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Michigan Urban Farming Initiative

7432 Brush St.
Detroit, Michigan 48202

Tyson Gersh

By Amy Kuras
April 11, 2014

People who have lived here a long time, no matter their socioeconomic status or race, tend to view a certain type of newcomer with a raised eyebrow at best and outright hostility at worst. The targets of their skepticism are generally young, white, recently graduated from an impressive university, and bubbling over with enthusiasm about how they are going to move to the city and singlehandedly reverse decades of decline and disinvestment.
Tyson Gersh might fit that profile on paper, but he isn’t remotely That Guy. Well, except for the bubbling enthusiasm part. He talks fast, ideas spilling over ideas -- and they're intriguing ideas.
Gersh came to Detroit to start the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative with co-founder Darren McLeskey. They met at a meeting for Detroit Partnership Day while students at U-M, lured by the promise of working on agricultural projects in the city. Gersh grew up in Ann Arbor and wasn't very familiar with Detroit at the time. "I did not realize there were skyscrapers in Detroit," he says. "I was very typical for a lot of suburban kids and became obsessed with the city."
He was, like so many, drawn to what he calls the "post-apocalyptical vibe" but soon began to look deeper, to the extreme socioeconomic disparities residents face. Starting a farm seemed like a good place to start overcoming some of the inequities in the food system. He'd worked as a landscaper for years and ended up taking care of client's vegetable gardens as well. "To me there is a direct and tangential value in growing something, even something on a smaller scale. The experience and agency you receive from growing something is really wonderful."
He entered the optiMize social innovation contest at U-M with his idea for the farm, won, and he and Darren made a tax auction bid on a six-unit apartment complex in the North End, surrounded by vacant lots.
"Considering how little money we have spent, it shows how much people can accomplish without being wealthy," he says of the farm's success. "You don't need to come in and have a one-time project that starts and ends in in a week. You can have a real and long-term impact without knowing what you are doing, necessarily, or having the money to do it."
Doing that successfully has meant engaging the neighborhood, as uncomfortable as that can sometimes be when working across racial and class barriers. It's been an amazing experience to learn about other people's lives and perspective, he says, and he's learned to see his own life through the eyes of other people. Understanding concepts like white privilege and the way it impacts so much of Detroit's struggles has ben life-changing.
"I've been blessed beyond belief to be surrounded by very smart, socially conscious people with conviction," he says. "I have had people screaming in my face, who cared about my development enough to correct me when I am wrong. I'm surrounded by really amazing people who cared enough to invest in the development of my own understanding of the greater social context in Detroit."
The egalitarian nature of work on the farm helps spur that, he says. He wants the volunteers that come from all over the country and the people from the neighborhood that work alongside them to dig in in ways figurative and literal – to get dirty and work hard, but to think hard and talk deeply as well.
"We have amazing conversations about food justice and structural inequality. It's not supposed to be an intergroup dialogue, but it ended up being that way," he says.  "There is a certain amount of solidarity in that – you're positioned on an equal footing with no assumptions about the other person."
In addition to running the farm, he's working with Hostel Detroit to reposition it as a home base for long-term volunteers such as participants AmeriCorps or City Year, where people might not have an affordable place to stay that would make that kind of commitment doable.
And he's brought his passion for social justice to bear in yet a third job, working with optiMize as development director. OptiMize is a student-driven social innovation challenge for teams of students on all three U-M campuses. They pitch an idea, and if they get chosen they spend all semester building on their idea, with resources, skill-building, and mentoring.
Along with helping to marshal those resources, Gersh sees his role as adding a dose of reality to well-meaning students' high-minded ideals. "We want people here to push their level of thinking," he says, citing as an example the idea of giving a computer to every homeless person in Detroit. "Let's wake up, and let’s have a conversation abut what is offensive and what is not at all in touch with the real needs around homelessness," he says. But he tries to do that in a way that leaves people ready for growth, not feeling attacked. "It's about being invested enough in people to see them through, not just leaving them injured," he says. "It's a blow to the ego to realize we do not live in a meritocracy, and it undermines your own sense of your own accomplishment -- but you have to understand the result of your privilege."

All photos by Doug Coombe. 

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