Wesleyan students from a range of majors and interests – all with shared interests in utilizing resources in innovative ways to positively impact the greater Middletown community – applied to the Student Innovation Fund. The fund provided up to $750 for projects that prioritized:
- Collaboration between student groups, faculty/staff, and/or community partners.
- Investigation of the impact of our civic engagement efforts.
- Sharing of ideas and learnings in civic engagement on campus and beyond.
Syed Hussain ’21 was one of the organizers for the Middletown Urban Farming Symposium. Read his report below:
The 2019 Middletown Urban Farming Symposium was a bold project which looked to build on the contemporary local and national momentum around food justice. CT-CORE defines food justice as “identifying and activating community-based economic solutions to increase racial equity and self-determination in food systems.” Improved and accessible localized food production in Middletown is possible and organizations like the North End Action Team (NEAT) have been in the forefront of the push for food justice for years. This symposium sought to bring together disconnected but passionate forces in the local (Greater Middletown) food justice movement: farmers (and prospective farmers/gardeners), municipal government officials, environmental and social justice activists, and Wesleyan students.
Through my time at Wesleyan I had collaborated and helped in planning for some events around campus, but the size and scope of this symposium led to unique challenges and learning opportunities. Funding for this project was the first hurdle as we brought multiple speakers and workshop leaders to this weekend long event and needed to cover food, shuttle drivers, and promotional materials. We leveraged this position, however, into an opportunity to build collaboration in the community and create major stakeholders early on. This started with NEAT, the Wesleyan Green Fund and the Middletown Economic Development Commission and we soon were joined by the Wesleyan College of the Environment, African American Studies Department, Science in Society Program, Resource Center, and Long Lane Farm. This broad coalitional effort was necessary to ensure the project had the necessary resources, but also gave the symposium an intersectional, collaborative feel which was critical to its’ success.
Aside from funding, event logistics were definitely a challenge for a project with such an expansive scope of activities involved. We had a day and a half of time to fill and while we had some aspects like our main speakers and field visit sites in place months before the event, other elements of the schedule were in flux for longer than we may have preferred. Thankfully through the connections our team had made on and off Weseyan’s campus, there were many options of workshop leaders, site visits, and additional speakers to bring on board. Through what we learned in certain courses at Wesleyan and through activism within Wesleyan student groups we as organizers understood interpersonal communication to be critical so even when stressed about filling in key aspects of the project, we knew we had to be able to remain calm and deliberate in using our networks. This resulted in a challenging but rewarding process of communicating with government and non-government community members of Middletown, and with professors and students at Wesleyan to increase engagement and make sure we had a day and a half packed with meaningful activities.
I personally grew a lot through the experience of planning the Middletown Urban Farming Symposium. The challenges were at times thoroughly difficult and required a lot of internal reflection, but I ultimately gained important perspectives on community building and leadership broadly. Inaction can be alluring even when working on passion projects, but I learned to remind myself of why I wanted to work on this collaboration and then recenter myself to organize tasks and then make sure myself or someone else is directly working on them. I would advise those seeking to work on Middletown collaboration projects to reach out to stakeholders in the community very early on in the process; the symposium’s success hinged on not only outreach but true coalition building before the event itself. I am certainly proud of the rousing success the urban farming symposium, but I am also hoping this event will end up being only part of the broader push for more Wesleyan-Middletown collaboration.