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At TED This Week, Two Speakers Got To The Root Of Things

Interdisciplinary artist and TED Fellow, Damon Davis.
Maarten de Boer
Getty Images
Interdisciplinary artist and TED Fellow, Damon Davis.

At the TED Conference in Vancouver this week two TED Fellows talked about putting ideas to work to invigorate marginalized communities from within, while harnessing the collective power, creativity, and good will of residents who want to live in thriving, healthy and safe neighborhoods.

Devita Davison, executive director of FoodLab Detroit, offered a different means of taking action: "transformation and hope: through food." She began by reminding the audience of Detroit's apex in the 1950s, when the city's name itself represented the strength of America's manufacturing capabilities and ingenuity. "Now, today, just a half a century later, Detroit is the poster child for urban decay."

Between a shrinking population and decades of disinvestment, Davison pointed to the persistent problem of scarcity for its mostly African-American population. "There is a scarcity in Detroit. There is a scarcity of retail. More specifically: fresh food retail. Resulting in a city," she said, "where 70 percent of Detroiters are obese and overweight. And they struggle... to access nutritious food."

Emphasizing the proliferation of fast food and convenience stores — and the shortage of supermarkets and fresh produce — Davison said, "this is not good news about the city of Detroit. But this is... the story Detroiters intend to change. No... this is the story that Detroiters ARE changing. Through urban agriculture and food entrepreneurship."

Despite — or perhaps because of — deindustrialization and a rapidly shrinking population, Detroit has, what she calls, "unique assets." Specifically, the city has some 40 square miles of vacant lots. It is close to water, the soil is fertile and there are a lot of people willing to work, people who also want fresh fruits and vegetables. And what's happening, Davison said, is, "a people-powered grass roots movement... transforming this city to what was the capital of American industry into an agrarian paradise."

As the audience applauded, Davison continued, "For those of us who are working in urban agriculture in Detroit, Michigan today, our vision for the future of the city is very clear. We're working to make sure Detroit is the most sustainable, most food secure city on planet earth! And we're just getting started."

She detailed some of the grassroots progress underway: more than 1,500 urban farms and gardens where more than just produce is being grown. Community is also being cultivated on these plots of land as people grow food together. Davison invites the audience along, "Come walk with me, I want to take you to a few Detroit neighborhoods, and I want you to see what it looks like... folks who are moving the needle in low-income communities and people of color."

She showed a photo of Oakland Avenue Farms, in Detroit's North End neighborhood. It looks like a small city park, except for the abundant plants pouring out of tidy planters and growing in large, green bushes from the ground. Davison described the five acres as, "art, architecture, sustainable ecologies and new market practices. In the truest sense of the word, this is what agriCULTURE looks like in the city of Detroit."

A $500,000 grant will allow the farm to do everything from designing an irrigation system to rehabbing a vacant house and building a store produce to sell. They'll host culinary events where guests will not just tour the farm and meet the grower, but have chefs prepare farm-to-table dinners with produce at peak season. "We want to change people's relationship to food. We want them to know exactly where their food comes from that is grown on that farm that's on the plate."

Davison's tour traverses the city to the Brightmoor neighborhood on the west side of Detroit, a lower income community with about 13,000 residents. In this community, Davison explains, they're taking a block-by-block approach to addressing the lack of access to healthy food. "You'll find a 21-block 'micro-neighborhood' called Brightmoor Farmway. Now what was a notorious, unsafe, underserved community has transformed into a welcoming, beautiful, safe farmway, lush with parks and gardens and farms and greenhouses." She showed images of a blossoming youth garden, an abandoned house that's been painted into a giant blackboard where people draw bright messages for each other and a building the community bought out of foreclosure that's been transformed into a community kitchen and cafe.

Her final example is a nonprofit organization, Keep Growing Detroit, whose aim is to have most of the city's produce grown locally. To that end, the organization has distributed 70,000 seeds which helped lead to some 550,000 pounds of produce being grown in the Motor City.

"In a city like Detroit where far too many African-Americans are dying as a result of diet-related diseases," she acknowledges the progress being made on the food scene there, pointing to Detroit Vegan Soul, a restaurant that grew from delivery to catering to two restaurants that serve plant-based food. "Detroiters are hungry for culturally appropriate, fresh, delicious food."
Davison ended her time on the TED stage by describing the work of her organization, Food Lab Detroit. They help local food entrepreneurs build their businesses with everything from incubation, to workshops to access to experts and mentors so that they can, "grow and scale." While acknowledging that Detroit's problems are deep and systemic, Davison offers some hope: those small businesses, run by people traditionally excluded from the business world, last year provided 252 jobs and generated more than $7.5 million in revenue. Not mention lots of delicious, nutritious meals grown from the ground of what's for too long been seeded with despair and decay.

Before interdisciplinary artist and TED Fellow, Damon Davis, took to the stage on Monday, an excerpt from his film, "Whose Streets," was shown. The documentary, about the unrest in Ferguson in 2014, premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival and will open in theaters on August 11.

Davis began his talk by acknowledging his fear while standing onstage. "But what happens when, even in the face of... fear, you do what you gotta do. That's called courage. And just like fear, courage is contagious."

From East St. Louis, Illinois, Damon said that when Michael Brown, Jr., was gunned down by police, he thought, "He ain't the first, and he won't be the last young kid to lose his life to law enforcement. But see," he continued, "his death was different. When Mike was killed, I remember the powers that be trying to use fear as a weapon. The police response to a community in mourning was to use force to impose fear. Fear of militarized police, imprisonment, fines. The media even tried to make us afraid of each other by the way that they spun the story... this time was different."

A musician and an artist whose work is in the permanent collection at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, Davis' work tells the story of contemporary African-Americans. After the protests had gone on for a few days, he felt compelled to go see what was going on. "When I got out there, I found something surprising. I found anger... but what I found more of was love — people with love for themselves, love for their community, and it was beautiful. Until them police showed up. Then a new emotion was interjected into the conversation: fear."

Then, he said, that fear turned to action: yelling, screaming, protesting. Davis went home and started "making things specific to the protest... things that would give people voice and things that would fortify them for the road ahead."

He took photographs of the hands of the people there, portraits of protest. He posted them on boarded-up buildings and hoped it would boost the community's morale. Those photos are now in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture.

But he and his filmmaking partner, Sabaah Folayan, wanted to do more. So they started making their documentary, "Whose Streets."

"I kinda became a conduit for all of this courage that was given to me. And I think that's part of our job as artists. I think we should be conveyors of courage in the work that we do. We are the wall between the normal folks and the people that use their power to spread fear and hate, especially in times like these."

As the TED audience, which includes powerful leaders from corporate and cultural institutions, sat rapt, in silence, he turned to them, "I'm going to ask you, y'all the movers and shakers, y'know," he whispered, "the 'thought leaders.' What are you going to do with the gifts that you've been given to break us from the fear that binds us every day? Because, see, I'm afraid every day. I can't remember a time when I wasn't... but once I figured out how to use that fear, I found my power."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nina Gregory is a senior editor for NPR's Arts Desk, where she oversees coverage of film across the network and edits and and assigns stories on television, art, design, fashion, food, and culture.