Appreciating the Small Victories: Building a Garden at Hoover Road
On a Saturday evening in mid-March, I sped over to Hoover Road, greeted the residents, and began to unload large bags of fertilizer and dirt from the back of a nearby pick-up truck as Heather and Ruth, two members on the Durham CAN affordable housing team, directed me towards the site of the new garden. A few weeks ago, one of the community leaders at Hoover Road expressed that she wanted a garden for people to grow their own food. Finally, after weeks of planning we started the first steps of making the community garden a reality.
Earlier in the month, Heather persuaded the the local Firehouse subs to donate their bright-red five-gallon buckets for the garden. Then in her spare time, she engineered five sub-irrigated planters by drilling holes in the buckets for PVC piping that would serve as irrigation for the soil. Ultimately this design creates a small reservoir of water, offering the benefit of less frequent watering while still supplying the moisture the plants need to survive. After we finished filling the planters with the soil, Heather helped us plant cabbage, mint, rosemary and peas into the planters and then we covered them with fresh mulch. Two weeks later when we retuned to build more planters, the children giggled and smiled as they helped watered the plants, mixed the dirt, and discovered the taste of fresh mint on their teeth.
When reflecting on garden with Tinu, the lead organizer with Durham CAN, she mentioned how the site of the garden used to be a playground which rusted over and fell apart over the years. For the residents, the aging playground became a monument of insult and abandonment from the Durham Housing Authority, but when Durham CAN helped organize the residents to remove the playground, there was a sense of pride and agency restored to Hoover Road. She concluded “Removing that old playground is one of the most important actions we’ve done at Hoover Road.”
As I’ve mentioned in other posts, Durham CAN stands in Saul Alinsky’s tradition of Broad-Based Organizing which assumes the necessity of long-term actions which take months and even years to make real change. For example, Durham CAN’s affordable housing team has organized for several months on an action to change the Durham Housing Authority’s eviction policy. Therefore, community organizing can be a long, tedious process of incremental change and attrition. Even worse, despite the hard-earned satisfaction of a successful action, sometimes years of work can be washed away with the careless swipe of a pen. For example, Fair Fight Action, an organization founded by Stacey Abrams to fight voter suppression in Georgia, witnessed years of work washed away as Gov. Brian Kemp signed a new law to restrict voter access. Speaking on this same dynamic of organizing, Ed Chambers writes:
“Fleeting moments of peace and harmony are the most we get in this life. The holy books promise lasting peace, but only when the reign of God arrives. Until then, unity in the real world last for thirty seconds or maybe a day and a half. The law of change is incessant, like the tides. The yearning for unity is like the longing for certainty. We want both, but we can’t have them in this lifetime.”
As a student in the Divinity School, I often reflect on how the Bible speaks to my context in organizing. Concerning the seemingly temporary peace in organizing, I’m reminded of Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes), the Old Testament book famous for its opening verses “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” Like Chambers understanding of peace, Qoheleth reminds us that most things we toil for can be temporary, fleeting, pointless or in vain. Indeed, the Hebrew word commonly translated as “vanity” (hebel) literally means vapor.
However, organizing isn’t simply a number of public actions in vain, neither is Qoheleth the entirety of the Old Testament. Through the work with Durham CAN, I’ve seen residents claim their agency and work towards building power to make their voices heard in the political decisions that affect their lives. Similarly, the Hebrew prophets reminds us not to slip into nihilism and meaninglessness, but instead that true worship of the Lord results in justice rolling down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Suggesting the value of reading Amos and Qoheleth together, Duke Divinity Professor Brent Strawn writes:
“And maybe Qoheleth and Amos could agree that the glory of the finite includes the very small victories occasionally won in the face of what seem like intractable problems, such that the impossibly long arc of the moral universe really does bend, eventually and ever so slowly, toward justice.”
The wisdom of Dr. Strawn’s analysis reminds us of the importance of celebrating “the very small victories” like the smile on children’s faces when building a garden, or the dignity restored the community when a rusty playground is removed. While I do hope Durham CAN’s efforts with the affordable housing team will lead to a change in the eviction policy, I realize the necessity for patience when working on long-term actions. Luckily in the meantime, I have the smiles of the children at Hoover Road and the joy of residents in their new garden to remind me about the incremental steps we take to make Durham the Beloved Community.
Chambers, Edawrd T. Roots for Radicals . New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group , 2005.
Collins, John. A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis, MN: Foretress Press, 2018.
Strawn, Brent. “Ecclesiastes has some things to say about COVID-19.” ChristianCentury.org . January 1, 2021. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/reflection/ecclesiastes-has-some-things-say-about-covid-19 (accessed March 29, 2021).
 For a visual: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-dXXY79mAA
 (Chambers 2005, 32)
 (Collins 2018, 346)
 (Strawn 2021)