Prior to stuffing several hoodies and books in a suitcase and moving into my halls at the University of Leeds, I had been maybe the only person in my sixth form college “weird” enough to really care about the environment.
I had stopped eating meat when I was 15, badgered friends and family about recycling, and spent hours researching organic farms. I was going to university to study languages and international relations, but I was taking my fledgling interest in “the green” with me.
In my first month, I cautiously ran for the position of Green Rep on my halls residents’ committee, a decision that, over two years later, led to me running a project called ‘Home Grow Your Own.’ Dedicated to encouraging students and more permanent residents of Leeds to grow their own food, ‘Home Grow Your Own’ was one of the first ideas to come out of Leeds University Union’s Green Exchange.
After receiving funding from NUS Students' Green Fund, LUU decided to make some of that money available for students to play with: to create their own ideas for a more sustainable Leeds, apply for funding, and run with it. All the time spent researching organic growing during my teenage years looked like it was about to pay off, but I couldn’t have anticipated just how much of a learning experience running my own project would be.
The fact that it was a challenge almost goes without saying. I was solely responsible for recruiting volunteers to help me run action days, handling a budget of over £1000, creating media to advertise the events, and liaising with staff at the community spaces.
Through connecting with these community groups and spaces, which included LUU project, Bardon Grange, arts and enterprise centre HEART, the Cardigan Centre and Left Bank Leeds, I learnt more than I ever could have hoped about food growing, about co-operative communities and about my own city. My adolescent view of what was meant by “living green,” though an excellent platform from which to jump, was ultimately quite a crude one.
Yes, recycling is important, but also not terribly energy efficient. My choice to not eat meat was more religiously motivated than environmentally, and though cutting meat out of your diet is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint and impact on the environment, it’s only one step in a longer walk towards a more sustainable future.
What I learnt through running ‘Home Grow Your Own’ was that building bonds between community members is perhaps even more important than any of those things. Sharing knowledge and information is what facilitates more sustainable growth: it creates a sense of mutual respect and support, and opens up the possibility of stepping outside that individual bubble we so often find ourselves in, and beginning to share.
I experienced this first hand on a particularly slow action day. It was raining outdoors, something that seemed to have discouraged many people from coming along, but I shared an hour with an older woman from Leeds, hands deep in pots of compost and talking about how best to care for peas and runner beans. I learnt more from her in that hour than I ever had on my own, and I continue to use her method of using old mechanical pencils to support young pea plants.
The Green Exchange really was a transformative experience for me, changing my thoughts on sustainability forever, and helping me to build a community of growers I hope will continue to be inspired by the produce they’re pulling out of their own gardens and windowsills. The first crop of autumn harvest plants will be ready in the next few weeks, and there are plans in the works to bring and cook the food together. I couldn’t be more excited.
- Emma Louise Simpson, languages and international relations student, University of Leeds.