COVID-19, Midland flood prompt community leaders to center resiliency in vision for Ypsi's future

COVID-19 has hit Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township hard, and as local leaders begin the recovery process, many are thinking about how to make their community more resilient to a variety of challenges.


"When I think of resiliency, as an individual, family, or community, it's something you're always working on building," says Cynthia VanRenterghem, executive director of Ypsi-based nonprofit Growing Hope. "Resiliency isn't needed when times are good. When you need resilience to kick in is when times are tough."


VanRenterghem notes that COVID-19 put a bigger strain on the national food supply chain than anyone has seen in a long time, including an interruption in the supply of meat due to outbreaks among workers at several meatpacking plants around the nation.


"People (developed) such an awareness of how important that local food system is," she says.


She says that while the last few months have been tough for Ypsi-area residents, there's also good news, because the county has seen "years and years of investment in the food system." She says so much was changing in March and April that it felt like "the ground moving beneath your feet," but community partners came together very quickly to respond to the new needs.


"Growing Hope and many other organizations invested in resiliency, and when it was time to call on it, it came through and came through really well," she says. "We've seen that in terms of continued access to local food that really never abated and how quickly organizations, farmers, food makers, and farmers markets were able to pivot and accommodate the new realities COVID-19 brought."


That pivot included changing the setup for the Tuesday Ypsilanti Farmers Market so that customers can shop online from local food suppliers and then arrange for a no-contact pickup from the farm stand each week.


"We realized about halfway into the pandemic that, wow, we were able to do all this. And that's not true everywhere. All these years of investment are paying off. Let's not take this for granted," she says.


She notes that Growing Hope reached out to other areas of Michigan and the country to see how they were responding to the pandemic, with unexpected results.


"It turned out they're looking to us for leadership and guidance because we're way ahead," she says.


This spring, Growing Hope launched a fundraising campaign called "Sowing Resilience," aimed at addressing the racial health disparities in the Ypsi area by getting fresh, healthy food to area residents, helping them grow their own food, and supporting local farmers and food businesses.


"A big part of resiliency is food sovereignty, helping people have more control over how they spend their money," VanRenterghem says. She says it also involves teaching people how to grow their own gardens for the physical and mental health benefits of gardening, leading to personal resiliency.


After the flood


Beth Gibbons, Ypsi resident and executive director of The American Society of Adaptation Professionals, was thinking about resiliency after a catastrophic dam collapse that left downtown Midland flooded this spring. She's been pondering what lessons Ypsi residents can learn from that event.


"The collapse of the Edenville Dam and the Sanford Dam is the continuation of a story we know is happening across the country and across Michigan," she says. "Infrastructure is aging, and dams are notably at risk from the kinds of climate change we're experiencing, marked by more severe storms, more precipitation, and precipitation coming in bigger 'gulps.'"


She says the infrastructure currently in place to manage that rainfall is insufficient, and Ypsi officials should learn a lesson from events in Midland. While Ypsi's Peninsular Dam on the Huron River holds back a much smaller impoundment, about 177 acres as opposed to nearly 2,000 in Midland, a dam collapse here would still almost surely result in a loss of life and property, she says.


"It's a really important lesson for us to learn about heeding the warning of infrastructure that is both aging and unnecessary, and how we want to have more prepared and resilient communities," she says. "... We have an opportunity to carefully and with consideration take that dam out and engage with the people on the impoundment now who would be on the riverfront."


Gibbons says that as resilient communities move forward, they must be flexible and think about redundancy as key to being prepared not only for COVID-19 and associated economic fallout, but also for the effects of climate change.


Further, she says, individuals need to think of resilience not as "bouncing back" but as "bouncing forward."


"Think about what systems we have that are resilient but not necessarily good, like structural racism and inequality in government. There are a lot of very resilient systems we need to be rid of," she says. "In terms of the work we do around climate adaptation, resilience is climate mitigation, climate adaptation, plus social justice. That third leg has got to be part of our resilience, because it starts with people."
"We don't want to rebuild what was"


Bridget Healy, vice president of impact and advocacy for the United Way of Washtenaw County, says her organization was able to "quickly raise and distribute dollars back into the community, particularly with a focus on the east side of the county" with a relief fund started in March. Next, the organization shifted its focus from immediate relief to recovery.


"We're seeing all manners of inequality in education, justice, community safety, and employment, and the 48197 and 48198 ZIP codes were the hardest hit," Healy says. "We recognized those needs are not going to go away, so United Way thought it was important to look out three or six months from now as children and youth return to school, people return to employment, and we come back to some semblance of a steady state."


The recovery fund will focus on building stability for individuals and families, as some residents navigate the unemployment system for the first time or return to the workplace and need help figuring out how to do that safely. It will also encompass supporting education locally as young people return to school in the fall, Healy says.


"In the long term, the focus will be on rebuilding, but most people are in agreement that we don't want to rebuild what was, because it was inequitable and designed that way," she says. "The pandemic revealed that we suffered from lack of imagination when thinking about what kind of future we can create."


She notes that the pandemic exacerbated inequities United Way of Washtenaw County was already working to eradicate in the county, and the next step is to "equip people with tools to weather a pandemic and a financial recession."


The organization plans to do that by funding local nonprofits, doing advocacy work at the grassroots level, and fostering community mobilization. United Way of Washtenaw County has traditionally focused on investing in nonprofits, but Healy says the organization plans to also work with local for-profit businesses to expand employment opportunities for the county residents it serves. Areas of investment will include programs that help county residents navigate unemployment, update resumes, and meet childcare needs so that residents can get back to work.


"People are thinking more expansively about what resilience looks like. For us, resilience looks like community mobilization, advocacy, and movement work," Healy says, adding that "there is powerful movement work happening on the east side of the county."


She points to organizations like Ypsi Local, which has provided food to those in need; Washtenaw My Brother's Keeper, which uses the organization's network to get out important messages about COVID-19; and staff from Ypsi-based Mentor 2 Youth texting the nonprofit's network of parents and students not just with messages about the organization's programming but about health and wellness in the face of a pandemic.


VanRenterghem, Gibbons, and Healy all urge community members to seize recent crises as an opportunity to plan a better future.


"We can't keep trying to plan for communities that were, because we're never going to be that again," Gibbons says. "It can be hard to imagine, but crisis is an opportunity. In this kind of moment, with COVID-19 and uprisings across the community and movements in our community, we need to think about what kind of community we want to be."

For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.
Growing Hope photo courtesy of Growing Hope.

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