Afro House breaks ground on student-led community garden

Students behind the project hope it will provide a safe space for underrepresented students to connect with each other and nature


Jeff Sigmund

Aluna-Aro Olaniyi (left) and Cherish Cornett (right) discuss how to lay out the boards for the design of the boxes on Sunday, April 11, 2021. The boxes will be used to grow vegetables in a community garden located behind the Afro-House.

Marco Oceguera, News Reporter

Aluna-Aro Olaniyi finally brought her vision for a community garden to life on Sunday afternoon at the Afro House, hand building its foundation by gluing together plywood with a group of friends.

The community garden will be placed in the backyard of the University of Iowa’s Afro-American Cultural Center, known as the Afro House, with various plants and vegetables to be planted and harvested throughout the summer and fall seasons.

Some of the edible crops planted will include corn, lettuce, onions, and tomatoes. The garden will also feature different flower species and special herbs that are meant to repel insects and other pests. The student organizers decided to go without a fence to allow public access.

Olaniyi, who is a third-year student at the UI studying environmental science, said she originally planned this project in hopes of promoting a sense of community building and environmentalism on campus.

Olaniyi said she specifically hopes that the garden will help provide a safe space for students at the UI who are underrepresented.

“I think that there’s a really important connection between Black identity and a connection with nature,” Olaniyi said. “I really wanted to build a space for students to feel, build, and reintroduce themselves to that connection.”

UI third-year Cherish Cornett, who is studying health & human physiology at the UI, said she first got involved in the initiative as a way to simply connect with Olaniyi, who is one of her best friends.

Aluna-Aro Olaniyi poses for a portrait on Sunday, April 11, 2021. Olaniyi came up with the idea for a community garden. She is also the designer and builder of the boxes that will be used for the garden. (Jeff Sigmund)

Cornett said she was also excited to apply her knowledge of gardening to make an impact within the community, adding that she and her family have always had a strong passion for gardening.

“Everyone that is involved just loves plants and gardening,” Cornett said. “Working with others to create something is just fun.”

The project was funded by different university sources, including USG’s Green Initiative Fund, a grant offered for student projects that overall promote sustainable green practices and outcomes.

Those involved in constructing the garden have also recruited a club of individuals who will devote time to help with upkeeping the garden.

Students involved directly in the gardening will have first access to the garden and its crops.

Although the garden is primarily being advertised for Black students on campus, Coordinator of the Afro-American Cultural Center Shalisa Gladney said anyone will have access to the garden and its harvests.

“We are open to anyone who needs access to fresh veggies or produce,” Gladney said.

Gladney added that while she has overseen the project, it has been almost entirely driven by student efforts.

Olaniyi said the group plans to share any excess food in the garden with the wider Iowa City community, potentially even sending some vegetables to local food pantries.

“A lot of food pantries get canned and frozen goods but it’s not a lot of fresh produce” Olaniyi said. “We want to provide fresh produce and make sure that it’s accessible to people.”