“Digging in the Dirt”


This summer’s tomato crop

On a patch of land about two blocks west of the University of North Carolina campus, people from disparate parts of UNC and the larger Chapel Hill community come together in pursuit of a common goal — to till the soil, plant seeds, pull weeds, and harvest a vast array of fruits and vegetables.

The produce is then donated to the university’s low-wage workers, the people who make sure that from the Dean Dome to Franklin Street, the floors are scrubbed, the bathrooms are clean, and the trash is thrown out.

This 14,000-square-foot piece of land tucked away at the end of Wilson Street is known as the Carolina Campus Community Garden, or CCCG. The first seeds were planted in the spring of 2010, and ever since a small army of volunteers have helped it grow into a thriving agricultural space that has produced more than 24,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables worth $121,000.

The volunteers, who refer to the tasks involved in planting and harvesting the produce as “digging in the dirt,” tend to be dedicated and passionate about what they do.

“What really hooked me originally,” said recent UNC graduate John Powers, “was being able to get out here and do something completely different from classes and develop skills that I didn’t have before.”

Powers, who initiated a compost collection program in his dorm and served on the garden’s advisory board, said his work with the garden helped him develop valuable communication and leadership skills and introduced him to a close-knit group of friends.



One of those friends is Tait Chandler, also a recent graduate and a driving force behind a $15,000 construction grant the garden received from the Renewable Energy Special Projects Committee, a UNC student organization that supports eco-friendly construction projects.

The garden, he said, made him realize “how nice it is to get outside and do meaningful work that doesn’t involve paperwork.”

Powers and Chandler are among the many who year after year have helped the garden grow. Others include UNC faculty and staff, residents of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, and a long list of donors, who have contributed everything from seeds to architectural expertise.

“It’s amazing how many people offer their services,” said Claire Lorch, the garden’s Education Coordinator. “They find out what we’re doing and are supportive, so they want to come help.”

As education coordinator, she’s in charge of pretty much everything that takes place on this busy patch of land. She oversees the work of the volunteers, grant writing, fund raising, and expansion projects as well as the ever important food distributions, which cater to a diverse group of people comprised largely of refugees from Burma, Hispanics, African Americans, and whites.


Tomatoes on the vine

Timothy Carville, a zone manager with the university’s housekeeping services department, provides workers with the transportation and time they need to take a break, stand in line, and pick up their supply of fresh vegetables, and he does so very willingly. The food distributions, he said, have begun to break down racial and ethnic barriers and are a boost to morale.

“Before the distributions, they didn’t speak to each other,” he said, referring to the different racial and ethnic groups. Now, they not only talk to each other but also swap recipes.

“I’m not saying it’s solved the race problem in America,” he said, but “they’ve bridged the gap.”

“Unforgivable Blackness”

Last week I found myself sitting in an auditorium on the UNC campus listening to an undergraduate lecture on American history since the Civil War. Both the course and the lecturer, Matt Andrews, had come highly recommended, and on this day, Andrews was doing one of the things he does best — using sports to illustrate the history of race relations in the United States.

This particular lesson focused on boxing.

Prizefighting, Andrews explained, became popular in the mid-1800s as a white man’s sport, one that pitted native-born Americans against Irish immigrants. As it evolved through the post-Civil War years, white boxers, especially those at the heavyweight level, refused to get in the ring with a black opponent.

Against this backdrop, a man named Jack Johnson emerged as a heavyweight contender through a parallel world of African American fighters. Born and raised in Galveston, Texas, Johnson was a stubborn man who flaunted conventions in every possible way.

He taunted white fighters in the ring, Andrews said. He had open relationships with white women, including his three wives; dressed in expensive suits; wore diamond jewelry; and drove fast cars.

According to filmmaker Ken Burns, Johnson “was everything that a black man of his era was not supposed to be: outspoken, articulate, intelligent, powerful, wealthy, good-looking and charming.”

Burns directed a 2005 PBS documentary about Johnson called “Unforgivable Blackness,” a phrase coined by NAACP founder W.E.B. Du Bois to describe the backlash Johnson faced throughout his life as he attempted and increasingly succeeded in demonstrating that as a prizefighter and a human being he was the white man’s equal.

Much like the film, Andrews’ lecture illustrated how Johnson, with his stubborn refusal to play by society’s rules, was able to break through the “color line” that once existed in heavyweight boxing.

Johnson’s first triumph came after he spent two years stalking, taunting, and challenging then heavyweight champion Tommy Burns, who ultimately relented and agreed to fight Johnson on Boxing Day (Dec. 26) 1908 in Sydney Australia.

Johnson knocked burns out in the 14th round, becoming the first African American heavyweight champion in U.S. history.

Retaining that title, however, would prove to be his biggest battle.

Back to Virginia


VA State Route 20

I just completed a whirlwind trip of Virginia that took me from Norfolk to Roanoke to Richmond to Alexandria to Charlottesville – in that order. It was a zigzaggy route that encompassed more than 1,000 miles of roadway and overnight stops in five cities, all in less than a week. At each stop, I covered a Virginia is for Tar Heels event sponsored by UNC’s General Alumni Association.

It was exhausting, but it was also a fantastic trip. I’m a UNC graduate who grew up in Richmond and spent much of my youth in the back of a station wagon going with my family to different parts of Virginia, typically to the coast or to my mother’s childhood home in the southwestern part of the state. I’ve also lived in Washington, DC, and became very familiar with Northern Virginia while I was there. In short, I thought I knew the Old Dominion quite well, so it was a pleasant surprise last week to learn about a few places I’d overlooked.

One of those is Northampton County on the Eastern Shore. It’s the poorest county in Virginia, but UNC history professor Bernard Herman now has me convinced that it may be one of the richest in terms of culture and cuisine, including local delicacies such as clam fritters and fried spot, which can be a touchstone for controversy depending on how it’s fried – soft, hard, hard-head-on, or hard-head-off.

“People,” Herman says, “are passionate about this.”

Bernard Herman

Bernard Herman/Photo by Ray Black III

Asked where one should go on the Eastern Shore, Herman recommended the Bayford Oyster House, especially when owner H.M. Arnold is there and has time to talk; the Glorious Church in Onancock, which has Friday takeaway lunches (cash only); the Exmore Diner; the Barrier Islands Center; and the hiking trails of Wise Point.

I cannot wait to go. My hunch is that H.M. Arnold alone would make the trip worthwhile.

Other must-see destinations are Meadows of Dan and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Meadows of Dan is a town of roughly 2,000 people located on the Dan River. It’s also home to several UNC graduates who jokingly refer to their current hometown as the University of Northern North Carolina at Meadows of Dan.

While I’m in southwestern Virginia learning more about this Tar Heel outpost, I also plan to visit the Blue Ridge Parkway, soak up the scenery, and marvel at what I learned from UNC history professor Anne Mitchell Whisnant’s presentation about the hard-won victories that are part of the Parkway’s past.

The planning, building, and maintenance of the Parkway have been filled with turf battles both large and small, including North Carolina’s successful effort to elbow Tennessee out of the running and become, along with Virginia, home to 469 miles of scenic roadway that are among the most popular tourist attractions in the U.S. National Park System.

There’s a tendency, Whisnant says, to think of the Parkway as “this magical thing that just happened.”

Her book, Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History, dispels that myth with accounts of disputes that have taken place over the years between landowners, developers, conservationists, and anyone else who stood to gain or lose — either a little or a lot — from the Parkway’s existence.

Anne Whisnant

Anne Mitchell Whisnant/Photo by Ray Black III

With a newly acquired appreciation for these struggles, I am sure that my drive along the Parkway will, in fact, seem quite magical after all.

My articles about the Parkway, the Eastern Shore, and the other Virginia is for Tar Heels events can be found here. The other topics include: football and racism in the South; disruptive demographic trends, such as the browning and greying of America; and the ties that bind UNC and the University of Virginia.

“The Machine That Goes PING!”

In a Monty Python sketch from the The Meaning of Life, doctors ignore a woman in labor while they bring in one piece of fancy equipment after another, including the most expensive machine in the hospital — the one that goes “PING!” The film came out in 1983, long before cell phones and laptops became the norm, but its message about the blinding nature of shiny new toys was alive and well three decades later at a technology conference held last week at UNC’s School of Education.

Free material from www.gapminder.org

“It’s easy to get caught up in the technology, because it’s whiz-bangy, flashy things and ponies,” said Dean Bill McDiarmid, “(but) we have to really think about what it is we’re trying to do and then think about what are the affordances that technology offers that are going to help us get there.”

UNC’s School of Education hosted a daylong conference on technology in the classroom, one focused on a three-pronged approach known as TPACK, an acronym for Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge. Jargon aside, TPACK is at its core a school of thought predicated on the true integration of technology, content and sound instructional practices. It emerged in the late 90s but has taken on greater importance as educators realize that the mere presence of technological wizardry does not necessarily lead to better teaching and improved test scores.

TPACK, however, is not just a school of thought. It has heavy duty backers, including Microsoft, and many practitioners who have put together very specific ways of integrating technology, curriculum requirements and teaching strategies in order to achieve what they like to call the “sweet spot.”

One example on display at the UNC seminar was an online program called Gapminder World, which has a wealth of animated graphic information that, among other things, depicts how life expectancy and per capita income have changed over time. Hit “play” and a series of bubbles representing each country starts to move, allowing students to learn the basics of mean, median and mode as well as a wide range of interpretive and critical thinking skills.

Other examples include online historical records that allow teachers and students to go well beyond the textbook; games and simulations that bring the complexity of the real world into the classroom; and filmmaking capabilities that, when used well, engage students in unprecedented ways.

“It’s not just a matter of giving you this bright and shiny new device, but how do you use it pedagogically? How does it make a difference?” said James Ptaszynski, Microsoft’s senior director for World Wide Higher Education. “Just because there are some cool education apps on there, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re integrated into the curriculum that you’re teaching…. You really need to systemically use it.”

Otherwise, he said, the history of the past 30 years will repeat itself and the machines that go “PING!” will continue to be viewed as toys, not tools.

Change Agents

Jesse Pipes is one of 10 former UNC students who drove around the southern part of Africa during the summer of 2001 living out of a van and sleeping in tents. He and his college friends had developed an educational program to help young school children grapple with HIV/AIDS, and after their initial low-budget tour took them to schools in South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Malawi, they created World Camp, a fast-growing educational program based in Malawi. Pipes, who works from an office in Asheville, NC, is one of only four full-time employees of World Camp, but he and a much larger group of part-timers, board members and volunteeers have managed to reach thousands of school children, helping them deal with a disease that has taken more of a toll on southern Africa than any other part of the world. Pipes and his World Camp colleageus are among the many who have graduated from UNC and applied their know-how to helping others around the globe. Appearing in the May/June issue of the Carolina Alumni Review, here are some of their stories: Change Agents  Members of the General Alumni Association can find a digital version of the magazine here: Alumni Review