Cynthia Price, Editor
On a chilly day in October, Melvin Parson moved methodically across the field at We The People Opportunity Farm in Ypsilanti, tilling under this year’s crops, preparing for the winter, and defining next year’s beds. “This has been such a huge learning curve for me,” he said. “And I try not to do too much of the work. But this year we were able to supply a lot of food to our neighbors, so it’s worth it.’
Good local food is not the only thing the farm contributes to the community. As a former social worker who got his degree from Eastern Michigan University after himself spending time incarcerated, Parson was looking for a way to help other re-entering citizens. As he started practicing social work, and after seeing the film Food Inc. and working on his own vegetable bed, he realized the healing and learning potential in food and farming.
He first started We the People Growers Association, an organization to support farmers of color, and when he had an offer of land from Ypsilanti’s Grace Fellowship Church in 2017, that gave way to We The People Opportunity Farm, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
He decided to hire formerly incarcerated community members as paid interns, hoping to change their lives for the better. The farm’s mission is “… to break the cycle of incarceration in Washtenaw County by investing in the employment and development of formerly incarcerated men and women through farming and community engagement.”
Two years in, “I think we’re doing exceedingly well,” he said with a modest smile, and he is not alone.
Ask intern Pony Bush, Groundcover vendor No. 305. “A friend brought me here and I was hired. I never did farm work, but it’s all good. This is really the only job I got right now. It’s been a good thing for me.”
Or ask LaWanda Hollister, who was incarcerated for 36 years – a nearly unbelievable statistic based on her appearance and energy. “This has given me opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise had, so it most definitely has been appreciated,” she said.
She added, “I personally like the fact that it’s not only work but the opportunity to do other things so we can learn for the future.” Interns are offered courses in job/life skills, such as resume building and finance and budgeting, as well as coaching from MichiganWorks! including a job-based needs assessment.
Expert consultant Keesa Johnson is currently working with Parson on further developing a curriculum to help the interns succeed. “We want them to learn trust, self-efficacy, self-reliance and sovereignty. Keesa’s perfect to help them do that,” Parson said.
The third intern in the 2021 season was LoGene, and there were three in 2020 as well. Hollister, who has some impressive expertise in food and nutrition, is now working at a food service job.
Pony Bush explained how difficult it is to find any job at all after getting out. “As soon as they see you were incarcerated, it’s done. They even turned me down for ringing the bell for the Salvation Army. But I’m going to apply again,” he said, nodding. He adds, though, that he can still often do well selling Groundcover because “I know how to deal with the rejection.”
Parson empathizes with how hard job-seeking is for former incarcerees. “That felony on my record sure put me behind the eight ball,” he said. “The system isn’t designed to rehabilitate. So there’s a big challenge for people getting out.”
Originally intending to get a degree from Washtenaw Community College in welding, Parson took a friend’s advice and pursued a bachelor’s degree in social work. “One of the options open to me was to get student loans, so that’s the direction I went.” He considers himself, above all else, as a champion of social justice and social equity. He also credits former School of Public Health student (and before that, also incarcerated) Rory Crook with helping him develop the ideas that became We The People Opportunity Farm.
Funding comes primarily from “supporters in the community,” though Parson acknowledges a lot of assistance from United Way of Washtenaw County and the Ann Arbor Community Foundation.
Some income, approximately 20% of the budget, is derived from selling the small farm’s produce. Currently, the farm sells to the Ypsilanti Food Co-op, the People’s Co-op in Ann Arbor, Zingerman’s Roadhouse, Zingerman’s Deli, Detroit St. Filling Station, Frita Batidos, Juicy Kitchen, Food Gatherers, both Argus Farm Stop locations, Bell Flower and Maiz Mexican Cantina.
Parson is always working on partnerships, using what he calls his superpower of being a “connector.” He expresses gratitude to many members of his board who seem to share that superpower. In particular he mentions Victoria Burton Harris, the Washtenaw County Assistant Prosecutor.
Parson claims he gets as much out of the farm as any of the interns. “We get to come alongside people like Pony. I’ve watched him change over his internship. He takes more ownership and responsibility in situations. It’s our goal to treat everyone with kindness and dignity, and that seems to rub off on them,” he said.
He explained the joy of pondering the farm’s ecosystem, with “moles and voles and rabbits and hawks,” and the fact that it didn’t exist before they began to work on it. It has helped him reconnect with his son.
“I often think about the ecosystem that’s being built in my life,” Parson said. “With my son, with the community and neighbors. I think about being able to buy a house that’s a six minute walk from here, how I can walk over here and think on all of it. That creates a lot of gratitude.
“I believe that gratitude is better than happiness,” he added.