Why it’s important for black farmers to take the lead on Detroit’s urban farms

Jun 14, 2017 at 1:00 am

Located near the intersection of Livernois and Fenkell Avenues, the Neighborhood B.U.G. spot is in an area where function and dysfunction exist side by side. Businesses and active warehouse buildings are mixed in with empty storefronts and broken-down homes. There's a burned-out house on one side of the garden that Orlando Thorpe from B.U.G. says used to be a drug house. But in the middle of it all, the Neighborhood B.U.G. garden stands out on account of its large rainwater collection system and passive-solar greenhouse.

Yet, this is clearly also a work in progress. In mid-May Thorpe and his partner in the organization, Jessica Patton, are trying to clear the bindweed and thistle from the beds and put in their summer transplants. The greenhouse they installed this spring has yet to be cultivated or planted. But their plans are bigger than the garden.

Neighborhood B.U.G. and other organizations like the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm and the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN) represent a side of urban farming and gardening that has been overlooked during the last few years of frenetic reporting on all things Detroit. "You're in a city of 90 percent black folks and yet the faces of the folks that are constantly being lifted up in the community are white folks and ... there's been people of color growing in this community," Patrick Crouch, a white farmer with Earthworks Urban Farm, recently told me. "But once it kind of became a white thing or at least a perceived-as-white thing then suddenly the media became interested."

What black organizations like Neighborhood B.U.G. and their allies are trying to do is, in part, restore ownership for a heritage of farming and gardening that never went away, but was overlooked, perhaps even within the community itself. They farm and garden to foster a specific sense of black identity to produce food — as well as create a sense of self-determination in the community.

Beyond that, they're engaging in a critique of the way power functions in the urban agriculture community in order to create a movement that is directed by black people and addresses the specific needs of their community.

Malik Yakini with DBCFSN draws attention to the long history of food and farming — as well as the history of racism and enslavement — that came with the African-Americans who arrived in the city in large numbers in the 1920s. "People were directly involved in agriculture through farming or through sharecropping," Yakini says. "They at least had a kitchen garden, it was part of the culture of the South. So that was brought to the North with the migrants. So that kind of planted many of the seeds that have bloomed into the urban agriculture movement today."

Thorpe from Neighborhood B.U.G. says that the perception of his organization really changed when people realized it was being run by African-Americans. "In the beginning we had a couple of problems because people didn't know who we were," he says. "They thought we were probably a white organization. ... Now we don't have anything locked up, we don't have any fences. ... The community is just receptive because they see nothing but blacks, young black people out there gardening and it makes people stop, from old to young."

Thorpe feels that this receptiveness comes from a sense that his group isn't imposing anything on the neighborhood, but responding to its specific challenges — things outsiders might not understand. He speaks of the hunger and desperation that many people feel and the amount of talent that goes to waste, especially among young men, which he says sometimes makes them feel forced into crime. "They haven't had the opportunities of other races," he says. "My job is to show you there's nothing wrong with your aim, I just got to change your target."

Thorpe says that growing food and learning about the sort of sustainable energy practices Neighborhood B.U.G. has been engaged in can be a pathway to entrepreneurship, as well as a source of security in a vulnerable community. "Because if something dramatic happens, we are going to be the first people to experience it," he says.

They have used some of this goodwill in the community to begin connecting their youth apprentices with older people who have houses and land. Young people grow on these properties and sell the produce at Eastern Market, sharing some of the proceeds as well as the produce with the homeowner, perhaps helping to reestablish some of the intergenerational legacy of growing in the process.

As Patton, Thorpe's co-director, says on reviving this tradition, "A lot of other cultures ... have set ways in their culture where they can continue to thrive and pass it on and make it a generational legacy thing. The African-American community doesn't really have that. And this is a way that they can establish it with something they already know. They already know how to grow, they already know how to cultivate. ... I know more than I thought I did."

Yakini believes that urban agriculture in the black community, as well as most other things, needs to be directed by black organizations. "From my perspective the whole thing is that if you're in a majority African-American community, I don't think white people need to be leading anything in black communities frankly," he says. "I think black people need to lead themselves and if there are white people who want to be good allies then they can assist in those efforts."

However, Yakini and Thorpe acknowledge the assistance offered by groups like Keep Growing Detroit who helps administer the Garden Resource Program, which provides seeds, vegetable transplants, and education to family and community gardens at a minimal cost, something that Yakini says has really jump-started growing across the city. He also mentioned Earthwork's EAT program, which could serve as a model for how predominately white organizations could leverage their power to help create equity in urban agriculture and beyond.

Earthworks and the EAT Program (Earthworks Training Program) fall under the auspices of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen based on Detroit's East Side, itself a part of the Roman Catholic Church, an organization that can hardly be said to be representative of Detroit's population. Yet, Crouch, the group's program manager says that, "as a nonprofit, we're able to tap into money that other folks can't oftentimes get. ... We think of that as opportunity to then use that to open up doors for others."

Part of this process is EAT, which for the past six years has trained people from Detroit to start their own farm businesses or work for or lead nonprofits. Crouch says one reason he did this was to meet their own hiring needs with people from the community. Previously, acquiring skills in organic agriculture usually meant relocating to a farm, or one of the few colleges like UC Santa Cruz or Michigan State University that offered these programs, and often working for free. By educating people in the city and providing them with a stipend, EAT has been able to place its graduates in a number of organizations including Keep Growing Detroit and the Greening of Detroit. Others have started their own businesses or gone to work for small urban farms.

Still, some criticized the group for developing what they consider a "white thing" that mostly employed white people and largely attracted white volunteers. As Crouch tries to transform his organization, he says one of the most important things has been opening himself up to critique. "I think a lot of times when critique is given, people just discount it," he says. "But to really sit with it and just take it and also to honor the fact that ... for every one person that's lobbing a critique, there's probably 10 more people that say, 'Eh I don't have the time, but I'm concerned about that.'"

Crouch acknowledges the limits of transforming an organization that is controlled by the church. Both he and Yakini stressed that any real change would involve more than adding a few black and brown faces that might play well in a photo opp. "Diversity doesn't speak to power," as Yakini puts it. "What we're trying to do is a fundamental shift in power, not just take the existing system and make it browner by having more people of color involved, but to put people of color at the center of our own reality."