Ypsilanti farm nurtures returning citizens who are helping to feed neighbors during the pandemicThe Nonprofit Journal Project

Our mission at We the People Opportunity Farm is to break the cycle of incarceration here in Washtenaw County. 

Part of how we do that is through our paid internship program for formerly incarcerated men and women. We pay our interns $17 an hour to spend 20 hours a week with us over a nine-month growing season. Tremendous value can be gained on a farm, and as we help people change the soils in their lives, we understand there are multiple components important to successful reintegration into society. 

When I started seriously growing food in 2017, something told me it was all about the soil. If your soil’s good, your plants will flourish, and if it’s not, it doesn’t matter how brilliant a farmer you are. While earning my degree from Eastern Michigan’s School of Social Work,  I came to realize the same thing applies to human beings. 

Good soil is cultivated through kindness, and by being treated with dignity and value, given space for your voice to be heard, all these things that can’t be measured but have a profound effect. Also, being connected to a community that cares about you, where you can learn to see yourself differently and believe in yourself. 

I've spent 13 years of my life in and out of prisons. I know what it's like to not want to go back, but to also not have a support system that could guide and push me through stumbling blocks, a community where exposing myself to risking or losing my freedom wasn't an option. 

We help our interns build those support systems. Through our community partners, they learn soft skills, employment readiness and financial literacy. Toward the end of the season, they work to help rehab or remodel a neighborhood house which gets them connected to folks who volunteer their time giving back, and gives them an opportunity to build their community.  

On the farm, our interns learn about patience, and how to care for something, through watering, weeding, pruning, making sure a plant gets what it needs in order to be vibrant. I think this teaches hope, and how to be able to look beyond today. They see the little seedling they put in the ground in early spring grow big as a result of them taking care of it.

Our half-acre farm in Ypsilanti is small but mighty. Much of what we grow winds up in about 10 Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti restaurants, local food co-ops and farm markets. Last year, we grew about 12,000 pounds of produce and gave 3,000 pounds away to our community through our No Cost Food Distribution program, our response to COVID-19. 

We were thrilled to be able to come alongside Grace Fellowship Church House of Solutions, whose land we farm on, to help lessen food scarcity and to meet 300 neighbors we’d never known before. It was a real joy to watch our interns help feed our community with the food they'd grown.  With the help of this season's interns, we've been able to continue sharing fresh  produce with folks twice a month, harvesting and distributing the same day.

We’re thankful to have both longtime and new partnering organizations come alongside us financially as a result of the pandemic. We’ve also seen an increase in support from individuals. I think when people were able to slow down and get off the hamster wheel long enough to really examine what’s important, one of those things was food, and where it comes from.

More of a light has also been shed on social ills in this country. I believe my being a Black farmer and Black leader of an organization has helped our fundraising. Our community really got behind us and showed support. This allowed us to double our capacity to affect change in people's lives, as we went from two to four interns this season. Because of what we learned from our inaugural interns in 2020, we entered this year much wiser. 

On Sept. 25, we’ll be hosting our fourth Annual Harvest of Thanks at our farm, with live music, games for the kids, a “creature teacher," and great food from local restaurants. This free event is from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m, and all are welcome. Last year, we weren’t able to gather because of COVID-19, and so we’re really looking forward to welcoming back our community.

I think about the criminal justice system, and how unjust it is on many levels. There’s very little opportunity and hope in communities who have been forgotten, or thrown away. My greatest concern is that the impact we're having still won’t be enough to really make a difference. There's so much to do, but if we all pick a project, we can change this continued push to incarcerate Black and brown folks.

It gives me hope to come alongside people and watch their lives change. To watch them grow from being afraid, to someone who takes responsibility and care at the farm, someone we can put in a position of leadership, who guides new people coming in. To watch them accomplish things they didn't think they could do, that transformation brings me a lot of hope. 

Melvin Parson is the executive director of We the People Opportunity Farm, an organization that seeks to break the cycle of incarceration in Washtenaw County. Our Nonprofit Journal Project is an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how major social disruptors today are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.ACT.

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