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December 13, 2004

New program focuses on community and sustainability

By Jennifer McNulty

For decades, the UCSC Apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture has given participants an opportunity to live and work together as they learn about sustainable farming. The intensive hands-on training can be a life-changing experience, but few undergraduates have been able to participate in the apprenticeship because it requires a six-month, full time commitment.

Eager to integrate some of the community-building aspects of the apprenticeship into the undergraduate curriculum, environmental studies professor Steve Gliessman saw an opportunity when the campus opened new student housing units at the Village a few years ago.

Gliessman, whose office is located between the UCSC Farm and The Village, spearheaded the Program In Community and Agroecology (PICA) to give students an opportunity to experience membership in a close-knit community coming together around food issues.

“So many of our students have lost a sense of community as the communication age has separated people,” said Gliessman. “This is an attempt to reclaim that sense of community. Working the soil together gives people a chance to connect on a lot of different levels.”

For two years, Gliessman has worked with Don Rothman, senior lecturer in writing, and Jenny Anderson, environmental studies lecturer and program development coordinator, to guide about 25 undergraduates as they've explored issues of community and sustainability through a combination of classes and hands-on projects, including creating a garden and building a greenhouse at the Village.

Now, with an infusion of nearly $190,000 from the Clarence E. Heller Charitable Foundation, PICA will expand to about 50 students from across the campus. The outside funding will support the hiring of a coordinator, as well as provide course relief for instructors and small stipends for student internships.

The program will combine small seminar courses, internships, and hands-on learning to bridge academic and cocurricular aspects of college life. Rothman and Sarah Rabkin, a lecturer in writing, will emphasize how writing can enhance communities.

PICA students are encouraged to explore all aspects of the food system, including the environment, economics, culture, and society. The dual focus on community and food systems gives students from all majors virtually unlimited opportunities to explore the relationships that underlie food production, with a goal of bringing consumers and producers closer together, said Gliessman.

“Too often, when we talk about agricultural sustainability, we talk about organic production and markets for products, and there's little emphasis on community and relationships,” said Gliessman. “This is preparing students for what they'll do after they leave the university. It's about how people become effective members of a community.”

PICA student interns have worked with the Homeless Garden Project and in local schools, while others have interned with small coffee cooperatives in Costa Rica and Mexico. Not all endeavors, however, revolve around food production, Gliessman noted.

“Students don't come here to learn to garden, but they can learn to garden if they so choose,” he said.

Although the program began with students who lived in the Village, PICA is open to all students, regardless of where they live. Many early participants remain involved even after moving off campus, noted Gliessman.

“It began with the living units because they offer such potential for creating a community, but it's about learning to accept each other, work together, and learn from each other,” said Gliessman, for whom “community” has been a thread throughout his life. Gliessman was a founding member of the Molino Creek Farming Collective near Davenport, and he lived and worked with agricultural communities in Costa Rica and Mexico before coming to UCSC, where he said he continues to forge meaningful communities around shared endeavors with students.

“Students benefit greatly by knowing how to interact with people and how to contribute their knowledge to a community, and they enrich the university by bringing back what they learn,” said Gliessman. “PICA is about how we, as an institution, can affect what students do when they carry their knowledge outside the classroom and into the community, where they are going to live and work the rest of their lives.”

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