA

Season of Growth

Hoophouse inside shows leafy green lettuce growing.

Each term, one participant from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Rachel de Sobrino (she/her/hers) is HECUA’s student blogger for Environmental Sustainability Spring 2021. She is student at University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, majoring in geography. Read on for her next post!

Every year I’m newly affronted by daylight savings time and the realization that I got one less hour of sleep. For some reason, this year I forgot that this wasn’t a one-day deal and was surprised to wake up Monday morning to the dark which slowly became a pink sky. I think I’ll get over my annoyance from a little lost sleep and be grateful to see a part of the day that I normally miss. I had to squish my impressively four hour morning routine down to a measly two in order to make it to class on time without waking up at 6 am. Class is HECUA’s Environmental Justice program, where we’ve spent the last few weeks diving into environmental justice themes of community, mutual aid, and resilience. I find myself feeling hopeful amidst these discussions, the warming temperatures, and news of ever-rising COVID vaccination numbers. 

It feels contradictory to hold these feelings of joy and optimism while at the same time being in a tense political moment. Each week, we explore an environmental justice field method and reflect on its history, importance, and power for change. Recently we discussed the power of feeling, giving oneself the permission to inhabit and process our experiences in a world filled with change and uncertainty. The city of Minneapolis hasn’t just changed from melting snow; barricades and barbed wire have sprung up in anticipation of the ongoing trial in the case against former police officer Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd. So far most of the news from the trial has been surrounding jury selection, and raises the question of what it means to be unbiased in instances of police violence. There’s also the ever-present physical reality felt by many of seeing your neighborhood armed against you with help from your tax dollars. I think it’s important to hold space for all of these feelings: grief and anger for a white supremacist system, and love and hope for the care we are able to build together. 

Six weeks into our HECUA Environmental Justice program, and I already feel richer for the connections that Dr. Michelle Garvey, our program director, has helped us to create within the movement. Nearly every day in class, we get the opportunity to meet with an expert in an environmental justice field, as well as to learn from the writings of many more. Each of our class guests has a depth of knowledge and experience working in their field, whether that’s city government, solar energy, or fighting the toxic skin-whitening industry. I continue to be pleasantly surprised by the interconnectedness within the environmental justice movement. Frequently one of our guests will reference a previous visitor to our classroom or an author we had read the week prior. I also can expect to run into a new EJ connection each time I attend a rally or Zoom call. I was happy to bump into Michelle and Women’s Environmental Institute co-founders Karen Clark and Jacque Zita at the Rally Against Environmental Racism in East Phillips, which was not all surprising given Karen Clark’s extensive support of the neighborhood as a resident and former representative. 

Students outside of Trio Plant-Based. Photo credit, Michelle Garvey.

I’m incredibly passionate about food — as an eater, grower, and seldom recipe-follower. Food is also such an important component of environmental justice for the ways that it links to sovereignty, health, and community. I don’t know of any other academic programs that take you out to eat vegan food and talk about food justice, but that’s what we got to do when we met with owner Louis Hunter at the nationally recognized Trio Plant-based in Minneapolis and learned about all of the love that goes into preparing each dish of vegan soul food. The importance of access to healthy food is huge; I learned from WEI Executive Director Karen Clark how eating foods high in iron, like leafy greens, can serve as preventative care against lead poisoning, an issue that predominantly affects children in low-income areas. I’m interning with WEI at the Amador Hill farm this semester, and so I’m learning first hand the amount of work and care that goes into growing healthy and organic foods. 

After a hard day’s work of farming, or for me, one hour sifting compost, there is nothing I crave more than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It ticks all the hard-work boxes: carb, protein, and sugary fruitiness. No matter what else I pack for lunch (and one time I brought a tupperware full of cupcakes) nothing brings me quite as much joy as a pb&j, which I now realize I severely under-appreciated before. Interning at the farm has made me wish I had more hours in the day, since I usually can only make it out once or twice a week. One of the fun ways I’ve been able to spend more time at the farm has been by attending the events and classes that WEI offers. This Saturday I’m going to learn how to care for and drive a tractor, and a couple of weeks ago I learned all about pruning apple trees, which so far has only made me a critic when it came to scrutinizing my parents’ trees at home. Will I ever drive my own tractor or prune my own trees? Maybe not, but I think my life would be more exciting if I did! I’m very much looking forward to all of WEI’s classes on growing and preparing wholesome foods, but I’m also eager to sign up to learn how to use a chainsaw and power tools — watch out or I might build you a table. 

I am still enchanted with growing and caring for plants on the farm, but I’ll confess it’s not all oohing and aahing at lettuce. You know how your body contains more bacteria than human cells? I’m pretty sure the number of aphids I bring home crawling on my arms and pant legs makes me at least 2% aphid. I probably couldn’t have told you what an aphid looked like two weeks ago, because while I knew what they were, I’d never knowingly encountered them in our home garden. But in an enclosed, warm environment like a hoop house that is coincidentally filled with beautiful green leaves they go crazy. I’ve learned about some genius organic-farming techniques for aphid control to keep the greens safe from the hungry little larva. How would you feel if you were going about your day, munching on someone’s hard work, when all of a sudden you poke yourself on the dried up, crushed bodies of your prehistoric ancestors? That’s a very graphic description of diatomaceous earth, a fine powder of fossilized plankton that kills crawling insects when sprinkled on the soil. I also learned that the midwest myth of Asian lady beetles not being true aphid killers like lady bugs is false! I’ll probably still vacuum them out of my own house, but if I find one in the hoop house I carefully transport it to the nearest aphid party and whisper it some encouragement. In addition to bringing in the good bugs, you can also hit aphids with “insecticide” in the form of soap, which I guess I wouldn’t like swimming around in either. Our apple-pruning expert, Jim Birkholz, shared with us that the big fertilizers and insecticides are what sells, not necessarily what works, so sometimes that means you have to get creative (especially when organic farming). 

One of our ongoing course assignments is called Ecology of Change, where we evaluate ourselves as a change maker. We live in a big, messy world and I don’t think I’ve found my niche in it just yet. Isn’t that what college costs thousands of dollars for? I’m not making any promises about changing the world, but I do see this program building a valuable foundation for my classmates and I do envision a world that is environmentally just and I see how we might participate in its creation. And hey, if that doesn’t work, at least Michelle brings baked goods to class and we get to enjoy the outdoors. 

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