School of Live Culture (SLC) is a radical pedagogical artwork that hires at-risk youth in Rochester, NY, to teach local university students about sustainability and food justice. An ongoing collaboration with Seedfolk City Farm, the Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, and the University of Rochester, School of Live Culture (SLC) develops networks of dialogue and community between youth hyper-segregated from each other by the politics of race, poverty, and education. In each three-month session, weekly lessons on urban agriculture are designed and implemented by Seedfolk youth farmers, ages 15-19, who have experience growing vegetables for Rochester food deserts, namely the low-income 19th Ward and PLEX neighborhoods. While directing university student through the basics of composting and organic farming, the Seedfolks demonstrate symbolically how vulnerable populations (people of color, the poor, those without formal educations) in this Rust Belt city are already addressing the problems of food access and public health that university students tend to study as textbook issues faced by people “out there” rather than next door to their campus. By paying the Seedfolks to teach college students, SLC not only provides leadership opportunities and life-enriching jobs but also puts undergrads of an elite university in a position of learning from individuals they thought they were supposed to help. Through the ostensible “stage” of a farming course, SLC disrupts socio-economic hierarchies and symbolically brings into perception new possibilities of community, skill-sharing, imagination, sustainability, and being-with-others, which are often foreclosed by traditional top-down approaches to social justice. Meanwhile, through this social performance, participants begin to question patterns of racial hyper-segregation in the American Rust Belt, inequality and privilege in the American educational system, the relationships of universities to their immediate neighborhoods, and the notion that academic experts need be the solvers of problems faced by “underprivileged” communities.
Lisa Barker, Founder/Director of Seedfolk City Farm and School of Live Culture | Rochester collaborator:
“The Seedfolk Farmers have been trusted as leaders to work with college students. They’ve been told that what they have to say matters and that they know is worth sharing. This is an incredible thing. They come from a range of backgrounds, and some know the experience of just trying to get by. And then they get to lead college students, and not only that, these students sit by them and help them put their ideas into words and poems. They ask them for photographs and input for collaborative artworks. The University of Rochester students’ ideas for social practice projects included giving these young people the mic and learning about their neighborhoods. They’ve invited them for dinner on campus. This class represents the traditional power structure being turned on its head and it was an incredibly empowering experience to be a part of.”
SLC|Rochester was a collaboration between the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, University of Rochester, and Seedfolk City Farm, and was generously supported by the Rochester Center for Community Leadership, the University of Rochester Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, and a Community Grant by the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. A very special thanks to our Seedfolk teachers: Tavante Conyers, Kasim Wallace, Keyasia Roberts, Marina Shaver, Semaj Cruz, Charisse Warnick, Jarvis Duvall, and Jamison Clark.