Radical Roots: Still Planting Seeds, Still Nourishing Feminist Work

By: Shanelle Haile, PhD Student in the Department of Sociology and Grad Parent Coordinator at the Sarah Doyle Center

Our home garden in Cranston, Rhode Island

“Humility in relationship to nature’s power made survival possible” (hooks 2009:67)

This semester has been difficult. We are all wading through uncertain waters as we navigate our way out of a global health pandemic. My own fears and anxieties have worsened many times since the beginning of this crisis. I worry about the health and safety of my family, my friends, and many others more vulnerable than myself. The worry can be mentally and emotionally crippling. Someone recently asked me how I am managing to balance being a graduate student and a parent who desires to continue doing feminist work during this time?

My answer is that I get my hands dirty. By that, I mean that I literally put my hands in dirt (or soil, rather) as a way of grounding myself amidst all that is happening around me. Grounding oneself is a common therapeutic technique used to help those experiencing anxiety in anchoring themselves to the present. There may also be biological evidence that gardening is a particularly valuable grounding practice. Lowry et al. (2007) found that harmless bacteria present in soil activate serotonin and thereby act as an antidepressant. Although these findings pertain to laboratory mice, I am sure this could be true for humans as well! 

Certainly, gardening has been one of the most calming and centering activities in my daily life. It is also an activity that promotes food and environmental sustainability, community, and care. It is a radical practice, which my grandmothers and at least one of my great-grandmothers also used for anchoring themselves from uncertainty as black women living in the Jim Crow South. I recall words from bell hooks’ essay, “Earthbound on Solid Ground,” in which she reminds us that reconnecting with earth has always been a practice rooted in racial and psychological resistance,“Reclaiming our history, our relationship to nature, to farming in America, and proclaiming the humanizing restorative of living in harmony with nature so that the earth can be our witness is meaningful resistance” (hooks 2009:70). 

I will pass this history and practice to my daughter, Hanna, pictured here gathering leaves this month for composting and fertilizing our squash seedlings. There couldn’t be a better time to teach her how to get her hands dirty!

This year, the Sarah Doyle Center kicked off our Radical Roots theme to acknowledge prior feminist work and plant figurative seeds for the future. Although our spring gardening event had to be cancelled, we are still planting and cultivating figurative and literal seeds! 

Stay tuned for a future blog post in which I will share photos from my family’s budding garden as well as photos provided by others from the Brown community who continue to engage with us about their own gardening practices.

We may be physically separate, but we are still planting seeds together and still nourishing feminist work. 

“To tend the earth is always then to tend our destiny, our freedom, and our hope.” (hooks 2009:68)

We will continue to do the work. This is how. 

Image credit: Photos by Shanelle Haile


hooks, b. (2009) Belonging: A Culture of Place.Taylor and Francis

Lowry, C. A., Hollis, J. H., de Vries, A., Pan, B., Brunet, L. R., Hunt, J. R. F., Paton, J. F. R., van Kampen, E., Knight, D. M., Evans, A. K., Rook, G. A. W., & Lightman, S. L. (2007) Identification of an immune-responsive mesolimbocortical serotonergic system: Potential role in regulation of emotional behavior. Neuroscience, 146(2), 756–772.

12 thoughts on “Radical Roots: Still Planting Seeds, Still Nourishing Feminist Work

  1. Nicole

    Thank you for this reminder for us to stay grounded in these uncertain times! I’m excited to see your garden.

  2. Megan Collier

    What a great way to thinking about gardening! So often we miss the importance of things we are in the habit of doing – and this post is a good reminder!

    1. Shanelle Haile

      Thanks Megan! I hope you are also finding activities that bring you peace during this time

  3. Reina

    Fried green tomatoes and two boiled eggs. My mom kept a small garden in front of my childhood home and every summer this was the breakfast of champions. She planted a garden because her mother and grandmother each had a garden, so it served in some ways as a memorial of sorts to the women of my family. But I watched that garden transition from a memorial to a security nest when our family experienced economic hardships.

    The garden became our nutritional food security. Most folks only consider food security in terms of food deserts or accessibility, but its also about affordability and quality. We lived less than a mile from a local grocery store and our city was surrounded by a plethora of local farmers, yet we still were hungry.

    Different organizations are providing our students with free breakfast and lunches during this epidemic but it’s not enough. As families now are losing their incomes and homes I think about how many of them will remember being hungry and sick. I think this is a time that highlights the value and needs to invest in more community gardens and local farmers because they are essential community spaces and members. Imagine the radicalness of women planting in solidarity to feed their families and neighbors. Imagine the radicalness of farmers bringing their produce to the people and not corporations. Imagine if teaching all of our children how to plant was one of the ways we prepared as a nation for outbreaks.

    I think more of us need to get our hands dirty.

    1. Shanelle Haile

      What a beautiful piece! This in particular makes me want to write another blog post: “Imagine the radicalness of women planting in solidarity to feed their families and neighbors. Imagine the radicalness of farmers bringing their produce to the people and not corporations. Imagine if teaching all of our children how to plant was one of the ways we prepared as a nation for outbreaks”

  4. Nicole Clark, LMSW

    One of my closest feminist friends once told me that I should do somethig outside of the work to keep myself grounded. Her suggestion: Doing something with my hands. Not to long after that, I went outside and started digging my fingers in the dirt. It’s oddly sastifying and I never thought to tie it back to hook’s “Earthbound on Solid Ground” essay. Are you planting something in particular (flowers, vegetables, etc.)?

    1. Shanelle Haile

      Great advice! What are you going to plant? We’d love to see your garden!

      This year we planted potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, squash, and lettuce. So far the squash didnt make it (lol) but will share progress of the others!

  5. Sarah W Jones

    Thank you – I love to hear about gardening – something I haven’t been doing but keep wishing I was. Even a little. Loved doing it with my Mom. Such good essential memories of hands in the earth, pride accomplishment and gratitude of working with the plants and soil and my mother. And icing on the cake was making and tasting strawberry rhubarb pie for the very first time, made with rhubarb from our garden. Mom is now 93. Anyway, I didn’t expect to write more than a sentence of thanks! Thank you, and and blessings, to you and your daughter.

  6. Shanelle Haile

    I love that this is a memory you share and was passed down from your mother. Rhubarb pie made from a garden sounds like a dream! Thank you so much for sharing this…truly love reading comments like this. And I won’t complain if you post your pie recipe 🙂

  7. Constance Dunlap

    This is a beautiful reminder of how the most radical thing we can do right now is return to the earth. ❤

  8. Erin

    Thank you for inspiring me to create similar memories with my son! It’s so important that during times like this we teach our children how to stay grounded.

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