Last month, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a distinguished staff member were honored by the White House as one of five “Champions of Change” for leadership on campus. They were specifically honored for their work with permaculture, which seeks to transform green lawns and forgotten landscapes into edible, educational and ecologically designed gardens.
This progress is amazing, but we do not have to look to the East Coast to notice that amazing and innovative things are happening here in the Midwest. Many Indiana universities are pioneering and experimenting with different concepts and interpretations of sustainability and environmentalism.
My university, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), is one of those places.
Early 2011 marked the moment I was recruited by DIGS (Developing IUPUI’s Gardens Sustainably) to assist with the campus gardens. Our original plot contained some two dozen raised and experimental beds to grow and donate organic produce to local food banks. As last summer progressed, however, we understood that our work had a higher calling.
Quite simply, we seek to change attitudes about urban agriculture. Through education, outreach, collaboration and cooperation, DIGS works to integrate new types of urban agriculture by challenging the way people interact with their surroundings on IUPUI’s campus.
We are heavily influenced by the IUPUI Common Theme Project, which invites all to discuss social entrepreneurship, which calls for collective action across varying disciplines to address social and environmental change.
In an effort to alleviate the burden the grounds department faced with the massive IUPUI campus, initiatives led by myself and other DIGS members addressed large planters in front of and behind University Library. Discussions with the university enabled us to cooperatively grow peppers, herbs, squash, lettuce, beans and edible flowers, all of which were donated to Global Peace Initiatives. The Library Green Team provided daily watering and DIGS members performed maintenance.
Consultation with the School of Public and Environmental Affairs for sustainable policy matters and organizational structure enabled us to expand our staff. Cooperation with Herron Visual Communication teams is enabling us to rebrand and market our organization, while providing them with an opportunity for local application.
Our proudest moment occurred last fall when DIGS was permitted to expand to a new site on campus, adjacent to the White River Trail at the intersection of Lansing and New York streets. Utilizing generous support from numerous student organizations, namely the strength of 120 Honor College Scholars, we transformed an unused plot of land into a vibrant, productive site for a new farm. This addition to the urban agricultural initiatives will triple our production, enabling us to provide food for campus cafeterias and another location for education and outreach.
Drawing on social entrepreneurship for inspiration, DIGS addresses environmental and sustainability concerns by using the resources of university departments and programs to solve problems and find new solutions. This trans-disciplinary approach is critical to our success.
IUPUI has an opportunity to become a leader in environmentalism and sustainability. The formation of an Office of Sustainability, the development of numerous campus organizations geared to environmental issues and a willing community are all ingredients to achieve that goal.