Sowing The Seeds of Self-Determination

Historically, when people gained power and made demands, they were invited to the proverbial table. In the U.S., this table and its chairs were made of wood stolen from indigenous people and constructed by African slaves. The powers that be sit propped up on centuries of stolen wealth, injustice, and compromise. They inquire, “What will it take to get you rebels to settle down and stop challenging us?” Many revolutionary leaders came to that table and accepted concessions in the form of laws and remunerations. Those who refused to take a seat and continued fighting faced harassment, exclusion, imprisonment, torture, and death.

I am grateful for those who, throughout history, have fought to have a place at the proverbial table so that people like me might have a better life. However, I am cognizant of the reality that the dominant culture is still lacking a moral compass and commitment to justice for all. The table has served as a place for maintaining power, rather than redistributing or sharing it. Moreover, there have been constant efforts to burn the seats our ancestors fought so hard to make for us. Unions, Medicare, public education, affirmative action, and even the right to vote are all under threat of being revoked. Indeed, it is important to continue to fight for a space at the table, but many of us are committed to investing more energy into constructing our own tables. The powers that be may keep theirs as it crumbles under its unsustainable weight.

Building our own tables means we must develop and implement our own safety nets to sustain us. The 40 acres and a mule never came. Reparations never came. Universal healthcare and education never came. Yet, some of our elders knew all the while, as we know, that we can prepare and take better care of ourselves than the system can. We can educate our children, build our own homes and hospitals, make our own music, and protect our communities.

Detroit is a city that has experienced firsthand how government and the private sector have failed to serve and protect communities. Across America, we bear witness to the deterioration of our country’s social fabric in tandem with the destruction of our environment. As more and more are left to fend for themselves, we recognize and proclaim what we know to be true: that we are enough. We can support one another, and challenge narratives that reinforce our dependency on government and jobs for our livelihoods.

I am a part of the movement to get ready, and stay ready – fostering a culture of diverse people committed to learning, sharing, and practicing how to be prepared for emergencies and situations where we cannot depend on the system. With community, the right knowledge and skills, individuals and families (particularly people with low or no income) can alleviate many of their needs on their own. Some are learning how to store and filter rain water, build and repair their cars or homes, while others are mastering the art of growing, foraging, and using plants and mushrooms found all around us for food and medicine. What unites us is our understanding that we cannot and must not depend on the almighty dollar and institutions we do not control for our well-being, security, and our liberation.

As our revolution grows in numbers, we center ourselves on the idea of resiliency. The ecological definition of resilience is the ability to survive and thrive in periods of stress and scarcity. Stress, of course, comes in many forms: physical, mental, emotional, economic, social. Scarcity includes both physical materials and social and spiritual connections. We lift up the values of knowledge, skills and, most importantly, relationships— human resources in the form of people you trust and can depend on.

In keeping with many of the efforts that have been happening in Detroit for decades, Voices for Earth Justice (VEJ) has sought to foster deeper relationships with one another and nature. In 2014, I joined the organization with a bias toward urban gardening and biodiversity conservation. The organization has been developing a property in Brightmoor called Hope House with the intention of utilizing the space to carry out our mission: to deepen our connections to one another and sense of wonder for creation through prayer, education, and action.

Gardening is the consummate mechanism for fulfilling our mission. The act of gardening and all of its secondary benefits can promote communication, connecting with the earth, nurturing life and death, physical activity, and learning about nature. Being in the garden can put you in a place of meditation, peace, and curiosity. It’s an opportunity to learn and interact with new plants and other life we share the planet with. We also draw from indigenous knowledge, permaculture principles, and encourage simply being observant to all of the activity in addition to the labor. Everything humans have learned has stemmed from connecting with things in nature, whether antibiotics, pottery, metalworking, or circuits.

At Hope House, we do agroecological land management. That means we blend vegetable production with environmental, scientific, and social consciousness. The property features rain gardens, a small native prairie, and an edible plant garden. All three spaces are managed in ways that promote biodiversity and minimize the need for high inputs like tractor tilling, spraying chemicals or even replanting every year. We let nature do most of the work and try to design the property in a way that only requires some weeding, minimal mowing, and some irrigation during dry periods.

We grow plants that are native to southeast Michigan that restore the biodiversity of birds and insects. These plants, as common as dandelion and milkweed, or as foreign as foxglove, beardtongue and turtle head, evolved here and are resilient in their ability to survive in the wettest, driest, coldest, or hottest times of the growing season. We also grow plants native to other places in order to increase the diversity like gboma or African eggplant and varieties of corn and black-eyed peas from Arizona, Puerto Rico, and Italy. Biological diversity is a key principle to ecological resiliency because more diverse systems can withstand a variety of stressors.

This summer, VEJ is piloting a resiliency program called Roses in Concrete. We are extending the resiliency through diversity theory into educating diverse skills. We’re providing one-week programs for youth and learnshops for adults, with each day focusing on themes that foster self-determination and preparedness. Themes include: 1) Herbalism and Medicinal healing, 2) Appropriate hand tool and garden tool use, 3) Wild, edible plant identification, 4) Food preparation, 5) Emergency Preparedness, 6) Communication, Meditation, and Reflection. The course will be run out of our site called Hope House in Brightmoor (northwest Detroit).

The course is the product of a series of meetings and conversations about how to build resilient communities in Detroit. One of the motifs of these meetings is, resiliency begins with trust. Safety and security is not derived from hoarding resources in confines and isolating yourself; rather our ability to maintain peace is inextricably linked to the well-being of our neighbors. We must concern ourselves with our relationships and the health of others.

It’s the age-old “give a man a fish” versus “teach a man to fish” proverb. As we strive to get ready, and stay ready, a huge component of that is preparing all of those around us. Knowing how to grow and store food is just as integral as knowing how to share food. Through sharing, we build relationships, and sharing knowledge multiplies communities’ ability to be resilient. Many hands make light work; many minds make a revolution!

We aren’t waiting around for handouts. We are strengthening our relationships and interdependence with one another. We are healing our communities and ourselves. Bringing forth justice for all will require us to continue to challenge and hold institutions accountable, but it is equally wise and necessary to establish our own systems of support. This entails redefining how we interact with one another and nature. As we continue to build new tables made with indigenous knowledge, trust, and love, we will share the fruits of freedom, healing, and resilience.

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