Two former UL Lafayette students restored the city's faith in community activism ' and the spirit of its youth.
When she enrolled at UL Lafayette, Danica Adams discovered that UL allowed students in its department of renewable resources to live in an old home on the university's Johnston Street horse farm property in exchange for 10 hours of work per week. She hoped to have her turn one day, and when she found out the students who had been living there were all graduating, she applied in January 2005. Much to her dismay, the university informed her only male students could live on the former horse farm grounds. "They said it was too dangerous for girls to be living there, that it was a boys' dorm," Adams says. "But no boys had applied."
Adams refused to accept the decision. She appealed to the committee in charge of the university's auxiliary units, and when that didn't work, she took it all the way to Linda Vincent-Broussard, dean of the College of Applied Life Sciences. Adams got her wish ' but the exception would only be for one semester.
"I treasured it," Adams says. "I lived there for three and a half months, the best three and a half months of my life."
Unbeknownst to her at the time, she would be the last student ' male or female ' to live on the horse farm. A few months after she moved off the property, Adams learned her beloved farm was about to be sold for commercial development.
When Adams' father, Baton Rouge attorney Wade Adams, learned in October 2005 that she and her best friend, Elizabeth Brooks, were leading the charge to preserve the 100-acre UL horse farm property as community greenspace and save it from commercial development, he wasn't surprised. He had encouraged her to stand up for her right to live on the farm, but says it was her decision to challenge the rule. "In my mind it was a civil rights issue, and I was really irritated at the school for telling her she couldn't live there because she was a girl," he says.
Several months later, he knew her fight to live there had been the impetus for her call to activism.
Danica Adams and Elizabeth Brooks, better known as "EB," were in Dr. Griff Blakewood's community-based planning class on a Wednesday afternoon when they got word that the university was planning to rezone and sell its horse farm property.
"I was so upset that I just started crying right there in the middle of class," Adams says. Blakewood dismissed the young women so they could pull themselves together, and outside of the classroom they made a pact. "Right then, we decided together that we weren't going to let this happen, and we had to do something about it," Adams says.
"That's what the class was about, taking an active, participating role in community development," Brooks says.
Brooks was president of the Society for Peace, Environment, Action and Knowledge, also known as SPEAK, and Adams was the vice president, so later that afternoon they turned to SPEAK's membership for help. With the rezoning meeting only a couple of weeks away, everyone sprung into action, making arrangements to set up a savethehorsefarm.com Web site and print T-shirts (visual arts student Allison Bohl turned the design around overnight), bumper stickers and yard signs. More students from Blakewood's community-based planning class volunteered, as did many of Adams and Brooks' close-knit group of friends.
A grassroots student organization was born.
"Everything was pro bono; everyone was so good about supporting it," Brooks says.
"We had organized the community meeting [scheduled for Oct. 12, 2005, in the UL Student Union] and made this giant sign from some siding from my mom's house she was renovating and were trying to decide where to put it up," Adams says. "We had no idea the depth and significance of what we were trying to do. We didn't know how deep the deal had already run, how entrenched the deal was."
Soon after, however, the university began releasing some details on the previously secretive land swap deal ' outlining its plans to trade 36 acres of the horse farm for 4 acres on Girard Park Drive, saying both were valued at $3.25 million. That afternoon Adams and another student brought a large "Pavement or Paradise" sign to Downtown Alive! and also encouraged people to attend the rezoning meeting (which was later moved to Dec 5). They wondered if they could get their message to a larger audience if local television covered their efforts, so they took their sign to the horse farm. Not knowing how to approach the local media, Brooks placed an anonymous phone call to local TV stations, telling the station some students were out in front of the Johnston Street horse farm with a gigantic sign about saving the horse farm.
Adams and her 8-foot sign made the evening news, and the effort snowballed.
In no time, thanks to an intensive canvassing by the group's members, yard signs dotted the landscape stretching from the UL campus and Girard Park Drive to neighborhoods all over Lafayette.
Adams' mother, Margot Addison, who lives in Breaux Bridge, immediately joined the organization and has remained active, and her father was giving long distance support from Baton Rouge. "My dad said, 'You have to make this as positive as you can. Don't get caught up in burning bridges and being negative,'" remembers Adams. "From the beginning, my family was right there giving me advice." Adams' sister, Rachel, who was a senior at Lafayette High when the organization was founded and is now at UL, helped in the effort as well.
Brooks also leaned on the Adams family. Her mother lives out of state, and her father, Gordon Brooks, dean of the College of Arts at UL, chose to stay out of the controversy because of his ties to the university.
"I really respect her hard work," Gordon Brooks says of his daughter. The educator maintains he never heard a single criticism of his daughter's efforts from university officials and believes even those who may have disagreed with her appreciated her dedication. "You've got to respect her passion," he says. "I think she will change the world we all live in."
The Save the Horse Farm organization began meeting weekly, splitting into committees that dealt with different aspects of the effort. People were assigned to rezoning, media, fund-raising, environmental, and community vision/city planning committees. They even contacted the state offices of Inspector General and Attorney General to inquire about the legality of the land swap deal. Adams says people from all walks were calling to ask how they could help. "The community collaboration on this issue has been phenomenal," she says.
Dec. 5, 2005, was Save the Horse Farm's shining moment. In large part due to its successful effort to educate the community about the importance of green space preservation and the potential traffic problems more Johnston Street development would create, city-parish officials were inundated with letters from residents opposing the rezoning of the property. One after another, students and local residents ' some saying they never imagined themselves speaking publicly about a rezoning issue ' addressed the zoning commission.
With both of her parents and sister in the audience ' all donning their Save the Horse Farm T-shirts ' Adams delivered a convincing speech on the importance of good community planning (based in large part on an e-mail from her brother, who was living in Seattle at the time). She didn't emphasize the pitfalls of the land swap deal or her case for preserving the open space and stuck to the rezoning issue ' maintaining that a comprehensive study of effective planning practices was needed before any action was taken regarding the horse farm property. She said the lack of a master plan hindered the public's ability to have a coherent voice in such issues and reminded the group of its duty to regulate development through zoning and codes. "Does the university's request for rezoning conflict with or mesh with the current pattern of development on Johnston Street?" she asked.
The commission overwhelmingly denied the rezoning ' a critical defeat that ultimately sealed the fate of the ill-conceived land exchange.
Throughout the high-profile, controversial process that ultimately resulted in the land swap's demise (UL President Ray Authement officially called the deal off this summer), the two young honor students who have since graduated balanced their unending devotion to the cause with a high level of maturity and professionalism, earning the respect of civic and community leaders. Their efforts also helped save the university about $4 million, the discrepancy in land values that was revealed after new appraisals were conducted on both properties.
More than a year after their initial efforts, the pair continues to tirelessly work for a plan on the horse farm that benefits the whole community. They have met with Authement on four occasions ' with Blakewood serving as "liaison" ' to discuss their concerns and hopes for the property. "Dr. Authement told me he appreciated my idealism but that the university is not in the business of making parks, that it's in the business of educating people," Brooks says. "So I asked, 'how does your plan for the horse farm fit the university's mission?'"
Authement might not be persuaded yet, but he does seem to respect their resolve.
"I think he was impressed by our vision and invincible attitude," says Adams. "He shared some interesting stories with us about the history of [activism at] the university."
Both women ' Adams is 24 and Brooks 25 ' have bachelors' degrees in environmental and sustainable resources (Brooks, a cum laude graduate, also has a BA in Spanish). Their loyal horse farm group has met weekly for the past 15 months. "Every single Thursday," says Brooks, "[except] we skipped for Christmas and Thanksgiving."
Save the Horse Farm member Pat McDonald, a UL alum and devoted Ragin' Cajuns fan, doesn't think their commitment will ever wane ' Brooks even decided to postpone her dream of joining the Peace Corps to keep the local fight going. "I suspect they would chain themselves to trees before they would let anything happen to that farm," says McDonald. "They were there [as students] when they didn't know if there would be repercussions, and they just won't let it die. They're the kind of people I'm hoping we can keep in this community. They have a vision, and they're willing to fight for their vision."
Wade Adams, who until his retirement this March worked for three decades as an attorney with the Louisiana House of Representatives, could not be more proud of how Adams and Brooks handled themselves. He's pleased ' albeit a bit surprised ' they had the wisdom to follow his advice. "I've worked with six different [legislative] committees over almost 30 years," Wade says. "You see this process of confrontation and compromise all the time. What it takes is a willingness to listen and an avoidance of personal attacks."
"Back in my day," Wade continues, "I did a lot of protesting against the war, even in Lafayette. [They] did it far better than any of the stuff I did back in the '60s."
Save the Horse Farm hopes to canvas the neighborhoods adjoining UL's Johnston Street property to assess residents' concerns and fears about what might ultimately happen in their backyards and are hopeful City-Parish President Joey Durel will strike a deal with the university ' which they say will ignite their fund-raising campaign to pay for the farm. Durel says Authement has verbally committed to give him the first opportunity to buy the land, but no deal has been worked out.
"Our vision is for it to be a natural area, stay as it is with a couple of improvements, including [the Lafayette Police Department's mounted patrol unit]," Adams says. Ultimately, they would like to see the land converted into a park that's strictly for passive recreation, not organized sports, and have compiled data showing that for its size, Lafayette falls short in offering public recreation opportunities. "What we want to find is the best public use of the property so nothing is undervalued and nothing is cut off from the rest of the community," Adams adds.
"There's so much confusion about what we're trying to do," Brooks says. "It's not about a bunch of hippies just trying to keep concrete out of a city," she continues. "We want to raise the money, through donations or grants or the Trust for Public Land, and allow the city to purchase the land to preserve it. We're just looking into all the different options. This is about the community working together to achieve the vision we all have for where we want to live."
For more information on Save the Horse Farm, visit www.savethehorsefarm.com or call EB Brooks at 781-9766 or Jason Faulk at 254-0684. The grassroots organization's meetings are held every Thursday at 5:30 p.m. on the second floor of the Lafayette Public Library, 301 W. Congress St.
THE COMMUNITY GARDEN
About the same time Danica Adams and EB Brooks were organizing Save the Horse Farm, they were also in the first planting season of their organic community garden project, EarthShare Gardens. Located on Carmel Avenue behind the former Holy Rosary Institute, the garden has 23 shareholders who pay $150 a year. Their five-year goal is to have 75 shareholders who pay $300 a year, the maximum number the garden will support.
"It's just a cool way to connect local people with local growers, local food and support a local economy," Adams says of the concept, which is commonly called Community Supported Agriculture. "The Diocese of Lafayette has agreed to let us use the land rent-free. We could not function without that. The reason they are so cooperative is part of our mission is to address the issue of fresh food for people who may not have access to it."
A special garden was just planted to supply St. Joseph Diner, and another one is for students from the alternative school on the property, run by Volunteers of America. The students also get lessons from their instructor in canning and pickling their crops. "The students work on their garden, and they are entirely responsible for the outcome of it," Adams says. "We're teaching [them] food independence. It's also horticulture as therapy."
All of the work for the shareholders' garden is done by volunteers, with Adams the only paid employee.
The idea for the garden was born in 2001 when Adams co-hosted a grassroots convergence at UL's Hamilton Hall. Less than a year later, the then-19-year-old put flyers around campus to gauge students' interest in becoming shareholders in such a venture. The first meeting was on the living room floor of her rent house near campus, and 60 people attended. That same year, she and Brooks met in a class called environment and the spirit, "and we were fast friends," Brooks says.
In 2004 EarthShare Gardens Inc., a non-profit corporation, was established.
A recent e-mail Adams sent to EarthShare Gardens' members gives a little insight into how the garden operates ' and the personality of its founder, who has no cell phone (Brooks says Adams failed miserably in her first attempt to keep up with one) or Internet access from home. Writes Adams, "I would like to thank one of our shareholders for donating a whole bunch of organic seed. We love donations and can always put them to good use. We got our strawberries sets in late last week and almost all of them are cozy in the ground by now, already shot with a bit of fish emulsion (for effect). The broccoli is starting to head up, and in not too long we will have some, a nice addition to any table."
She then asks the group for a favor. "Since I don't have a TV and forget to read the paper and am generally not always paying attention, I would greatly appreciate a FROST ALERT, sent to me, a few days before (or the day of) a FROST. Even a light one. I would like to go out to the garden and cover some of the less tolerant crops and protect them from the settling dew that then freezes and turns into disaster."
She continues, "Today was an exciting day for the EarthShare Gardens organization! Some juniors from the Academy of the Sacred Heart in Grand Coteau came out to the garden and did a community service project. They created (spread compost, made rows, planted seeds, mulched, and even made a sign) a small (somewhat) garden whose produce is dedicated to go to St. Joseph Diner! Christopher [Adams' brother] and I even did a very short lesson on poverty, homelessness, hunger, as well as the benefits of a local food economy."
Adams and Brooks work at the Acadiana Park Nature Station in north Lafayette, where they have an opportunity to serve as tour guides to every fourth grader in the parish, imparting their love of nature on these young minds. "We're teaching fourth graders about science and nature, how to take a personal role in the environment," Adams says, "and we love it."