Detroit’s ‘Quiet Revolution’

Grace Lee Boggs in The Nation

Grace Lee Boggs has a feature article The Nation‘s special “Food for All” issue. Visit to The Nation website to read more articles in this forum. This article appeared in the September 21, 2009 edition of The Nation.
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Detroit’s ‘Quiet Revolution’
By Grace Lee Boggs

Detroit’s local foods movement has been a catalyst in the [r]evolution that is rebirthing Detroit as a City of Hope. The city’s early devastation by deindustrialization provided us with the space and place to begin anew. It also challenged us to make a paradigm shift in our thinking about social justice.

Our [r]evolution began in the 1980s with African-American elders. Raised in the South, these “Gardening Angels” could see Detroit’s vacant lots not as blight but as opportunities to grow our own food and also help urban youth understand the importance of self-reliance.

In 1988, Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor, unwittingly accelerated the process. Stuck in the old social democratic paradigm, in which government stimulus programs or a “New Deal” are seen as the only methods of reviving communities, he proposed a casino industry to create 50,000 jobs to reduce the crime that had made Detroit the world’s “murder capital.” When we organized Detroiters Uniting to defeat him, he challenged us to come up with an alternative.

In response, we founded Detroit Summer, a multicultural/intergenerational youth program/movement to rebuild, redefine and respirit Detroit from the ground up. Detroit Summer involved young people with elders in planting community gardens and with community residents in painting public murals. This reconnection with earth and community unleashed their imaginations to create their own bike programs for transportation and poetry workshops to express their new thoughts.

Detroit Summer also triggered the Detroit Agricultural Network. Today DAN includes more than 700 community gardens, lovingly cultivated by Detroiters of all ages, walks of life and ethnicities who share information on resources and how to preserve and market produce at quarterly potlucks and cluster centers.

Slowly but surely, this [r]evolution is transforming Detroit and Detroiters. It reduces neighborhood blight, reconnects children and adults, and provides a community base for economic development. It also helps us redefine education in a city whose schools have become pipelines to prison because they still adhere to the top-down factory model created a hundred years ago in the heyday of industrialization.

For example, at Romanowski Park in southwest Detroit, public schools collaborate with groups such as Greening of Detroit, MSU Extension, Capuchin Soup Kitchen, and American Indian Health and Family Services on a minifarm/garden project that provides increased access to fresh produce and educates youth and the local community in sustainable agricultural practices.

On the near west side, a two-acre farm is operated by Malik Yakini, who chairs the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. The network seeks to empower the black majority in Detroit, who are mainly food consumers rather than producers and distributors.

Earthworks, on the east side not far from the Boggs Center, was founded by Capuchin monks to supply produce for their soup kitchen, where the poor, homeless, ex-prisoners and addicted come for a hot meal. Now it is also a community-building program that strives to develop the self-reliance and citizenship of soup kitchen regulars by engaging them in activities that improve the ability of all community residents to obtain a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet.

Every August DAN conducts a garden tour. After one tour, an urban planner friend described the local foods movement as the “Quiet Revolution, a revolution for self-determination taking place quietly in Detroit. ”

To become part of this [r]evolution, come to the second US Social Forum in Detroit, June 22-26, 2010, and help build greenhouses.

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  1. As a proud member of the quiet revolution, and having the blessing to be surrounded daily by my comrades in the trenches, it is still surprising to me when I find myself outside of that safe and wise zone, though it shouldn’t be. I had an interesting conversation at the Bibbgy coffee house one morning with a fellow with whom I have worked on youth programming, a rather intellectual type and sort of “in the know” about things. We hadn’t seen each other in a while and proceeded to “catch up” in the coffee line. When I told him of my work at the D-Town Farm, he asked, rather incredulously “You eat what you grow?” Although I felt myself slipping out of the safe and wise zone, I proceeded to tell him about how we are feeding the community and making an entrepreneurial way for ourselves, that we are on our way to having organic certification and that another Detroit farm has already obtained their certification, bla bla bla. But he wasn’t buying it. He said that his wife told him that she would be scared to eat what was grown in Detroit soil…I asked him what he thought about the Spinach a’la E-coli that factory farming introduced a while back, not to mention the pesticides, etc. He said, “yeah, well at least I know what that stuff is.”

    Go figure.




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