This Bass Connections project seeks to ground inquiry into issues of human rights,

With Duke Gardens’ Bobby Mottern, Director of Horticulture

environmental justice and climate change in a specific location: Durham. Using oral histories, photography, mapping and archival research, we will investigate how local communities engage with these issues.

Students wishing to take part in this project in Spring 2019 should contact us at

We are partnering with the Humanities Action Lab (HAL-Rutgers), a consortium of over 25 universities, issue organizations, and public spaces that collaborate to produce community-curated public humanities projects. A central part of this collaboration is the creation of sustainable partnerships between universities and community-based organizations. We will be including the Pauli Murray Project and local gardening clubs as partners in the planning and development of this project. You can follow some of our work on our web site or through our Instagram feed

Duke Gardens’ new Piedmont prairie

Gardening is often seen as apolitical relaxation. Yet at a time when neighborhoods are rapidly changing – including shifting from Zone 7 to Zone 8 by the US Department of Agriculture estimates – gardens have become a place of race and politics, to follow famed writer and gardener Jamaica Kincaid.

In these plant-filled spaces, history practice, contention, expression, resistance and negotiation meet, though often invisible to the unwary eye. At the same time, the presence of an immigrant work force – landscaping companies largely staffed by Latinos – means that the country’s divided opinions over immigration are at play among the plants. We also see a hidden kind of migration in the types of plants home gardeners are buying for their gardens. Big box stories like Home Depot and Lowe’s import plants from Mexico, Colombia and beyond, ensuring that Durham’s ecosystem shifts toward an increasingly non-native realm. This has important ramifications for both plant and animal species, as natives find it increasingly difficult to eat, over-winter and breed.

With Prof. Valerie Ann Johnson, Bennett College (far right, next to project leader Barbara Lau)

Creating a resilient garden means paying attention to seasons, weather and the life histories of plants and their interactions. In our project, we hope to bring fresh eyes to familiar spaces, asking why, how and to what purpose humans craft gardens. How does gardening shape identity? Do gardeners see their land as expressions of creativity or history – or even resistance? Gardens have plants, but also fences and walls. Can or where do gardens divide? What happens when community gardens meant to serve poor populations end up in gentrified areas, with the families priced out of an area “improved” by that very garden? Gardens are sites of immigration, both as work spaces for immigrants and as locations of mass plant immigration. How do gardeners see the global effect of climate change on their worlds, where some heirloom plants are fading and new imports threaten to take over from door to sidewalk?