On Thursday, September 29, 2022, STRIPES students walked across Leidy Ave to the Viola Street Garden, a community garden that has been in operation for nearly fifty years. The 11th graders toured the garden with several neighborhood gardeners, then the whole group gathered to share a meal and conversation together, coordinated by the students. The importance of generational wisdom and mentoring was a common thread in the discussion, and one that STRIPES is working to integrate into its program this year.
This initial visit to Viola Street Gardens was to “till the soil” of a new partnership in which students will learn gardening basics, support the garden, as well as help collect oral histories of the gardeners. Viola Street gardeners Randy Smith and Mandy Katz have worked to enlist gardening mentors and to make the site open and welcoming for the students.
For many STRIPES students, gardening is a new experience. Each Thursday visit has the students doing a variety of tasks. As STRIPES scholar Mohamed explains, “We help to just make it better. We plant plants, we spread wood chips, we spread compost, and we pull weeds.”
Even after just a few weeks, the added benefits of the experience are evident. STRIPES student Tatiana notes that “during the pandemic, a lot of gardens weren’t doing well because people were on their screens and scared to be around each other. It’s good that we are part of bringing community gardens back.”
Student Junaid adds, “gardening is a form of therapy. It’s rewarding to see the results of our efforts. For students who are struggling, it can be a real outlet.”
The intergenerational part of the partnership is another key aspect. On one visit, STRIPES scholar Ciani and gardener Ms. Niaomi worked together in one of the raised beds. Mohamed noted, “The beauty is that while the two are completely different people, from their ages, to height, to different backgrounds and strength, they’re able to help an environment stay alive. This shows that two different people can do so much together, no matter the differences. That’s beauty at its finest.”
When the garden is put to bed this winter, STRIPES students will shift their work to the gardeners themselves, some of whom are in their 90s and most of whom are self-taught gardeners. Students will practice their interviewing skills – generating questions and learning how to pose follow-up questions – and then they will sit down with several Viola Street gardeners to collect their stories and gardening wisdom. These will be shared with the larger BCHS community and hopefully the Parkside neighborhood, as well.
The need for this history and awareness is especially critical now as Philadelphia’s vacant lots – many of which are cared for by neighbors like those on Viola Street – are being sold off. While the Viola Street Garden is safe, the lots around it are not, and their possible development threatens the sunlight of the vibrant space and the garden’s potential to expand.
STRIPES (STudying Real Issues, Places, and ExperienceS) is an innovative program at Belmont Charter High School in Philadelphia that highlights how an urban neighborhood can become a powerful extension of the classroom. In STRIPES, students learn through real-world, local experiences to develop a sense of connection, purpose, and possibility that empowers them to shape and impact their communities. STRIPES relies on three main pathways to attain its mission: authentic partnerships, integrated learning, and self-knowledge.