Melvin Parson is looking for the perfect plot of land on which to achieve his dream of creating "a world-class urban farm" that provides job opportunities to men and women who are reintegrating into the community after incarceration.
In 2015, Parson founded a social enterprise called We the People Growers Association (WTPGA) with a 14-bed garden at the Cooperative at Dawn Farm and a small community garden near Parkridge Community Center in Ypsilanti. WTPGA's farm is currently located in a 1/2-acre organic garden on the lot behind Grace Fellowship Church House of Solutions in Ypsi Township, but Parson still has much bigger ambitions than that property can accommodate.
He envisions a plot of land where he can set up a five-acre organic garden and establish a community center so WTPGA can host community events and educational classes, including gardening, cooking, and fitness classes.
"My goal is to create jobs, to raise people’s hope bubbles, to change how people see themselves and see their community, and to help them reintegrate back into society in some sort of meaningful, productive, and impactful way," Parson says.
Parson spent 13 years of his life incarcerated off and on. He says he's empathetic to the challenges people face after leaving prison, especially in terms of re-entering the workforce, finding housing and services, and dealing with physical or mental health issues.
"I want to try to create an alternative system, opposed to this system that doesn’t seem to be working or is not designed for people to succeed," he says.
Parson recently hired his first official employee, Emanuel Tyus, but he hopes to eventually be able to hire 10 to 15 men and women who have returned home from incarceration.
The Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office Street Outreach Team connected Tyus to Parson and WTPGA. Tyus was interested in working on the farm because it would allow him to do hands-on work and see the fruits of his labor.
"It sort of gets me in touch with my spiritual side, and that’s something that the world and the distractions kind of keep you separated from," Tyus says. "So this is a chance to meditate, to do some work, [and] reflect."
Even though Tyus was only incarcerated for a couple of months, he still has to overcome people's misperceptions of him as a result. He believes his work at WTPGA is a good way to do that. He expresses appreciation for the way Parson is learning his strengths and helping to build upon them.
"That’s something that a lot of people fail to do. They’re so much for themselves and their agenda," Tyus says. "So [Parson is] kind of broadening his agenda to be more inclusive of agendas outside of his."
Parson started planting seeds in the spring of 2014 after a prolific gardener named Verna who lived in the same housing complex as himself passed away and left him her 9' x 3' vegetable garden.
Parson also turned 50 that same year. He jokes that he thought he should make a change in his life to reflect the traditional midlife crisis but he couldn't afford a Corvette, so he decided to start eating healthier. Parson, who is black, started visiting the Ann Arbor Farmers Market in Kerrytown, but he didn't see any vendors who looked like himself.
"I’m a firm believer that either you’ve got a seat at the table or your ass is on the menu," he says. "I’m a champion of social justice and social equality at my core, and it was like at that moment the universe said to me, ‘Melvin, this is where I want you to sit.’ And ever since then it’s been conspiring to make sure that I sit here, and not only sit here but to be relevant here and have a voice here."
Parson founded WTPGA in 2015 while pursuing his bachelor's degree in social work at Eastern Michigan University.
"I didn’t start it with the idea of farming," Parson says. "I just started it with the idea of building some community. I wanted to ... create a space where people who normally wouldn’t say anything to each other in the course of a day could come together, grow some food together, share some dialogue, share some laughs, care about each other."
Two years ago, Parson saw firsthand the impact his garden could have on local residents when WTPGA's first volunteer stopped by.
Jamari Jefferson, now 15, pulled up on his bike and asked Parson if he could pitch in. Jefferson didn't have any prior gardening experience and wasn't making much progress, so Parson found a polite way to dismiss him. Parson went back to pulling weeds by himself, but eventually he realized he had made a mistake because the garden was supposed to be a place where people in the community could feel comfortable. Parson prayed for Jefferson to return, and he says it must have worked because Jefferson came back later that day.
According to Parson, "the magic started to happen" when he and Jefferson started talking and connecting with one another. Jefferson told Parson about his aspirations to have a little job so he could buy a PlayStation 3 and some clothes, and to attend art school at the University of Michigan.
"It made me think about how all day, every day, communities that lack resources and opportunities can't support dreams like his [...] so the Jamaris of the world fall through the cracks and they wind up being drug addicts, or they wind up being drug dealers, and then eventually they’ll wind up either dead prematurely or incarcerated," Parson says. "And so it made me, as an African-American man and as We the People Growers Association, commit myself to trying to support his dream and maybe as many other young kids’ dreams as I possibly could as well."
Jefferson says his favorite part about volunteering at WTPGA is working with Parson, who has become a mentor and good friend to Jefferson over the past two years.
"I want to follow up on his dreams," Jefferson says of Parson. "I want to be part of his dreams, too."
WTPGA has achieved significant buy-in from the local business community as well. A plethora of well-known Ann Arbor restaurants, including Zingerman's Roadhouse, Frita Batidos, and The Lunch Room, now buy produce from the farm. Beezy's Cafe is currently the only Ypsi restaurant that buys WTPGA produce.
The business partnership between WTPGA and Beezy's officially began last month, when Parson brought Beezy's owner Bee Roll samples of his produce, including a bouquet of kale. Roll initially reached out to Parson after noticing how consistently he documented his work on Facebook.
"His social media presence is very compelling and he’s just a sweetheart of a person," Roll says. "But then when you dive into the story of why he’s doing it and how he got involved in it, it makes it even more compelling."
Roll believes one of the most compelling aspects of Parson's story is his desire to see a greater representation of black people in gardening and farming. She also commends his commitment to hiring people who have been incarcerated.
"His passion for bringing his ideas together and bringing different parts of the community together is fantastic," she says.
Roll acknowledges she will pay significantly more for produce from WTPGA than she would from a wholesale distributor, but she believes Parson's mission is worth far more than the actual produce or the money he's charging for it.
"I want to help further his overall vision and make that happen," she says. "We have to start paying for things that are worth it if we want to actually see real change in our communities."
Brianna Kelly is the embedded reporter for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.