Life Lessons from the Streets of Birmingham

By Doug Gillett

A farm is an unusual site for a college classroom, and the corner of 7th Avenue North and 25th Street in downtown Birmingham is an unusual site for a farm. But this patch of earth beneath the city’s skyline has helped Jonathan Woolley nurture some of the most valuable experiences of his college career.

“Some of my big interests are sustainable agriculture and urban planning, and I love gardening—I’m a master gardener with Jefferson County Extension,” says the rising UAB senior, who is spending much of his summer at the Gardens of Park Place extension of Birmingham’s pioneering Jones Valley Urban Farm. He helps grow the organic produce and flowers—arugula, collards, sunflowers, Swiss chard, and others—that are sold at Jones Valley’s popular After-Work Farm Stand. The farm also offers plots to local residents so they can grow their own fruit and vegetables.

Woolley’s work is a natural extension of some of his UAB courses, but this isn’t an internship. The crops he raises will feed city residents and help them understand their ties to the land, but this isn’t a traditional volunteer position, either. Woolley is part of a new movement called service learning that combines enhanced classroom learning and meaningful community service.

“Service learning has taken off in a big way over the last five years,” says Norma May Isakow, who leads UAB’s Office of Service Learning (OSL). Now in its second year, the office sends students out into the Birmingham area for real-world learning experiences that reap equal benefits for both students and the community.

“Internships focus on enhanced academic learning, but don’t necessarily involve community service, and the volunteer or community service that a lot of students do has the service aspect, but not the enhanced academic learning,” Isakow says. Service learning combines the best elements of internships and community service, but it also adds a new element, she explains. By encouraging students to interact with people and areas of the community they might not otherwise visit, service learning “actively prepares students for participating in a democratic society.”

Community Engagement at a New Level

farmNorma May Izakow

The OSL is the brainchild of Philip Way, Ph.D., UAB’s associate provost for undergraduate programs. Way created the Office for Student Academic Engagement in the summer of 2007, with the OSL as one of its major components. Isakow arrived at UAB in 2006 after setting up a successful public interest practicum program at the Sturm College of Law at the University of Denver. Her initial goal at UAB was to create a civic engagement course for honors students in the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, but Way had a larger role in mind.

Striking the perfect balance between enhanced education and true community value can be a challenge for students and administrators alike, Isakow says, but she was excited to find that UAB had already put down some promising collaborative roots in the community before she arrived. “It wasn’t as though I was starting afresh,” she says. “I was working with people to enhance what was already here.”

Service with a Smile—and a Purpose

One of UAB’s strongest community roots is planted in the 1917 Clinic, a health-care facility providing dedicated care for people living with HIV. That mission statement makes the clinic a challenging place to work both physically and psychologically, but it also provided an invaluable learning opportunity for Alex Siegel, a junior double-majoring in biology and psychology.

Siegel’s service learning experience at the 1917 Clinic put her on the front lines as a clinic host. She was responsible for welcoming new patients and answering their questions about the facility. “People are so afraid to come into the clinic when they are first diagnosed because it can be really intimidating for them,” Siegel says, “so having somebody there to welcome them and make sure they feel comfortable is really important. And it keeps them coming back for further treatment, which is one of our main goals.”

At the clinic, Siegel experienced all sides of the AIDS epidemic. She also helped plan a community-outreach project and performed AIDS tests at the NBC Health and Wellness Fair and other venues. Siegel says these events taught her how much work remains to be done, especially in terms of community education.

“We tested at a predominantly white church where they were having an AIDS fair,” she recalls. Yet the focus was strictly on AIDS in Africa. “So it was very easy for people to talk about it, because it was all the way over in Africa. But when we asked them if they wanted to get tested, they said, ‘Oh, I don’t need that—that’s not for me.’ I thought it was ironic that they thought AIDS was such a problem over there and not here in America, even though it’s a huge problem everywhere.”

Despite the frustrations and challenges inherent in dealing with a devastating disease, Siegel says she learned many uplifting lessons as well. “Some people have a really upbeat attitude, and a lot of them have turned to religion, which is heavily tied into the treatment program,” she says. “Being spiritually healthy means you can also be physically healthy. Seeing how those two were intertwined gave people a lot of hope for the future.”

Education in an Unexpected Place

Hope also helps to motivate Jonathan Woolley. As rising fuel prices push food costs higher and news reports warn of food shortages around the world, Woolley, an international-studies major, is learning how to tackle those problems at Jones Valley’s urban oasis.

“Jones Valley seeks to promote a deeper relationship between the producer—that is, the farmer—and the consumer,” he explains. “It’s so local: You come to the farm, you meet the farmers, and you see where your money is going because it’s right in the middle of your city and you drive past it every day.”

The present agriculture system in the United States has many problems, Woolley adds. “We suck up so much energy and money by transporting our food such long distances and using synthetic fertilizers, but by turning vacant lots into organic gardens and teaching people to eat locally, Jones Valley is tackling those sustainability issues.”

The fields of Jones Valley’s Gardens of Park Place location extend for an entire city block in the shadow of Interstate 20/59. Here, watched by passengers in the speeding cars overhead, Woolley has worked at everything from harvesting and seed propagation to irrigation and composting. He even developed a vermiform composting system that uses worms to speed up the process of converting garden and food waste into organic fertilizer. Woolley smiles when he recalls some of the questions he’s gotten from classmates. Nevertheless, “some people are extremely excited to hear that there’s actually a farm downtown, and they want to come check it out.”

Many of Woolley’s friends wonder how working on a farm could possibly relate to his international-studies major, but he says it has actually positioned him well for a Fulbright Scholarship and a stint in the Peace Corps. “In order to apply for the agriculture-conservation program in the Peace Corps, you have to have three months of experience in farming or agriculture, and I’ve definitely done that at Jones Valley,” Woolley says. “So with my Spanish minor and my background in Latin American politics and anthropology, I’d probably go somewhere in Latin America.”

That kind of interest in expanding service to a global level is music to Isakow’s ears, particularly this early in the OSL’s development. “It’s really about helping students assume responsibility for their own learning,” she says. “And we’ve definitely taken a big first step.”

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