I haven't read Nickel and Dimed, though I think Barbara Ehrenreich is an excellent writer. One part of your critique - which I have heard elsewhere, and which sounds plausible - that struck me was the suggestion that people are unwilling to do the little things that make daily life better, like community gardening. In many cases there are real differences in experience and perspective that will affect people's willingness to try something like community gardening. These differences are not necessarily for bad or illogical reasons, the activity in question often just doesn't mesh with people's experience and cultural knowledge...
For example, I am working on building a park in a colonia in the border region of Texas. The county is the poorest in the nation, and the colonia residents are the poorest of the region. In planning the park, some great students in UT-Austin's master planning program thought it would be good to put a community garden in the park - something I was personally really excited about.
Yet people from the colonia weren't into it at all. I was frustrated, but came to understand that there were several reasons for this, which could be dealt with, perhaps, but only through taking them perspectives very seriously and trying to understand them. For one, as compared to New York, the colonia is a rural community, and many people own their own plot of land, so the need to work something out to increase the open space they have available to them is not so great.
Furthermore, many people are migrant farmworkers, and don't necessarily have the great associations that we have with gardening - it is not an escape from a life of toil, it is a reminder of their life of toil.
Also, from my amateurish agricultural understanding, the soil in South Texas doesn't grow a whole lot besides onions.
Finally, the individualization that the American dream so often entails has structured these people's lives, and they are not, despite adverse circumstances, a tight-knit community. Again, this is partly due to the amount of time many of them spend traveling.
All of this is not to say that there can be no community gardening component, or that because people aren't naturally inclined to garden doesn't mean that these ideas can't be brought up, tried out, modified and made into something workable. I am hoping to include a community citrus grove in the park, which would offer a nice beginning, as well as shade and refreshment in the hot summer days (often 110 degrees or more for over a month straight).
But my assumption that a community garden would help alleviate the conditions of poverty, both physical and spiritual, were made more complex upon learning about the situation, and I am constantly having to modify my goals and my attitudes about the project.
Rather than wondering why people aren't using available resources, I hope to work with them to maximize their resources on their terms - because that's one of the most important things my experience with community gardens has taught me: people having control over their lives and their spaces (gardens, parks, etc.) is beautiful and powerful, regardless of whether it takes the exact form I want or not.
Thanks for listening to my rant,
Date: Thu, 17 Apr 2003 12:48:57 -0400
From: Sharon Gordon
Subject: [cg] Thoughts on Nickel and Dimed
For those who have read Ehrenreich's book chronicling her year long
experiment attempting to live off low wage jobs(waitressing, Wal-mart, maid,
etc.), I have a question. I felt she did a good job of showing the
treadmill and near slavery that low income workers are on. She also does a
good job of showing the lack of
respect for people/workers in the lower income jobs.
One thing I have a problem with though is that she made the situation worse
than it needs to be and didn't utilize available resources. I got the sense
that she wanted to add drama to the worker's plight by creating sort of the
worst possible scenario. I got the same sort of feeling when I was emailing
with the trio who were living in Indonesia and living on a Nike worker's
salary as a demo of how awful that was. While that situation is truly
awful, they weren't making the best use of their food money. Also, I
emailed them some fairly detailed basic info about biointensive gardening
and permaculture that they could teach the Indonesian workers they were
living in shack village with to use around their houses which would have
helped the workers' financial, nutrition, and health situations. However
they refused to share this information with the people living around them
and told me there was no where to plant anything. However I could see in
lots of their pictures that there was open space all around the
shack-houses. It did not look to me like there was anywhere near enough
land to grow a complete diet for the people living in the shack-village, but
there was enough to grow a lot of nutritious vegetables, and probably some
vine fruit could have been grown up the walls and over the roofs as well.
They also weren't interested in using free or frugal materials to make a
solar or rocket stov
And I realize two things that made her situation harder in N&D were
artifacts of the experiment itself. One is that she chose to live in
different locations for 3-4 months and do different jobs. This enabled her
to make the case that the problem is widespread. But it eliminated a lot of
ways you could make life better if you lived in one place for the whole
year. And she also spent her after work time writing up details of her
experience which cut into a lot of time that she could have used to make her
daily life more pleasant. I am wondering if she had rigged up a tape
recorder in her car, if she could have made a verbal diary while commuting,
and had the tapes transcribed by someone else. Then she could have used her
nonworking time in more life enhancing ways. On the other hand this 2nd
writing job does reflect some of the realities of low income workers with
I think there are a number of opportunities she could have utilized which
would have made her low-wage-life a lot better--most of the topics aren't
directly related to this list. But I have wondered about how her life could
have been improved if she'd stayed in one area for awhile and had a
community garden plot. So my question is what aspects of her (or someone in
a similar real or experimental situation) life could be improved by having
an average size community garden plot?
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