Land— Our Common Heritage and Trust

by Riverwise Editorial Board       


As we approach the end of the harvest season and a tumultuous year, let’s take a moment to look back and reflect.  Sometimes in the midst of change, the most radical thing we can do is stop and ask ourselves: Where have we come from? Where are we going? Why? What matters to us? To our future?


In the inaugural issue of Riverwise, we examined the evolution of our city in the 50 years since the Rebellion of 1967. We asked what trends were unleashed that we might wish to avoid or to follow in the future. More importantly, we acknowledged it’s our responsibility to decide.


If we wish to establish a future based on common needs, we need to be conscious of what we have learned from our past struggles.


Today we are surrounded by people in neighborhoods who draw upon their understanding of the past to inform their responses to social injustices. These activists are creating vibrant, progressive communities that are fostering values for a more inclusive future.  


The people’s right to develop and recreate land for our common good is under siege in our city. The articles in this Riverwise Fall/Winter 2017 issue grapple with this issue, and the broad questions surrounding land, our relationships, and our responsibilities.  The land sustains and defines us, and our consciousness of this essential relationship is vital to our survival.  Among Detroit cultural workers, our understanding of our relationship to the land has evolved tremendously, from consideration of pure economics, or growing food for the table, to a wide-ranging platform for self-determination and community building. Indeed, our deepening relationship to the land is inspiring our resistance to rampant city planning by corporate marauders.


Malik Yakini of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DCBFSN) takes the lead in this issue by reflecting on this year’s harvest, the urban agriculture movement, and the eleven-year history of D-Town Farm. As we travel with Yakini through the years and down an impressive list of accomplishments, there is cause for celebration. DCBFSN’s success and contributions to the urban agriculture and Black liberation movements in Detroit are many.  D-Town Farm functions as a community of resistance to many socio-economic injustices caused by white supremacy and corporate domination.  Yakini details the lessons that have been learned over the years, and indicates the efforts necessary to continue advancing towards a new, sustainable society. 


The example set by Yakini and the DBCFSN is being replicated in other parts of the city. On the corner of Dexter and Clairmount, neighbors are finding new and old ways to reclaim the land. While commercial properties are quickly changing hands in areas that are perceived as “profitable,” community activists are reclaiming lands not yet coveted, on which new ideas can take shape. There is a growing recognition that land is part of the commons.  


Led by Taylor Peters, residents in the Dexter-Clairmount neighborhood have secured two city lots and created the Motown Community Gardens, which provide fresh produce and economic opportunities for neighborhood residents. Equally important, the gardens bolster community spirit and safeguard the integrity and history of the area, factors that are key for Peters, who is the third generation of her family to live in their home in this neighborhood. Peters honors us by telling her story in her own words.

Land has long been contested in our city. Detroit was one of the first places colonized on this continent. The roots of settler colonialism linger in our region, invoked daily on the streets that carry the names of early land grabbers. This history is documented in Tiya Miles’s book, The Dawn of Detroit, which is reviewed by Frank Joyce in this issue.  Declarations of white supremacy surround us on dedicated plaques and street signs that form the background of our daily lives.


In her essay on the history of urban agriculture in Detroit, Tepfirah Rushdan describes how the legacy of land appropriation affects us to this day, and reminds us that we have a long way to go before land becomes an equitable communal asset.


Indeed, farming and cultivating land have allowed us to reclaim land from present-day speculators and fight back against city-planners invested in large commercial developments. It has also forced us to look to the future from a grassroots level. Neighborhood community ownership of land leads to planning and ‘policymaking’ by the people most affected. Whether plotting a family garden or several community projects on a city block, social investment in the land has directed our gaze forward.


Of the many examples of engagement with the land to emerge in the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood, the Manistique Treehouse may be the most ambitious project.  A wooded lot across the street from her home caught the attention of Tammy Black and her students. Together they imagined a treehouse that would function as a community therapy center accessible to the widest range of people. Already surrounded by creative gardens up and down Manistique Street, they did not limit their vision to conventional thinking. They were concerned with the needs of the whole community, including the youth, elderly, veterans and the emotionally and physically disabled. Their story expands our imagination and hearts.  We are pleased to present it here, along with testimony and verses from program participants and supporters. 


In Detroit’s North End community, another program driven by youth is pushing the boundaries of conventional literacy programs. Jamii Tata and his students fused urban agriculture with hip-hop culture to produce a book of verses inspired by those disciplines and their adventures on the North End. Know Allegiance Nation and Illuminate have settled into a historic storefront on John R, establishing a thriving cultural hub that includes a bookstore co-op and writing workshop.



Julia Kassem provides a comparative analysis of land expropriation in Detroit and in Palestine. She reminds us to think about the interconnected world we all share. Despite their vastly differing geographies and cultures, communities in both locations share a history of displacement through political power and military violence. Recognizing these connections enriches us and reminds us of the destructive role US military power has played for more than seventy years as Palestinian lands have been expropriated.



And in the spirit of the season, Mayte’ Penman shares her community’s efforts to provide love and warmth to needy families. The Stitches of Love program is collecting knitted squares to create blankets as gifts for the holidays and beyond. This is a truly collective effort, uniting the small, individually-made patches to make large, splendid quilts. 


We conclude our Fall/Winter issue by looking forward to 2018 and beyond. During the next year, Riverwise will collaborate with Afro-Futurist adrienne maree brown and the Detroit SciFi Generator writers workshop. We will bring these writers’ stories, which envision Detroit fifty years in the future, predicting a dystopian, or utopian outcome.


As we struggle to redefine ourselves in our changing city, our relationship to the land and each other provides a foundation for community building. This Fall/Winter 2017 issue of Riverwise challenges the idea that land is a commodity to be bought and sold. Land is life. It is part of our common heritage and trust. We only need to claim it.


Literacy Is Power and Hip-Hop Is Green!


By Jamii Tata


A Garden of 5 Elements, written and published by the Illuminate Literacy Entrepreneurs (Illuminate) of Know Allegiance Nation (KAN) was released at Howrani Studio’s in Detroit’s North End on the first day of poetry month, April 1, 2017.  The North End-based literary group worked with Christine Herrin, Adobe creative artist-in-residence, and poetry teacher Jamii Tata to create this book of poems and illustrations inspired by the prompt, “Hip Hop Is Green.”


The Illuminate students are creative writers who increase their literacy skills by writing and publishing books, and recording and publishing spoken word poetry. The students are also urban farmers.  A Garden of 5 Elements is envisioned as “a resource for everything Hip Hop, healthy and green,” where young people explore the intersections of nature, the environment, and the five elements of Hip Hop: emceeing, dj’ing, graffiti art, break dancing and knowledge — in both poetic and visual forms.


Deena, a three-year student of Illuminate, credits the program for expanding her vocabulary, writing, and speaking skills, and helping her get into Honors English. Excited to be a published author, she says of her experience:

The way we came up with what we were going to write, we started with brainstorming and developing something, and from that something we branched off and branched off. We were like a seed in the ground and we grew to make a tree with lots of different branches of poems. We started with what makes up a garden and then we went through elements of Hip Hop plus what we do in urban agriculture, and came up with our book…. The Adobe people were nice. They came and collaborated with us to add pictures to our poems. It was like a group project where everyone did work and everyone played a role. After it was published, I was excited, I was hyped.  We went to Howrani Studios and they had a white backdrop for the performance, along with food and books. We felt like celebrities, autographing our books.  I felt famous! The book has come a long way.  I am proud of it.


The project was created over a two-week period. During the first week, the students developed poems with instructor Jamii Tata.  Discussions in poetry sessions included a wide variety of topics — from fried squash blossom recipes, to dj’s chopping up beats, emcees and break dancers being firewood for the next generation, and the contrast between the growth of plants and the stunted growth of money.  


Stephen Gliatto, Libby Nicholaou, Syd Weiler and Christine Herrin, of the Adobe Creative Residency Team, came the next week with markers, crayons, coloring pencils, magazines for scrapbooking and additional materials to help the Illuminate students create illustrations for their poems.  Christine Herrin created a handmade font for the book title and the titles of the individual poems.  








According to African American poet Toni Cade Bambara, “the purpose of a writer is to make revolution irresistible.” KAN furthers that sentiment and believes the purpose of a literacy teacher is to make education irresistible. KAN is a village-building enterprise that seeks to build a nation of knowledge seekers. Nation building is done through consciousness raising and literacy attainment. There are three main pillars of KAN: basic literacy, advanced literacy and survival literacy.  Jamii Tata explains:


“We teach basic literacy through poetry and entrepreneurship, advanced literacy through broadcast journalism, and survival literacy through sustainable agriculture and agrarianism. We believe that through the knowledge of reading the word and the world (Paulo Freire), and the power of writing, one can obtain a good life and contribute to their village/community.”

To increase access to literacy resources, KAN’s long-term goal is to own land, become a publisher and further establish its new bookstore. The KAN Co-op Bookstore opened in November 2017 at 9405 John R Avenue, and features A Garden of 5 Elements along with books from other authors of color in Michigan.


The KAN Co-op Bookstore hours of operation are: T/Th 10am-6pm, Fri 3-10pm, and sat/Sun 11am-4pm. For more information about Know Allegiance Nation, the bookstore or to purchase A Garden of 5 Elements, please visit Contact us at or  313-473-7082.

Jamii Tata, 30, is a literacy educator with 12 years of experience teaching inside and outside of schools. He was inspired to create Know Allegiance Nation to supplement and continue the work of educating Black youth after seeing the limitations of the Detroit Public Education School system. Jamii is also a parent, community organizer, writer, farmer, and aspiring djembe drummer.



Between the Maple Tree and the Cottonwood: The Manistique Community Treehouse

by Eric Thomas Campbell

The Jefferson-Chalmers community is dotted with whimsical vegetable gardens, fields of wild flowers and hoop houses of various sizes and builds. Over the last decade, residents here have slowly taken ownership of long-vacant lots and transformed them into rustic sanctuaries. From the creative achievements of residents, a tight-knit community bent on self-determination has emerged. In that visionary spirit, an inconspicuous group of children meeting weekly at the far end of Manistique are the focal point of even grander plans.


The Manistique Community Treehouse and Therapy Center is the brainchild of Tammy Black along with other members of the Manistique Block Club and the Creekside Community Development Corp. Their vision for a healing center for children and adults with emotional and physical challenges began with this small group of talented youths who meet weekly on the lot where the treehouse is to be built.


What Black calls ‘horticultural therapy’ is at the root of a program offered thus far to youth living mainly in the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood. Beginning in July, Tammy and behavioral therapist, Jasmine Toney, began using the gardens of Manistique and the wooded lots along the block as a healing space. The Horticultural Therapy Program is based on a holistic, sustainable approach which includes learning to eat healthy and growing food locally.


The treehouse project was conceived partly because the program now needs a physical location to call home. Black wanted to provide a permanent indoor space to meet during the colder months, while maintaining an attachment to the natural outdoors in which the therapy program has flourished. She also wanted children participating in the program to be involved in developing a major community project from beginning to end.


Black and the Manistique Block Club have successfully partnered with Creekside Community Development Corp, active neighbors and the children to plan the treehouse, projected to be a 400-square-foot ADA wheelchair-accessible, six-sided structure, situated between the Maple and Cottonwood trees in the vacant lot across the street from her home. Over 120 feet of ramps, platforms and decks will surround the main house, which will be raised 10 feet off the ground.


Black, who has worked with children with disabilities for 30 years, says that starting the program with emphasis on the youth has allowed an organic mentorship program to emerge, pairing the natural energy and curiosity of the children with the experience and teachings of neighborhood elders. Though the focus of the horticultural therapy is persons with disabilities, Black says the treehouse will promote diversity of residents in the Jefferson-Chalmers community and the mental wellbeing of youth, families, seniors and veterans.


           “As a block club, we foster that adult-child interaction,” Black told Riverwise.  

            “The older neighbors help the children identify plants and weeds.”


Black proudly champions her youth program as one of the few horticultural therapy programs in the region. However, positive results stemming from such holistic approaches to child therapy are well-documented nationally.   


This past Spring, Jasmine Toney, professional counselor and therapist, responded to a call put out by Black for assistance in setting up community-based support for neighborhood children experiencing mild behavioral and adjustment problems in school.

‘Horticultural therapy’ as a specific discipline was a new concept for Toney, but one that she understood and incorporated into her weekly sessions on Manistique. She pointed out:


“I had an idea that it had to do with nature and gardening of course, and a more holistic approach. So I was intrigued, because that’s how I do clinical work. It’s an overall perspective– from mental health to the foods you eat, to your physical wellness– all of that.”


Toney says the program includes conventional approaches to group therapy, focusing on group interaction, task achievement, and the participants’ ability to communicate with each other— the emphasis on outdoor activities accelerates the results.  Toney explains:

“In this program, horticultural therapy incorporates the community garden into clinical practice and focuses on wellness by getting the kids out into nature. When we can, we hold our sessions outside in the garden and it’s just a different atmosphere where we can focus on different things. We’re doing a little bit of meditation, sometimes we’ll do yoga, sometimes they’re picking things out of the garden. It’s more about incorporating nature into clinical practice.”

When visiting the Manistique therapy group, it doesn’t take long to realize what effect the horticultural program has had on its young participants. Their level of comfort in the gardens is immediately apparent. They thrive in the community garden adjacent to Black’s home on Manistique, which is filled with plants, vegetables and flowers of various kinds. Overflowing with contributions from the surrounding community, the garden now provides emotional sanctuary in addition to physical nourishment.

Building upon the rewards of the garden therapy program, Black is exploring yet another healing modality.  Alternative energy is now a focal point for Black and her students. In fact, it has become a preferred source of power for the newer building projects on the block. The Manistique Treehouse, which is due to break ground any day, will not be the first project to be powered completely by the sun. It will join the ‘Shine A Light Project’ building, which is anchored by a wooden A-frame structure built in partnership with sculptor Ash Arder and the Charles Wright Museum of African American History.


“Everything we are doing will be powered by solar energy from here on out,” claims Black, including the ‘Shine A Light’ building, designed to be a projection house inside which neighborhood residents will be able to watch interviews of elders in the community speaking about the community and how it has evolved. Filmmaker Julie Dash will soon be recording the interviews for the ‘Shine A Light’ projections. The structure will double as a greenhouse for plants more vulnerable to the elements.

The Manistique Tree House project is still fundraising for the $60,000 needed to complete the construction next year and volunteers are sorely needed. But the plans have been drawn, and the digging to establish the foundation is due to be completed before the ground freezes over. For months now, Tammy Black and her students have imagined a widely accessible destinationin this lower east-side neighborhood, a special place designed to continue growing a healthy community. From the original plans, an enchanting sanctuary in the forest is emerging.

For more information about the Manistique Street Community Treehouse and Therapy Center, call Tammy at 313-903-0639, or email To make a donation, visit the website:


Raised on Detroit’s northwest side, Eric Thomas Campbell is the co-ordinator of Riverwise Magazine and a member of the editorial staff. Eric worked as a staff writer for the progressive Michigan Citizen Newspaper from 2007-2012, covering a wide range of issues affecting Detroit’s majority Black community.










After The Harvest: Progress, Challenges and Lessons from D-Town Farm

by Malik Yakini 


When the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN) was founded in February 2006, it was, in many ways, the outgrowth of earlier work at Nsoroma Institute, an African-centered school that involved students, staff and parents in gardening and thinking more deeply about how we exert greater control over the system that provides our food.  The newly formed DBCFSN established as its mission to build self-reliance, food security and justice in Detroit’s Black community, by influencing public policy, engaging in urban agriculture, promoting healthy eating, encouraging cooperative buying and directing youth towards careers in food-related fields.

Establishing a farm was one of our main goals.  In 2006 we spent the year at a location near Gratiot and McClellan, and the following year on Collingwood and Cascade.  After two years of negotiations with the City of Detroit came to fruition in June 2008, D-Town Farm began operating at our current location in Rouge Park. Former Councilmember JoAnn Watson championed our work, opening doors to what would eventually become a ten-year license agreement with the City Recreation Department to farm two-acres in Rouge Park.  In 2011, our license-agreement was amended to add an additional five acres.

In our nine years at the Rouge Park location, with the visioning and work of dozens of people, we have made tremendous strides.  We have installed four hoop houses, a tool shed, deer fencing around the perimeter of the farm, a 40,000 gallon rainwater retention pond, an 8 kilowatt off-grid solar energy station, a large scale composting operation, an apiary, and a children’s area.

In 2017, we grew more than 30 different crops, including snow peas, red onions, scallions, leeks, spinach, two kinds of kale, collard greens, mustard greens, turnips, garlic, four kinds of tomatoes, ground cherries, four kinds of peppers, romaine lettuce, spring salad mix, two kinds of corn, two kinds of watermelons, raspberries, blackberries, zucchini, yellow crook-neck squash, beets, carrots, green beans, red and green okra, two kinds of cabbage, parsley, cilantro, basil and lemongrass.  We recently planted blueberries that we expect to start bearing fruit next year.

While we are producing tons of high quality, fresh, hyper-local produce, D-Town Farm is more than a production farm.  It is also an educational institution and family-friendly outdoor community space.  This year we sponsored the following events designed to engage community members.


May – Third Annual BioBlitz  

Faculty and graduate students from the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources, and community scientists, equipped with microscopes, photos, nets and specimen bags and jars led about 75 young people through the farm identifying various flora, fauna and fungi.


June– Wild Herb Walk

Naturopathic Dr. Jesse Brown walked participants though the farm identifying culinary and medicinal herbs.


July – Harvesting Health Bazaar  

Participants experienced vendors of health products, yoga, meditation and a food demonstration. Two women farmers from Malawi, accompanied by author/activist Raj Patel, shared their experiences with climate change and with using food to change gender roles.


August – Third Annual Children’s Day

This event included a farm tour, pizza baking in our earth oven, arts and crafts and other fun, food-related activities.


September – 11th Annual Harvest Festival  

Our major event of the year attracts hundreds of community members. The festival features learnshops, community discussions, live music, a farmers’ market, food vendors, yoga, meditation, farm tours, horse rides and a children’s area.


Our work at D-Town Farm is significant because it models African American community members working together to grow food, learn and share agricultural knowledge and practices, practice self-governance, practice self and community healing and develop a deeper connection to land.


Each year, we give farm tours to hundreds of people from Detroit, throughout the United States and around the world.  We have been invited to share our work at many national and international gatherings.  The farm tours and speaking engagements provide us with the platform to not only share our agricultural practices, but to share the ideas that frame and guide our work.  Some of those ideas are:


  • Community self-determination – Communities have the right and responsibility to determine what their own interests are and to implement plans to meet those interests.  We push back strongly against visions, goals or plans being imposed on communities by outside forces or by newly arriving gentrifiers.


  • Re-framing of agricultural work in the Black community – Unfortunately, many descendants of enslaved Africans in the western hemisphere view agriculture through the lens of enslavement or share cropping, systems that exploited Black labor and genius to create wealth for already wealthy Whites. Part of our job is to reframe agriculture work as an act of self-determination that has the potential for collective community upliftment.


  • Our sharp critique of the systems of oppression – While we are advancing a pro-Black vision for the future that is rooted in justice and equity, we are also acutely aware that our efforts are challenging the existing systems of white supremacy, capitalism and patriarchy.  We take every opportunity to call out those systems and to challenge ourselves and others on ways in which we have internalized ideas about ourselves and the world we live in that are shaped by those systems of oppression. Decolonizing our minds is a fundamental aspect of our work.


  • Ecological stewardship – Perhaps the greatest crisis facing humanity, the earth and the plants and animals with whom we co-inhabit the earth, is climate chaos.  We advocate for and use agricultural practices that are regenerative.  We model water conservation and sustainable energy usage.


While we engage in this work, we are confronted with many challenges, tensions and contradictions. Here are some lessons that I have learned from doing this work.


  • Healing and personal transformation have to be a central part of our work.  We bring ourselves with us wherever we go.  Often, our organizational efforts are impeded by egos, insecurity, jealousy, greed, distrust and individualism more so than by the external forces that oppose us. While we work to build a new society, we must transform ourselves.


  • Our efforts to develop an efficient people’s democracy in governing the farm are important but imperfect.  We are striving to create an environment where all voices of those doing the work are heard and valued. We are challenged because true democracy takes time.  Issues have to be discussed and debated.  Farming is time sensitive.  Too much discussion and debate can cause us to miss planting windows.  We have to do more work on balancing those two considerations.


  • If our movement is going to be a microcosm of the just and equitable society that we wish to bring into being, disability justice must be a critical part of our work. Farms and gardens must begin to think about and act on how to become accessible to and inclusive of all community members.


  • Zero carbon-footprint, manual approaches to farming are better for the soil health and the environment. However, as the scale of farming increases, we have to weigh the time it takes to complete jobs manually versus the time it takes using appropriate level technology.  For example, preparing growing beds with a manual broadfork does less damage to soil structure than a tiller, but a tiller can do the job in 1/10th the time.  We are often forced to weigh and balance the competing considerations of environmental health and sustainability, number of hours and cost of labor, and planting deadlines.


  • The concept of private land ownership is very much a part of the western colonial concept and is a pillar of capitalism that continues to concentrate wealth in the hands of already wealthy white men.  As we move towards creating more just and equitable societies, this practice should be reconsidered.  However, within the context of the existing society, “owning” the land is usually the only way that farmers can have any long-term security— one of many contradictions that we must face as we move from where we are, to the idealized society that we envision. We should advocate for City policies that put land in the hands of residents instead of favoring John Hantz, Dan Gilbert, the Illitches and other wealthy developers.


  • The chief dilemma facing the food movement is how to provide access to healthy, high-quality food for all, regardless of income, while at the same time paying workers within the food system a fair and livable wage. The current industrial food system is able to sell food at prices that do not reflect the true cost of its production. Migrant farm workers are often exploited, many large-scale farmers receive huge government subsidies, the industrial farming model uses huge amounts of water and does significant damage to the environment (externalized costs). While it seems almost counter intuitive, cheap food is not the answer.  There is a cost associated with paying workers fairly and farming sustainably.  The movement for food sovereignty must be wedded to the movement to eradicate poverty so that everyone has the income to buy good food. Of course, home and community gardens that decommodify produce should be encouraged.


  • While there are more are more than 1,600 gardens and farms in Detroit, we have not sufficiently developed the infrastructure necessary to allow local growers to participate, in a more robust way, in the local food economy.  The middle layers of the community-based food system need development.  Specifically, we need more wash, pack, and cool stations, refrigerated trucks and aggregation centers.  Currently Detroit growers are producing less than 5% of the produce consumed in Detroit.  We have tremendous room for growth. That growth has the possibility of serving as a major community-based economic driver.


D-Town Farm and other participants in Detroit urban agriculture have great potential to advance the movement by:

o Fostering collective visioning, planning and work

o Redefining how urban land is used

o Modeling anti-racist practice


o Serving as the foundation for a locally-controlled economy that meets our own needs and circulates wealth in our community

o Fostering healing through deeper relationships with the earth  


The movement for food sovereignty, if it is to spur a fundamental change, must be intentionally linked to the struggles for racial justice and equity, livable wages, gender equality, land justice, community-control of schools, self-rule and against police murder and abuse.  Simply growing good produce will not, in and of itself, end our oppression.  As my friend, activist/scholar Raj Patel, said, “Local food, tastes great!  Won’t end white supremacy!”  


Malik Yakini serves as executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network.  He is a longtime community activist, institution builder and musician.

Staying Rooted On Clairmount

by Taylor Peters

My great-grandparents settled on the Westside of Detroit — in the house I call home today – in 1962. They’ve seen many ups and downs in this neighborhood, but unlike so many others, hard times never made them move. Raising four generations and counting, our family holds this neighborhood near and dear to our hearts. All of my neighbors have been here for quite some time and we consider each other family.

Lucille and George Peters from Camden, Arkansas moved up here so they could create a better life for their five children— one girl and four boys. While working for Ford Motor Company and Flaming Embers restaurant, they never thought they would experience anything as chaotic as the 1967 rebellion. We stay on Clairmount a few blocks away from where the Rebellion started. Military tanks were rolling down our street, a curfew was enforced and, as the death toll rose, the Peters’ second oldest son was locked away for looting. But they still didn’t budge.   

With Kwame Kilpatrick being from this area, when he was Mayor, there were so many events going on at the parks, recreation centers, schools, and churches and he made sure to be at most of them. This neighborhood was busy and so alive! When he was indicted, the neighborhood went right back to square one. Schools were being closed left and right, there were no streetlights, and more houses became vacant. But most of us still stuck around.

We’ve seen so much in this neighborhood, with gentrification creeping our way. Now is the time for us to unite stronger than ever. It amazes me how people could abandon a city fifty years ago in a time of crisis, and then come back and feel entitled to the land as if they’d been here in the struggle like the rest of us.

But now is the time for us to say, no, we will not be pushed out of our homes for new development or gentrifiers. All over Detroit you see messages of city pride and black unity. Hanniyah (my best friend since I was seven years old) and I wanted to do more for our community, so we started a garden. The lot where the garden is now was home to two houses, abandoned for 10-plus years before they finally got torn down. When we came up with the idea for a garden, that spot was perfect for what we had in mind. Even though the lot is at the corner of my block, the city refused to let me buy it for the “side lot price.” Luckily, my old neighborhood friend lives two lots away from the garden and his dad didn’t hesitate to purchase the lots for us so we could turn it into “Motown Community Gardens.” With help from some of our millennial friends and money from our own pockets, we’ve managed to maintain the lot. I’ve also been putting in work at Brother Nature Farms in Corktown in exchange for materials such as hay, compost, and plowing needs.

We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. Now we’re in the process of getting our 501(c)(3) status, so we can get more funding. Our long-term goal is to create fresh produce gardens all over the city to eventually open up grocery stores, locally sourced restaurants, coffee shops and more. We want to create more jobs for our people so they won’t have to depend on the system for work or food.  

This garden is important because it brings a sense of community pride and unity back to us. People are more than likely going to step up and want to become involved when they see progress being made. It lets gentrifiers and outsiders know we will not be moved. We are strong, we are here to take back our streets, own our own homes, and employ our own people. Detroit is now the blackest city in ‘AmeriKKKa,’ so what we achieve here matters. We are setting the tone for people around the nation.


My name is Taylor Peters. I’m 23 years old with a passion for progression and self sufficiency for the black residents in Detroit. I’m an only child from the westside of the city. For 3 years now I’ve been a licensed massage therapist and wellness coach. My goal is to teach the people of my city holistic health options and how to grow and maintain their own food supply while working for themselves and the community.


Resisting Dispossession: Palestine and Detroit, 1967

By Julia Kassem


The summer chaos of 1967 raged outside Detroit corner stores while the third Arab-Israeli War exploding on the other side of the world. The Detroit Rebellion and the Six-Day War were the result of campaigns designed over the course of decades to disempower these communities. Segregation and exploitation of Detroit’s African-American community mirrored the gradual yet violent theft of Palestinian land abroad. Many political organizations emerged to protest these assaults. In the beginning of the 20th Century, organizations thrived in Detroit, with the Nation of Islam and Garvey movements paralleling the anti-colonial sentiments of al-Nahda, an awakening of Arabist identity during the fall of the Ottoman empire, which solidified into pan-Arabism in the Nasser era.


Mid-century Cold War anxieties fueled Western world fears of an independent and economically self-determined Arab and Muslim world.  Within the United States, this same fear was expressed in the intensifying, systematic efforts to oppress Black communities. As the city with the highest African-American home and property ownership in the United States, whose movements reflected a deep and growing aversion to White supremacist subjugation, Detroit was a prime target.


My first efforts to understand the 1967 events required me to reexamine references such as “clashes between settlers and Palestinians” or Detroit “rioters.” That language did not reveal to me that these events were, in fact, the result of racialized articulations of power— violence levied upon oppressed communities. The United States and Israel shared histories that rested upon white supremacy and colonization, and in the summer of 1967, Detroiters and  Palestinians fought back against the hegemonic aggression of these two governments.


State violence helps draw and define the parameters of law and land. Palestinians’ movement from one area to another is impeded and controlled by Israeli checkpoints, stations where profiling and harassment are carried out.  The United States and Israel, collaborating in police training and intelligence sharing, have taken advantage of their partnership to suppress and brutalize communities. An example of their current collaboration is the hiring by the Detroit Police Department of Israeli Defense Force for expertise in expanding stop-and-frisk tactics in Detroit. Dan Gilbert, the subprime mortgage mogul and owner of Bedrock and Quicken Loans, is a supporter of the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces, which gave him a philanthropy award in 2006. The inextricable connection between violence and power is apparent through Gilbert’s support of the IDF, financing the militaristic-driven destruction and theft of Palestine abroad parallels Detroit’s own orchestrated financial destruction. In 1967, Mayor Orville Hubbard ordered police to “shoot looters on sight” in the white suburban town of Dearborn, MI. Such normalization of state killing is mirrored by Israel’s routine executions and administrative detention of minors.


The corporate elite and White citizens began moving away from Detroit as early as the 1940s, while discriminating against African Americans and restricting their access to home ownership. The involuntary transfer of land from absentee landlords, the fellahin, to Israelis in Lebanon and in Palestine, facilitated subsequent expulsion of neighboring villages. Though 1967 was not the starting point for land injustice and theft, it was the catalyst for a full assault on Palestinian sovereignty.


Israel continues its legacy of land grabs, forcing generations of Palestinians into relocation and international dispersion, while in Detroit, gentrification displaces long-established, traditional neighborhoods. In cities like Acre, reserved as a designated historical site, Palestinians face eviction as a result of soaring rents from exploitative landlords.  There is a similar experience of uprooting for the nearly 200,000 Detroit residents displaced by foreclosures since 2002, due to illegally assessed property taxes or the negligence of absentee landlords.


Over 50 different laws have been enacted to disposses Palestinians of their land and human rights. The “Regularization Law” allows Israel to expropriate Palestinian land in the West Bank for Israeli settlements. Israel has legislated racism in its apartheid system. In Detroit, an overtly racist legacy has been sustained through land, property, and resource extortion.

Exile, expulsion, and loss are inherent aspects of the Arab narrative, salient in the nostalgic cadences of the legendary singer Fairuz, or the politically charged poetry of Darwish. And Detroiters, too, are no strangers to exile. Tax foreclosures, evictions, water shutoffs, and gentrification have catalyzed displacement in Detroit though spatial racism. These forms of oppression can be traced in the nation’s abhorrent history, founded and sustained upon land grabs, beginning with the decimation of the indigenous peoples and the appropriation of their land. Today Detroit is “exiled” from its own past, where community, agency, and a sense of self-determination fostered promise, hope, and pride. When philosopher Edward Said reminisced on the longing for return to one’s true home, an experience symbolized by a key in one hand and an olive branch in the other, he wrote:  “Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and the true home.”


By controlling the narrative, power elites are able to harness control of the land and resources. “A land without a people for a people without a land,” a Zionist saying, exhibits the same deceitful rhetoric as the “comeback of Detroit.” Eracing the presence of Detroit’s 80% African-American population, the controversial Bedrock advertisement in Downtown Detroit invites us to “See Detroit Like We Do.”  Somehow, we are to accept the narrative that African American Detroiters are to blame for blight, water shutoffs, and property tax foreclosures, when in reality, the corporate takeover of the city through emergency management is to blame for mismanagement, corruption, and blight. In mainstream narratives, Palestinian self-determination, likewise, is associated with incompetence, terrorism, misogyny and zealotry.  Such narratives demonize the African American and Arab responses to racism and Zionism.

As the historic identities of these communities are erased, their presence and humanity are denied. By reputing Detroit and Palestine to be banal and vacant, power elites are able to shape these regions to serve their benefit, rendering calls for social justice invalid.


“Existence is resistance,” a catchphrase associated with advocating for the Palestinian cause, is an approach taken by indigenous communities to fight back against their cultural, political, and economic removal.  Reclaiming land runs akin to reclaiming ownership of self and history. In rare cases, Palestinians have won the right to reclaim their land and legacy in the very courts instituted to usurp their land rights and liberties. A 2013 Israeli ruling permitted Palestinians to reclaim 170 acres in the village of Burka after they were militarily seized in 1978, a victory in lieu of the Palestinian right of return. In Detroit, groups and individuals have taken the initiative to reclaim houses and lots, and have advanced the urban gardening movement. These initiatives were aimed at self-determination and community reclamation, addressing problems induced by capitalism, such as  food insecurity and blight.


Conflicts of dispute and displacement revolve around the question of who owns the land.  My mother repeated to me, “You sell your land, you sell your honor.” Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata said, “The land belongs to those who work it.” Clearly, Palestinian land belongs to the levant Arab farmers, cultivators of olives and za’atar, coping with severed water irrigation lines while the water runs full force on Israeli farms. Likewise, the land belongs to Detroiters, who have paid their taxes, dues, and trace their ancestry to farming and cultivation in the southern United States and, later, to building thriving communities in Detroit’s Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. The reclamation of sovereignty and ownership begins with grassroots resistance.


Julia Kassem is an economics and political science graduate from University of Michigan, Dearborn. Her work has appeared in Mondoweiss, ReORIENT, Michigan Radio, and WDET.


Stitches Of Love: Creating Warmth, Sending Prayers, One Square At a Time

by Mayté Penman

“Together, all things are possible.”

César Chávez

The power of praying, healing, creating, and building community is in our soul, mind and hands. And it is in our hands where all the energy gets funneled to create and make tangible all that is already in our hearts. Our hands are capable of so much more than we give them credit for. They bring life to our intentions, our prayers, our desire to make something out of nothing, and to share with others and to create a better world. It is with our hands and hearts that we receive and pay forward.


A group of southwest Detroit activists are using their hands to make a difference in the lives of families who need extra warmth and compassion this winter. A project that emerged as part of a weekly sewing workshop, Stitches of Love is collecting 8 x 8-inch knitted squares and producing homemade, quilted blankets for underserved families. Each blanket is comprised of 54 squares, reflecting 54 donations from caring, creative individuals, every one unique in design and pattern.


Stitches of Love is a project where everyone can do something small and create something beautiful for others to use. It doesn’t require longs hours or a long commitment. It only requires the desire to help others. If you can crochet or knit, you can crochet or knit 8×8-inch squares that will be utilized to create blankets full of energy for people in need. And since this is a collective effort where different people donate different types of squares, no two blankets will be identical.  Everyone will bring their own stories, and whether it is a stitch that you learned from your grandmother, or memories of elders in your community, this is an opportunity to share and create new relationships.  


Each blanket represents a collective effort in which different people contribute different kinds of squares to form a warm and wonderful whole. Each embodies the collective good will, positive energy, prayers, stories, traditions, and compassion of many, giving each blanket a comfort and healing power that the recipient will feel.

The Stitches of Love project is part of a long tradition of people taking what they have and creating something new. In Detroit we have found ways to combine beauty, usefulness and meaning. In the early 1980s, as Detroiters for Dignity emerged to find more humane ways of dealing with basic needs for food and shelter, a small group of women created the Rainbow Stitchers. Together they made quilts from scraps, selling these in craft fairs around the region, sharing the money and using it to support their organization.  

During the height of the Sanctuary Movement protesting US involvement in Central America, the Rainbow Stitchers donated their efforts to help support the El Salvadoran family living in St. Rita’s Church. Most recently, drawing on the inspiration of the AIDS quilt, mothers who have lost their children to gun violence are creating quilts in their memory.


Stitches of Love Project draws on this powerful tradition of creating something for others to use, to feel the prayers that others have placed in each square, to feel the noble intentions, to feel the energy of those who cared enough to create something for someone they have never met.


Please join us in our first year of producing blankets for the upcoming holiday season. Each one is made of 54 8×8-inch squares, and will be donated to vulnerable families in Southwest Detroit. We are also collecting new or gently used blankets. Bring your squares to 1920 25th Street, Detroit, MI 48216, where we will welcome them. Other families will create their own stories when they cuddle tougher and enjoy your gift.


To learn more about Stitches of Love and current drop-off locations, please contact Mayté Penman at 313.297.1341 or


A native of Mapimi, Durango, Mexico, Ma Teresa “Mayté” Penman has been engagin families in Detroit for over two decades, encouraging them to take pride in their culture, language and heritage. She worked 16 years for Vistas Nuevas Head Start and was a co-founder of the Día de los Niños-Día de los Libros, the largest bi-lingual literacy event in Michigan. She currently works as the director of resident engagement for Southwest Solutions.

Vision, Audacity and Celebration! Advancing the Climate Justice Movement

Rich Feldman is a community and labor activist, Board Member of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership (, and the Huntington Woods Peace, Citizenship and Education Project (  He is committed to the inclusive education movement and the Disability Rights and Pride Movement, He co-edited the book, End of the Line: Auto Workers and the American Dream.


William Copeland is a cultural organizer from Detroit. He works as Co-Director of the East Michigan Environmental Action Council (  He also works to support the Cass Corridor Commons as a space for everyday people in the midst of development and exclusion. He is a student of tai chi and the metaphysical martial arts. He organizes popular education, movement schools, People’s Assemblies, and other liberating spaces. He served as a Local Coordinator for the 2010 US Social Forum.


Feldman and Copeland got together recently to talk about the Detroit People’s Climate March that took place in April 2017.


Rich: I was extremely moved by the leadership, the vision, the depth and the history put forward at the Detroit People’s Climate March. Who is the audience? I think the march spoke to those who are looking to move beyond attending rallies and marches, those who know there is a climate crisis and therefore a need for movement.

I remember meeting you at the Epistemology of the Environment conference at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor with Grace Lee Boggs and Bunyan Bryant in the early 2000s. The 19 principles of Environmental Justice—  are they good enough for this moment?

It is often been said that, “We can imagine the end of the earth as we know it more easily than we can imagine the end of capitalism and racism.”  What is this crisis that not only affects our physical well being, but also our ability to vision and imagine?

Trump would like to drill in the arctic just as Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand sent Christopher Columbus to the Western Hemisphere.  One was looking to expand emerging capitalism, and today, Trump is trying to save capitalism.  The cost in  the 15th century was 90 million indigenous people and the cost today is millions upon millions of human beings, what is recognized as the “genocide and suicide” of the planet.

Millions of Americans and people across the globe are speaking out, engaging in marches, government policy changes, global initiatives discussions, etc. Others continue to recycle, host gatherings and fairs, march against pollution and environmental destruction, challenge fracking, write songs and spoken word. Detroiters resist, fight back against Marathon Oil, the incinerator, water shutoffs, and other struggles that need to be lifted up in the fight for a better climate.

Others re-imagine and create alternatives to capitalist methods, including wind- CAN Arts, community-owned solar power, urban farms, healing circles, beekeepers, and more. I believe that sustainability is not enough. We need to regenerate our souls and our earth.  

The Climate March in Detroit was a turning point for our movement — not only for our work in Detroit, but for our movement nationally and globally.  It was held at the Charles Wright African American History Museum, the heart of the African American community, with folks outside for the opening ceremony, and the auditorium filled to capacity.  Charles Ferrell, vice-president for public programs at the Museum, opened the gathering with a profound explanation of being present in our ties to our humanity, our self, nature.  For me —  after decades of “centering, breathing, meditating” — he made everything so clear.

He said our minds move to and fro between thinking about our history, our past, and our future, while our breathing keeps on going in the moment, and thus we are in tune with the natural developments of life.  It is an image and a force,  not an idea. Will, it was a revelation for me and I hope it was important to others. Each subsequent speaker represented the love and the depth of the struggle in their/our stories of resistance and resilience.


Will: I remember that Epistemology of the Environment conference. Bunyan Bryant is a true environmental justice pioneer of Michigan.  He made the profound analysis that it is not the flunkies and drop outs that are creating our environmental crises.  It is those who have mastered the highest levels of education, law, business, policy, and technology that our society has to offer. There must be something structurally wrong with our society’s education, as it only leads us further and further into worldwide catastrophe.  This thinking has stayed with me for 15 years.  So from the Opening Ceremony, led by Anishinaabe Elder Sharon George, to Ferrell’s remarks that you mentioned, to the march itself and the closing celebration called, “The Future of Detroit Is Now,” we wanted to root the entire process in an identity that is outside the mainstream understanding of education, progress, and society.

People were tripping that we had the audacity to end a climate march with a celebration!  A celebration!  The Detroit Climate March was publicly celebrating that we have survived—that hundreds of years of genocide have not killed our bodies nor our spirits.  Furthermore, we are celebrating the accomplishment of having the audacity to project positive images of our future—and get this– the nerve to assert that we can offer leadership to a wide array of people seeking serious solutions.

I’m honored that you say The Detroit People’s Climate March was a turning point for our movement, nationally and globally. We identify with the climate justice movement and we sought this opportunity to welcome our local and national friends who are concerned about climate and the future of humanity to link up with this movement.

Rich: I remember – in the opening – B. Anthony calling upon the strength and wisdom of the ancestors to guide us in the march and beyond. Emma Lockridge, Monica Lewis Patrick, and Maria Thomas sharing the stage at the same time, demonstrated Detroit is ground zero as we move from the oil conflicts of the 20th century to water wars of the 21st  century.

Emma talked about the devastation that the Marathon Oil refinery has wreaked upon the close-knit 48217 community. Monica Lewis Patrick represented We The People and its tireless work against tens of thousands of home water shutoffs.  Maria Thomas, from Soulardarity, organizes for people to control their own energy solutions by building streetlights and home solar units since DTE has shut down electricity for not only individual families, but entire cities such as Highland Park, MI.

As I sat there, I was reminded of the power and significance of the Women’s March in Washington, where women provided leadership for all of America and today. I was reminded of African-American men and women and Indigenous women providing leadership for all of America.

This was not about one issue. This was about moving from being to becoming. There was no separation between water shut-offs, Flint water murders, the stealing of Detroit’s great resources and water system by those “Returning to Detroit,” the hockey stadium, billionaires and other investors buying 75-90 buildings downtown, or the shift from city-owned and maintained gems such as Belle Isle to State of Michigan ownership.

This is about more than just responding to Money and Power. Our event was about people, vision and power. I like how you framed it– climate justice responds to weather patterns and the social systems, the money and the power, that are causing havoc to natural systems.  We were offering a vision that touches our hearts and our souls.

Will: Right! And the whole time we were inviting people further in.  It was an organizing experience, and as such, it was educational.  You could feel – subtly at times, and other times very Black and straight forward—the assessment that in Detroit you must confront genocide as you confront environmental degradation.  We are trying to build solar power (community owned) and food infrastructure (from gardens to markets to distribution systems).  This is not the response to climate change where everything stays the same  — where we would have solar farms where we used to have coal power plants, but the same incentives and structures remain.

You use the phrase “water wars” quite appropriately.  Too many climate activists think the work is just to ask corporations to change some of their practices,  whether asking nicely or demanding sharply. The context that this climate thing is a war that some of us are enmeshed in may be a frightening concept, but for tens of thousands in Detroit, the water war is here. For residents of Flint, Michigan, the water war is taking casualties.  In both of these cities, we see the dastardly hand of emergency management and “financial reviews” forcing municipalities into “tough decisions” that are jeopardizing the lives of tens of thousands. These anti-democratic government systems rule over the majority of African-American people in our state.  In Syria the USA calls chemical poisoning an act of war.  Is it any less in the working class cities of Michigan?

I am glad that more people are taking to the streets against the Trump administration. In the last year, my analysis has sharpened.  When you listen to many progressives’ and liberals’ fears of what might happen,  you see that [what they fear] has already happened in Detroit. But the action against Trump should only be a first step towards enlisting in this climate justice war that we did not ask to be placed in.  Still, many of us are boldly stepping up to our responsibilities—not only for Detroit, but for the US working class, and for the well-being of the world.  

Rich:  It is really sad that it has taken Trump to remind white progressive, liberal folks in Oakland County, to realize that Detroit has lived under “Trumpism” through the destruction of the schools, EMF (emergency financial management), and bankruptcy, but they/we did not care as long as we could live our individual economic dream.  Our moral compass was rather weak. Trump has taken the veil from this failure to see, feel, and listen. In April 2016, well before the Presidential Election took place, our Detroit Climate Justice Peoples’ Movement Assembly was subtitled, “Just Transition in Times of Fascism.”

For both those who truly believe that the “system has failed and broken,” and those who have been mobilized to defend Trump’s policies, progressives too often have failed to authentically engage with them as they see their “American dreams” (sometimes our nightmares) dissolve.

Coal is never coming back.  Large scale manufacturing is never coming back.  JOBS are never coming back. It’s time for our movement to create a new dream that includes all of us and that is what this gathering and march on climate justice day represented.

Why should 60-65% of the garbage going to the incinerator in Detroit, poisoning our children, be from Oakland County? It’s time to take our garbage to City Hall and to the Oakland County Executive, Brooks Patterson — time for us to stop the trucks from entering Detroit.

We need to create Break Our Silence committees in every town and village in Oakland, Macomb and western Wayne county.  “How will we live simply so others can simply live?” is a call for a national movement.

Will Copeland: How can people from Detroit, the metro region and around the country engage, support the work going on in Detroit to create local, sustainable communities and community production?  How will we continue the momentum and keep bringing people into the climate justice battle?  I am a #JustTransition organizer.  We need to transition all aspects of this capitalistic society towards interconnected local economies.  Those of us who have been targets of oppression and genocide must be supported in our ancestral attempts to build, maintain, and defend communities that sustain us.  This is OUR definition of sustainable. This is what we invited the region to join at the Detroit People’s Climate March.

A Brief History of Urban Agriculture in Detroit: Looking Back while Moving Ahead

by Tepfirah Rushdan


Detroit has long been a national leader in urban agriculture. According to Keep Growing Detroit, an organization whose mission is to promote a food-sovereign city, nearly 1,600 gardens signed up to receive seeds, plants and support for their spaces through the Garden Resource Program in 2017. With each garden engaging an average of 10+ people, the number of Detroiters exposed to urban agriculture rises to close to 20,000 residents. How did we get here? To understand the present, we are compelled to peek into the past to uncover the roots of this movement and perhaps understand current struggles in a different light.


The native nations of what we now call Detroit were cultivating the land thousands of years ago. The Sauk, Fox, Kickapoo, as well as Ojibwe and Potawatomi peoples, all had strong ties to the land and were cultivating crops such as squash, maize, sunflower, melons and beans thousands of years prior to French colonization. After a series of wars, some instigated by the French, between different native tribes and also against French settlers, Detroit was formally established as a city in 1701. Its founder, Antoine Laumet de La Mothe Cadillac, began to issue land grants to French farmers for parcels of land known as ‘ribbon farms.’  As long as French colonists adhered to a certain set of rules, they were granted lands free of charge surrounding the fort.


Most ribbon farms were strips of land 200 feet wide and about 4,000 feet deep, with the narrow end extending from the Detroit River to what is known today as Jefferson Avenue. Property lines were divided by ditches. The tiny strips were designed so that each farmer would have access to the riverfront. You may recognize the names of some of these original grant holders: Elijah Brush, Pierre Riopelle, M. St. Aubin, Robert Chene, Antoine Beaubien, John Moran, Antoine De Quindre and Michael Campau. Although Native Americans far outnumbered Europeans at this time, as a result of wars, disputes among the native tribes, and broken treaties, many lost their lands and farms to the white settlers who began to occupy the region. By the War of 1812, ribbon farm land grants extended all the way to Belle Isle and surrounded Fort Shelby. The colonists were amassing wealth and power through land ownership, displacing indigenous people.


This is a brief description of a long and complicated history of cultures colliding right here on and over Detroit soil. It is a telling story, though. Land equals power, and the slow but sure capture of lands by foreign regimes foreshadowed strategies employed today to dispossess longstanding Detroiters of their land and property through foreclosure, and to shift the power dynamics in our city. What’s worse is that for many urban farmers today, purchasing land has been a struggle as opposed to the land grants freely given in colonial times. Today, those settler land grants seem eerily like the employee incentive packages offered by many large corporations – offering free housing to their “peeps,” while life-long residents can’t even purchase one abandoned, overgrown lot.


Many farmers just want healthy food for their bellies and to share with their neighbors or community — and perhaps have a few extra dollars from produce sales. For much of Detroit’s history, the city actually was in full support of urban agriculture as a way to address poverty and hunger. Public money and policies went to support urban farms. For instance, Detroit’s forty-third mayor, Hazen Pingree, was in office during the depression of 1893. He greatly expanded public welfare programs and gained national attention for what he called  “Pingree’s Potato Patches.” The program converted unused land owned by the city to productive fields that could both feed and employ people. Pingree’s program has been credited as the first urban gardening program in the nation and inspired other cities like New York and Chicago to start similar vacant lot programs to address poverty.


In fact, there may have been a pattern of urban agriculture booming during economic downturns. The next major urban agriculture program in Detroit emerged during the Great Depression of 1931, which left thousands jobless.  The Detroit Thrift Gardens program was formed by the Mayor’s Unemployment Committee, and was an attempt to address hunger and poverty in the city. Unlike the original potato patch program, gardeners in the thrift program took a pledge not to sell any of their produce and had to track how much their families ate. The Detroit Thrift Gardens leased 300 acres of land, and provided seeds to over 2,000 gardens.


By World War I, over a third of Detroit’s population were immigrants, bringing with them significant contributions to the food and culture of our city. From the end of the war till the 1970s, Detroit’s African-American community soared as thousands migrated up north from farmland down South, fleeing oppressive, systemic racism and in search of the consistent wages to be found in the northern factories. Many of the black liberation organizations of the 1960’s and 70’s originated in Detroit and other prominent northern urban cities, and some of these groups called for acquisition of land as an essential objective. The primary goals of the Republic of New Afrika, for example, were reparations for African Americans and the formation of a separate country consisting of five southern states. This vision was first voiced at the Black Government Conference held here in Detroit. In 1969, James Forman, of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), convened the Black Economic Development Conference in Detroit, where over 100 Detroiters signed a Declaration of Independence. The first tenet of their manifesto called for $2 million to go to African-American farmers and the development of African-American farm lands.


The Black Panther Party ran one of the first food justice programs, offering free breakfasts for youth.  Also during this time, Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, wrote a book on healthy eating entitled How to Eat to Live.  He encouraged Nation of Islam members to farm, and they eventually established two large farms, one in Michigan and another in Georgia. Both of these movement organizations understood the importance of land and food to repairing African-American communities, establishing a national identity, and bolstering self sufficiency.  


In 1974, Detroit saw its first African-American mayor, Coleman Young, whose family migrated to Detroit from Alabama. Mayor Young had a strong appreciation for farm living. Wanting to address vacancy in the city and rising food prices, he instituted the Farm-A-Lot Program, which gave gardeners a lease on property, seeds, and tilling support, as well as classes at neighborhood city halls. Farm-A-Lot director Ann Beser said that an unexpected benefit of the program was the cooperation and unity developed among its participants. Over five-hundred lots were farmed, and in 1975 the City offered 1000 lots.


After the success of the Farm-A-Lot Program, Detroit was one of six cities awarded a USDA grant to establish cooperative extension services. The 4H-Center on Gratiot was created next door to the first certified organic farm in the city, Vandalia Farms.


In the early 90’s, community organizer and gardener Gerald Hairston, who was affiliated with 4H, the Boggs Center, the Detroit Summer program, and Genesis Hope Church, helped form the Gardening Angels and a group of farmers in the city called the Detroit Agriculture Network.


By 1993, many city services were underfunded and cut, including the Farm-a-Lot Program. The Detroit Agriculture Network partnered with a number of other farm organizations in the city to find ways to sustain programming that the city could no longer support, including passing out seeds, tilling gardens and teaching garden classes. The program formed was called the Garden Resource Program, which is presently coordinated by Keep Growing Detroit. Each year to this day, the garden resource program distributes seeds and transplants to its members, teaches over 50 gardening classes, and helps coordinate the Grown in Detroit cooperative of farmers selling at Eastern Market and restaurants specializing in local produce. Urban agriculture was recently recognized by the city and made legal in 2013 with the passage of the Urban Agriculture Ordinance.   


Today gardens and farms dot our city from small backyard plots to one of the largest farms in Detroit, the seven-acre D-Town Farm. The success in Detroit’s gardening community has deep roots in our history. Many folks visit urban gardens to see the possibilities of addressing poverty and food access. Some are social justice-minded, some are nature lovers, environmentalists, and local “foodavores.”  Whatever brings us to urban farming, it’s important to frame what we are doing today by acknowledging those who came before us. Understanding our history gives us a different perspective on today and tomorrow.


Tepfirah Rushdan, aka “Tee”, is a native Detroiter who has combined her love for people and nature through many projects in Detroit including developing conservation skills in youth, vacant land remediation, farmer training programs, wild edible walks, community gardening and climate change/resiliency research. Former Urban Roots graduate, she has also held a seat on The Detroit Food Policy Council and helped guide the work of the Uprooting Racism Planting Justice Initiative. She served as Director of Urban Agriculture at the Greening of Detroit and currently works with Keep Growing Detroit providing resources and technical assistance to hundreds of gardens in the city through the Garden Resource Program. She also helped complete the Detroit Residential Parcel Survey of 2009 mapping acres of vacant land in Detroit.  


Book Review: ‘The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of Detroit’

by Frank Joyce

‘The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of Detroit’


by Tiya Miles

The New Press, 2017, 352 pages

Detroit is a special place. We all know that. In her remarkable book, The Dawn of Detroit, Tiya Miles helps us understand why.  She takes us back to the beginning 300 years ago:

This was a place where the ground met the water, as much riverscape as landscape. The indigenous phrase “Coast of the Strait” captures the sense that Detroit took shape on organic borders, edges between one kind of environment and another. Social and political life there would come to mirror that aspect of nature, taking on the quixotic qualities of a coastline surrounded by land. Here, where waters and lands made enduring and unpredictable contact, a diverse collection of individuals settled and built their lives. They would become River People who lived, in the words of Midwestern poet Richard Quinney, “on the border, on the edge of things.” 

…They were a motley bunch, the human inhabitants that would gradually populate the fertile strip along the Detroit River and give it the character of a bustling fur trade town.  Hailing from points near and far— indigenous North America, French Canada, Great Britain, Africa, and what would eventually become the United States— with ranging ethnic and national backgrounds and competing cultural sensibilities, Detroit’s residents perfectly reflected the quality of the place where they dwelled. These inhabitants lived on the Coast of the Strait, on the edges of each other’s cultures, on the line between warring empires, the border between bondage and freedom.  

Unknown to most contemporary residents of southeast Michigan, many of those whose names adorn the streets and institutions of Detroit were the owners and exploiters of slaves.  Macomb, Beaubien, Woodward, Brush— all had some relationship to the buying, selling, owning and enslavement of Africans and Native Americans for work in the fur trade and domestic service.  Some Native Americans owned slaves as well.  


Though Miles exposes the brutality of the slavery system, she also gives us a picture of the humanity, skills and resistance of the Denison family and other enslaved people. We learn of their many contributions to building the foundation of a city like no other in what is now called the United States.  


This is extremely valuable because as with so much of United States history, most Detroiters have been taught a fairy tale in which the “evil” of slavery was in the South, not literally in our own backyards. The Macomb family, for example, kept slaves on what is now Belle Isle (formerly Hog Island), Grosse Isle and elsewhere.  


Augustus Brevoort Woodward, a New York-born lawyer practicing in Washington,  D.C., was dispatched by President Thomas Jefferson to Michigan to become a chief justice of the Supreme Court in Michigan Territory. He arrived in the immediate aftermath of the 1805 fire that had destroyed the city. Woodward would have a major influence over the territory’s legal infrastructure, the city’s physical layout, and the weaving of the fabric of white supremacy that prevails to this day.  In an essay entitled “On Habits,” Woodward wrote:


In our country — one sees all the negroes in slavery—from his cradle he has known nothing else, the impression made by the custom has habituated him to imagine some kind of natural connection between the Africans and slavery.  They are such black ugly creatures with such big lips and noses that surely God who is a wise Being & does everything right w[ould] never put rational Souls into them—They must be hewers of wood and drawers of water forever — At any rate, they must not be put on a par with that dignified being a white man.


Like so much about Detroit history, this legacy of white supremacy is intercut with slave resistance. Both indigenous people and enslaved Africans were able to maneuver within the space created by the conflict between French and British colonizers and later the forces pushing for independence from Britain. As we know from the history of the Underground Railroad, Canada became a sanctuary for many escaping enslavement.  


Ultimately, of course, neither the indigenous people under the brilliant leadership of Pontiac nor the Africans were able to prevail over the ruthless white power of what became the United States. To this day, a plaque in Grosse Pointe Park marks the massacre of more than 1,000 Fox Indians in 1712; and on the west side of the city, the Birwood wall still stands as a symbol of residential segregation. Nevertheless, the historic struggles against slavery and other forms of oppression have made Detroit a beacon for visionary organizing and resistance to race-based capitalism.  


Although occasionally burdened by too much detail, The Dawn of Detroit effectively reminds us, today’s river people, to “trust the current.  Hold fast to one another.”


Frank Joyce is a lifelong Detroit-based writed and activist. He is co-editor with Karen Aguilar-San Juan of ‘The People Make the Peace–Lessons From the Vietnam Antiwar Movement’. Joyce is also a participating member of the Riverwise Collective.