UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A unique thesis project in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences showcases the stories of women in urban agriculture through photographs captured by the participants themselves.
Coordinated by graduate student Hannah Whitley in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education, the Female Farmer Photovoice Project explores how socially constructed identities complicate barriers and opportunities for urban growers and connect to broader institutional inequities that perpetuate these problems.
“Photovoice is difficult because the methodology is very time-consuming and labor-intensive,” said Whitley, who studied rural sociology as well as women’s, gender and sexuality studies. “It’s rare to find a grant or funding source that is willing to invest in a thesis like this.”
Photovoice is a methodology commonly used for community-based, participatory research to document and reflect on the everyday life of a community. In this type of project, participants have a say in what the research looks like and what questions are asked.
Whitley’s thesis project invited participants to use photography and written narratives to represent and reflect their experiences as women farmers, growers, food activists and agricultural educators in Pittsburgh.
Originally from Elkton, Oregon, Whitley completed her undergraduate education at Oregon State University, where she majored in anthropology, sociology and religious studies. At Penn State, she became a graduate research assistant for the Pennsylvania Women’s Agricultural Network, known as PA-WAgN, a research and outreach program that supports women in agriculture by offering on-farm education, hands-on workshops, conferences, mentoring and online information sharing.
She learned about the program’s Women’s Rural Urban Network, an initiative that connects rural and urban women agriculturalists.
“One of the questions the network was facing was how do you illustrate the differences between urban and rural agriculture without physically bringing somebody to that space,” she said. “Photovoice is a medium to facilitate conversation and share stories, and it seemed like the perfect solution.”
The study took place primarily in a neighborhood of Pittsburgh called Homewood, where there are many urban farms and gardens in vacant lots that were abandoned by previous tenants.
“After the collapse of the steel industry, many people left in pursuit of employment, and with no maintenance, the homes eventually fell down or were torn down,” she said. “Community organizers now use these blighted lots as spaces for community activism and food production.”
Whitley’s research looks at social barriers for what the USDA has termed socially disadvantaged and historically underserved farmers and ranchers, a group that includes new and beginning agriculturalists, women, veterans and people of color. The two-part project began with informational interviews, while the second part of the study used photovoice to visualize what these social barriers looked like.
This past spring, 18 female urban agriculturalists were given disposable cameras and asked to take pictures that “tell their story” of urban agriculture. After three weeks of picture taking, participants met for a reflection meeting to share their photos, select which ones they wanted to share with the public, create titles, and write narratives for their photographs.
These images and stories now are displayed on the project website’s digital gallery, www.thefemalefarmerphotovoiceproject.org, and in an exhibition that will travel across Pennsylvania and the Northeast this year. Whitley said she hopes the project will raise awareness of the importance of this kind of research.
“In academic circles, there’s a big push for research that questions how we can grow more food in urban spaces, but not a lot of this research discusses the social barriers that limit people’s access to land, education and financing,” she said.
“I’m in a rural sociology program, not urban studies or city planning. I’m not an expert on growing food in cities, so it was important to involve participants to learn what urban agriculture looks like. I see myself as a facilitator of knowledge in an area that still has a lot of room for further study.”
For Whitley, the biggest challenge was working on the project by herself, but she enjoyed getting to know the women in the community and seeing their positive reactions to the project.
“I have a reflection book I bring to every event so folks can write down what they like, what they learned or just what they thought about the project,” she said. “A lot of people have told me ‘thank you so much for doing this, it’s really amazing to see a project like this, especially in Homewood.’”
Whitley defended her thesis in August and completed her master’s degree. She remains at Penn State pursuing a dual-title doctoral degree in rural sociology and in human dimensions of natural resources and the environment.
The Female Farmer Photovoice Project is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, through the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. The project also received support from PA-WAgN.
–Penn State University