by Rachel Johnson
The first rain cloud of July moves slowly over Kealing Middle School—promising much-needed water for the on-campus community garden. Eight raised beds comprise the garden, and rows of peppers, squash, kale and herbs are bursting into the walkways, untamed by the harsh summer. A shed, constructed from donated materials, holds gardening tools and materials, and the roof serves as a rain-collection device—funneling water into a large storage drum. “If it ends up raining today, we’ll be collecting water,” science teacher Linda Pogue says excitedly.
Though Kealing is divided into magnet and academy programs, the garden has always represented a shared space for students from both programs to come and work together. Pogue serves as the main garden coordinator—ordering equipment and overseeing student involvement. She hopes her seventh- and eighth-grade students will focus their capstone projects on the garden so that important values such as composting and recycling can be carried on through high school. “The curriculum I use in my classroom is focused around the garden, and I try to spend about half of our time outside,” Pogue says. She’s a dedicated champion for the cause—advocating for school improvements and enlisting students in the elective classes and after-school programs that help maintain the grounds.
Another dedicated champion of the garden and all that it can accomplish is former Kealing parent, Nine Francois. She’s worked with the school since the garden’s inception in 2012, and she’s the current coordinator of the 2-year-old Neighborhood Stories Project—an innovative way to connect food and the garden, students and surrounding community through storytelling. “For me, the agenda is social and it’s just doing it through gardening,” says Francois. “The garden is simply a hub.” The process is simple: Students come up with a range of questions—everything from asking about personal food and garden histories and memories to asking about changes in the neighborhood over the years—then, they conduct interviews with local community members. Photographs are taken of their subjects, and the students present and share their findings in the form of an article.
Allen Liu and Everett Butler, now eighth graders at Kealing, interviewed Brian Mays of Sam’s BBQ last year. “He told us that barbecue is the original soul food of East Austin, and that it came from scraps—the leftover food,” explains Butler. “It’s important for everyone to have different food,” adds Liu. “So when you come together, you can learn about each other.” By visiting Sam’s BBQ and talking to Mays, both students were able to learn more specifically about the food in East Austin, and the significance of building a community around food. “He told me that I would be successful when I get older,” says Liu. “That means a lot coming from him. When he sees success, he knows it.”
A’Lyrika Ransom, now a freshman at Lyndon B. Johnson High School, also participated in the project and interviewed cookbook author Angela Shelf Medearis. Ransom’s interview focuses on the publication of Medearis’ cookbook and how it took determination and a peach cobbler to convince the publisher to read the manuscript. “My peach cobbler has the powers to persuade,” Medearis says in Ransom’s article. “[Medearis] told us that food goes a long way in bringing people together,” says Ransom, and adds that the Neighborhood Stories Project has taught her to be herself, to make friends outside of her normal circle, to get out of her comfort zone and to test her social skills. “I was a bit nervous at first, but [Medearis] made me feel very comfortable. I just knew she was a good woman and I could learn a lot from her.”
The Kealing garden continues to inspire projects similar to the Neighborhood Stories Project and further cultivate its essential relationship with the surrounding community. Of course, the efforts rely on long-term commitments from sponsors in the community, parent volunteers and some support from the school’s budget. Francois has plans for the Neighborhood Stories Project to continue into the 2015/2016 school year, and the oral histories collected by students are now being archived by the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center—reinforcing the importance of students learning more about the community they live in and documenting history.
To the great relief of the parched garden, the rain finally came that day in July—ringing in a new school year and the newest crop of students. The act of coming together and learning through food is changing the way students see their role at Kealing, in a true, full-circle learning experience.
Pioneering a Literary Movement
Angela Shelf Medearis, known as the Kitchen Diva, is an African-American author and chef. Born in Austin, Texas, she began her career as a writer. She wrote for several magazines including the NAACP magazine, Crisis, one of the oldest publications in the United States. She had always wanted to write children’s books, so starting out, she wrote editorially part time to earn a little extra money while she honed her storytelling skills. She discovered early that many publishers believed there was little reason to invest in African-American children’s books. They thought there was no market for the material—African-Americans weren’t buying books and white families didn’t appear to have as much interest in them. “The thought was that black people weren’t buying books,” Medearis explained. “But there were no books to buy.” Medearis received more than a hundred rejections, but it didn’t stop her. On her last in-person visit, she literally blocked the publisher’s doorway, keeping him from going to lunch by reading her aloud her manuscript for her first book, Picking Peas for a Penny. As it happened, the publisher had picked peas as a child, so the story spoke to him. He agreed to give the book a chance and produced a small run, that Ms. Medearis and her husband would personally market in the school system, and thus create a name for herself as an author. Several years later, after earning considerable acclaim as an author, her mother was approaching retirement and looking to earn some extra money by baking pies. Medearis’s sister suggested she use her abilities as a writer to create a book of their mother’s recipes. When she proposed the project to her publisher, he wasn’t very receptive. Having unsuccessfully marketed The Soul Food Cookbook more than 25 years earlier, they were unwilling to take the risk on another African- American cookbook. But as Mederias put it, “I am a girl who doesn’t take ‘no’ well.” She decided he needed something that would make him take a second look. So she sent him a peach cobbler because, “my peach cobbler has powers to persuade,” she said. She worked with her Fed- Ex delivery man to send a peach cobbler, along with her manuscript, to her publisher in New York. The package arrived at the publisher at 8:30 in the morning. “By two o’clock, he called to tell me I had a contract and a check.” She’s truly come a long way, serving her community as a positive role model of strength and teaching others to never give up on their dreams.
A'Lyrika Ransom is currently a freshman at Lyndon B. Johnson High School. Her interview with Angela Shelf Medearis appears here as it was produced as part of Kealing Middle School's Neighborhood Stories Project.