What if you could nourish both the bodies and the souls of your fellow neighbors? We the People Opportunity Farm has accomplished just that for Washtenaw County and its inhabitants. The community farming project has sowed the seeds for its participants’ success by investing in the employment and development of formerly incarcerated men and women through farming and community engagement. Since its unofficial launch in 2017, the program has consistently expanded in both size and reach, selling its vegetables to seventeen area restaurants and donating fresh produce to those in need. We the People Opportunity Farm prides itself on its core values of radical inclusion, intentional collaboration, courageous disruption, foundational justice, and commitment to growth — all of which have been integral to the project’s stunning development. If you’re passionate about gardening or advocacy work, this episode is an absolute must-watch!

Show Notes

[00:44] Melvin Parson and Deshawn Leath, welcome to Open Mike!

[00:51] This is the first time I’ve had guests in my studio in months, and this feels like a really good one to welcome people back with. I’ve been reading about you, Melvin, and what a program you have put together — We the People Opportunity Farm in Washtenaw County. Tell us about this incredible nonprofit that involves farming, feeding the needy, and helping former convicts reintegrate into society!

[02:00] I love the analogy of building the plane in the air… when did you start this program?

[03:55] What did you grow in the garden that first summer?

[06:15] How did you get the land that you built the farm on?

[09:22] A chance interaction with a local, neighborhood kid who wanted to help with the farm made Melvin realize that this space could hold a tremendous amount of community value. It was his job to create a safe space for others to nourish themselves, both physically and spiritually.

[12:38] This community garden has been steadily growing — how large is it now?

[14:38] It’s 2017, you had a quarter-acre of land for the garden, lots of volunteers… what kind of vegetables are you growing?

[15:40] Well-known Ann Arbor staple Zingerman’s Roadhouse ended up being the first client they sold their produce to. They eventually expanded to seventeen other restaurant clients in the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti area, all of whom praised the quality of the vegetables, which Melvin attributes to the quality of the soil he curated.

[17:46] How many acres are you growing on now?

[18:43] I want to bring Deshawn Leath into the conversation… one of Melvin’s tenets is to bring in lots of volunteers and to bring in formerly incarcerated, paid interns into the farm. Tell us about yourself, and your story.

[21:50] While serving a five-year prison sentence, Deshawn committed himself to transforming his life, and was connected with Melvin through another nonprofit. He’s currently interning with We the People Opportunity Farm, 46 days after his release.

[22:46] What an incredible story, Deshawn. Did you do any type of farming or gardening while you were in prison?

[23:50] Melvin, farming is not an easy business… using former inmates — tell me your thought process on that? It sounds like you’re specifically seeking out former inmates to help the farm.

[28:29] You’ve probably already thought about this, Melvin, because you are quite the visionary… the two of you and others in your situation going into prison and teaching inmates about gardening, soil, and how to change their lives… If that’s allowed, of course. Have you thought of that?

[29:28] Are all of your interns formerly incarcerated men and women? How many have you taken on?

[30:24] With help from their partner Grace Fellowship Church House of Solutions, which is where the farm is currently located, they hope to expand from half-an-acre to a full acre, which would allow them to introduce more people into the paid internship program.

[33:01] If people want to come for field trips, or just to visit, volunteer, and enjoy the energy of what you’ve grown, how can they find out about you and arrange to make that happen?

[34:30] Because of COVID-19, volunteering opportunities are more intentional and structured, but you can contact We the People Opportunity Farm at any time via their website and social to arrange a date.

[35:42] Deshawn, do you believe this internship will break the cycle of incarceration? What does this opportunity mean to you?

[38:28] One of the admirable values of your mission is to be “courageously disruptive of the prison-industrial complex.” Could you explain that to me?

[40:44] You’re in Washtenaw County and some really good things are happening there! You have a new prosecutor who’s shaking things up, and ended the cash bail system… I think that’s the first county in Michigan and hopefully it will become statewide.

[46:30] I can’t see how you could fail with this energy you keep… you certainly have commitment from my law firm — we’re going to donate to your cause — and when you need people out there, we’re going to help bring people. We didn’t even mention this — but you give a lot of this beautiful, soulful food to people who can’t afford it! Tell us a little more about that.

[50:26] If there’s anything you need from me, please reach out and let me know. Thank you both for being here — I really appreciate you taking the time to share your vision with me, and I look forward to the future because I know it’s going to be bright.

[50:56] Thank you for listening and watching Open Mike! I hope you were as blown away as I was — please volunteer, donate, and buy merch from them! I can’t wait to see what happens with this organization because I’m anticipating great things. Please share, like, comment on this episode — and thank you for tuning in.

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