Creating a community garden and advancing a community land trust this spring are among the first results of a partnership between a Burlington neighborhood and Elon’s Poverty and Social Justice (PSJ) program.
Residents of the community of Morrowtown — a historically underserved area on the outskirts of downtown Burlington — began organizing to improve the neighborhood and stem the scourges of crime and poverty in 2018. Their work has caught the attention of Toddie Peters, professor of religious studies and coordinator of the PSJ program, who began attending regular Morrowtown Community Group meetings to listen and offer potential solutions to identified problems.
A community garden, playground and gathering space at 642 S. Mebane St., built by residents and students of the philosophy classes of assistant professors Robert Leib and Lauren Guilmette, officially opened on April 30. Peters’ PSJ synthesis class worked to support the new Burlington Community Land Trust. PSJ program intern Imonni Withers ’22 also worked with a free after-school program, Morrowtown Mondays, at the community garden site this spring.
A community for change
The Morrowtown Community Group, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, began four years ago after Lydia Jones and Joyce Moore each lost family members to gun violence. The couple were meeting with neighbors to pray and discuss solutions to youth activity, declining property values and maintenance, and crime. Jones’ house became known as a safe place for children, for a warm conversation or a hot meal. She calls them “my babies”. His support of neighborhood children grew into a regular Mondays program in Morrowtown.
Longtime residents have formed a task force, attracting the attention of the City of Burlington, churches, Alamance citizens for a drug-free community, and Elon faculty. Guilmette and Leib are residents of Morrowtown.
The effort to secure community garden property began several years ago and came to fruition last fall when community members purchased an acre of property on the corner of South Mebane Street – a four-way Busy thoroughfares – and Clay Street.
“It represents something new and different in an area with a lot of poverty, crime, violence and drugs. It’s totally different,” Jones said as the garden opened. “It’s beautiful. I’m so grateful that there are so many people who were touched by something I said.
“My babies give me strength. When I can do something to see a smile on their face, it makes me smile. It makes me feel good to know that I can do something to make a difference in their lives.
Support new growth
Leib’s Poverty and Social Justice students helped plan the garden last fall. Guilmette’s Health and Social Justice class held Saturday workdays this spring to clean up the property and landscape the garden.
“Our mission was to start imagining what this lot could be,” Leib said. “We spent quite a bit of time designing layouts for the garden and how participation and buy-in might work. Some of that work still lies ahead of us, but we’re really happy with how it all turned out.
The garden consists of 10 raised beds and a plot for row crops, an outdoor classroom and gathering space, compost heaps, a fire pit and a small playground with rope swings and ladders. A grant from Elon’s Kernodle Center for Civic Life helped purchase a storage shed, which students and community members built earlier this spring. Area farmers also donated fencing that will be installed later this spring.
“We started cleaning in February when everything was overgrown and covered in trash,” Guilmette said. “Essentially community members and students put together these raised beds, hung up the tire swings and the rope ladder. I have great photos of our students rolling these 35 logs up the hill to sit in class outside.
The garden should provide nutritional support in the neighborhood, which is a food desert and not within walking distance of grocery stores or farmers’ markets. It will operate this year on a take-out system as needed, with residents able to plant and schedule crops. The system was still in the planning stage at the start of the garden’s first growing season.
“It’s been really rewarding building it from the ground up,” said Billie Waller ’22, a philosophy major. “It was a small group of people when we started, but over the last two months it’s been cool to see more and more people coming out and getting involved.”
Withers, an environmental studies major and PSJ minor, conducted soil testing and supported the Mondays in Morrowtown afterschool program at the garden this spring as PSJ’s first intern. She planned science projects, crafts and activities for fifteen children aged 6 to 16.
The space has become a regular hangout for children, who flock to the tire swings in the afternoons.
Withers grew up in an urban area plagued by pollution, with little access to clean air, green spaces or nature and poor quality water. Living in Elon has improved her physical and mental health thanks to a better environment, she said. Her experience has invested her in the program, the garden and the children of Morrowtown. She is in the process of obtaining a grant for a permanent internship in the Morrowtown garden.
“I developed a really strong bond with the kids,” Withers said. “They had a huge impact on me. My internship is supposed to end in May, but I will stay here at least until the end of June. These children need someone who can be a role model and I want to be that for them.
Create a sustainable future
On the last day of spring semester classes, students from Peters’ PSJ capstone course presented to Morrowtown community group leaders the results of their work supporting the Burlington Community Land Trust in the neighborhood.
Community land trusts have become increasingly common tools for residents to provide affordable housing and control over land use in neighborhoods. Essentially, they function to give the trust control of land while individuals own the structures on it. Land is generally leased in hereditary installments of 99 years. Homeowners accept restrictions on resale values through formulas that help build equity while keeping the home affordable. When properties are sold, the trust has control over how the land is used in the best interests of the community.
The land trust would increase residential ownership and reduce property rentals in the area.
The students created marketing plans for the land trust, applied for grants and started a Go fund me for the trust, studied trends in property and land values, interviewed residents, and created oral history videos of Morrowtown residents. These videos will be curated through the Power and Place Collaborative, a partnership between Elon, the African American Cultural, Arts and History Center and the Mayco Bigelow Community Center of Burlington to record stories from black communities in Alamance County.
“As a social ethicist, as someone who works with the poverty and social justice program, I really try to find meaningful ways for Elon’s students and Elon’s teachers, and Elon Resources can partner with people in the community in mutually beneficial ways so that…we listen to you and look at how we can use skills and knowledge to contribute to community projects and concerns,” Peters said. .