Every year, the COE awards fellowships to fund summer research opportunities for Wesleyan students across all majors and class years. Brionna Colson-Fearon ’22 is a biology and psychology double major who conducted a qualitative study looking at food apartheid in Baltimore, Maryland, and the role urban farming plays in increasing access to healthy food in the city. The research is a part of her ongoing interests in obesity and public health outcomes of African American communities in urban contexts. Colson-Fearon received the 2022 Clendeninn Prize for her outstanding work and contributions as a biology major at Wesleyan.
Tell us about your project, Brionna!
This past summer my research was titled “The Black Farmer Project: Promotion of Food Access and Healthy Living by Urban Farmers in Baltimore.” For this project I interviewed Black urban farmers in Baltimore City, asking questions related to how they perceive their food environments and the role they believe urban agriculture could play in remedying food apartheid. The overarching goal of this study is to convince policymakers of the importance and effectiveness of urban farms in bringing healthy food into deprived communities of color.
How did you get interested in urban farming?
In the fall of my sophomore year I enrolled in a class called Research Methods in Ecological-Community Psychology, where students were required to pursue independent research projects. I chose to look at the association between food access and community health in neighborhoods in Maryland, my home state. In doing so I found that Baltimore City ranked the lowest across different health parameters, so I chose to further investigate the city’s food environment and how it differs from other communities.
COE summer fellowships give Wes students the opportunity to explore an enviro-related topic of interest. What did you hope to learn this summer…and what did you learn?
Prior to this summer, I did not know that urban farms were such a strong presence in Baltimore City or that some residents have the ability to receive free food in exchange for farm labor. I learned that there’s a variety of fruits and vegetables that can be grown in cities, so I can see how urban farms can be used as a tool to solve hunger and malnutrition.
What was the most rewarding part of your COE summer fellowship experience?
The most rewarding part of my summer experience was getting the opportunity to tour the Filbert Street Community Garden, an urban farm in Baltimore, Maryland. I was able to meet some of the people who live in the community that the garden serves, and learned more about the farming process, as well as the steps involved in the creation of “black gold,” which is used to further enhance the soil in which the crops grow. Additionally, I was able to meet some of the animals who lived on the farm, including goats, ducks, and turkeys. My favorite part, though, was getting to meet Pumpkin Spice—the cat who calls the farm her home.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in completing your project?
One of the most exhausting and time-consuming steps of qualitative research is transcribing interviews. For this project, I had multiple interviews that were an hour-long or more, which translates to multiple hours of transcribing time. While this step is essential for data analysis, it’s also very tedious. In order to get through this process, I made sure to begin transcribing long before the poster session, allowing me to finish each interview without having to overwork myself each day.
You’re a current senior here at Wesleyan. How did this experience change you, personally, and/or impact your academic or post-academic plans, moving forward?
I have been wanting to adopt a plant-based diet for a while now, and spending time interviewing urban farmers about the importance of the food we put in our bodies gave me the final push I needed to alter my diet. Having choice in the foods we eat is a privilege, but it should be a right. My experiences with this research have inspired me to want to continue to do food justice work, to make sure as many people as possible are able to adopt diets that make them feel nourished and satisfied.
Any words of advice for other Wes students who might be interested in applying for a COE fellowship?
If you’re thinking about applying, do it! Having the opportunity to be a COE fellow allowed me to strengthen my skills as a researcher while pursuing work that is meaningful to me. The COE fellowship program gave me the resources and support I needed to fully immerse myself in my project this summer, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has an environmental research idea they want to pursue.