Geographies of social activism: Women, democracy, and change in an urban community garden

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Cultural Foundations of Education


Sari Knopp Biklen


Social activism, Women, Democracy, Community garden, Urban communities

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Education | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Social and Philosophical Foundations of Education | Women's Studies


Public discourse constructs community activists as symbols of justice. Feisty and persistent "warriors" form committees, hold meetings, and stage demonstrations. Similarly, activists' communities are often portrayed in the mass media and academic research as united in solidarity fighting for common causes. Complicating the discursive conceptualization of activism, this dissertation examines a form of political activism called urban community gardening. Based on a three-year qualitative study of an urban community garden in a mid-size city in upstate New York, it explores how women community gardeners make sense of their participation in community gardening. I argue that the community garden, intended to be a space oppositional to the status quo, becomes a paradoxical space where people find that intertwined in their efforts for social change are internal struggles. Thus, how they maneuver their positions in relation to each other in their joint pursuit for the betterment of their life is integral to social change work. In other words, emancipatory efforts with a potential to build a less unequal society do not automatically fit themselves into an egalitarian space where people are able to forge affiliation.

I use the word, struggle, to depict the everyday activism of community gardening. That is, these women gardeners are struggling against forms of power that structure the community as run-down and in need of attention. Simultaneously, the process of community building itself by a group of people with various social positions requires arduous efforts to maintain their liberatory goals. Often when talking about reform initiatives, we tend to down play differences among members and emphasize "unity." This tendency speaks of a dominant perception that regards control and order as a prerequisite for progress. As such, the negotiation and confrontations, essential to the democratic struggle for betterment, are repressed and stigmatized. Political activism should not be used to deny the power relationships that give shape to the activists' day-to-day practices. Activism is the concrete process of collective pursuit, embodied in the eventualities of exhilaration and bonding as well as tension and clash.


Surface provides description only. Full text is available to ProQuest subscribers. Ask your Librarian for assistance.