This week, Strong Towns is in Detroit, following the stories of CNU participants and Detroit natives who are making their town stronger. Today we're sharing the story of a passionate leader who is helping Detroit residents to start new businesses and improve access to local food through the nonprofit, FoodLab Detroit. Devita Davison exemplifies many Strong Towns principles in her work to help grow the local economy, test new ideas in a chaotic but smart manner, and make the best use of Detroit’s land and resources—all with an eye toward equity and racial justice. Here is her story.
Rachel: Tell me about your background. Did you grow up in Detroit?
Devita: I was born and raised on the Northwest side of Detroit in the 70s. Everybody on my block on the northside had a home, a couple cars, kids riding bikes... Growing up in Detroit was extremely magical for me, in the sense that I am an African American woman and I grew up in an African American community that was strong and rich in heritage.
My parents came to Detroit from Alabama in the 60s. My parent’s friends all came from the south too, so that was my experience of the southern hospitality up north. One of the things that they brought with them from the south was their deep love of food, and more specifically, around growing food. All my life, my parents and their friends always had gardens, whether a small plot or fields. They wanted to grow healthy food, but it was also a place for conviviality and community.
When I graduated from high school, I went off to Michigan State University. There’s one thing I knew for sure: even though Detroit was home for me, I knew I didn’t want to come back to Detroit after college. So I moved to New York.
Rachel: What did you do in New York?
Devita: I stayed there for almost 20 years. I did three things in New York. First, I studied marketing in graduate school. Then I worked for two big brands: Ralph Lauren and Hearst Magazine. Then I took a buy out at Hearst, and started my own small, local, gourmet grocery store. I did that because of my cultural heritage and love of food. In the early to mid-90s, long before we started talking about farm to table, local, organic, etc. there were artisans in Brooklyn doing all of these hand-crafted, locally sourced food products. I was really excited about this movement. But there was one problem: Nobody doing this stuff looked like me or my family. I opened up my store to be a retailer for these artisans.
I eventually bought a home out in Long Island, then a year later I lost everything in Superstorm Sandy. Everything I had built in 20 years was gone in 48 hours. As the water took over my home, I ran up to the attic and called my parents. I promised them that if I made it out, I was coming home. Detroit was always and still is home to me. I waited two days for the waters to recede. Then I came back to Detroit.
Rachel: What was it like coming back to Detroit after 20 years?
Devita: My mother and father have always been deeply spiritual with a strong faith. After days of sitting in a depression asking myself, Why me? Why did I have to lose everything? I was cultivating the American dream and I lost it all. My mom said “The Lord didn’t send the waters to drown you. He sent the waters to move you. You have to figure out what it is He intends for you to do in the city of Detroit.”
My parents had left my old home and moved to an outer ring suburb as a result of the crime and the drugs in the city. (You hear a lot about white flight. But what folks don’t talk about is the African Americans that left the city and went to the suburbs too.) Back in the city, I took a drive through my old neighborhood. I passed my old house and I pulled over and started to cry. I said, “What happened to that magical place I grew up in?” It was totally different now.
Then the lightbulb stared to go off in my head. I met the founder of FoodLab Detroit, an amazing woman named Jess Daniel. She said, “At this point, we know the cavalry isn’t coming. If we don’t band together and help each other, no one will help us. We are food entrepreneurs. We want to start growing our businesses.” I went to one of their meetings and I was in awe because that community of food entrepreneurs I left in New York was mostly white. This was a diverse community—Hispanic, white, black, young, and old. I said, “I need to be a part of this.”
As I started to work with them, it became clear that they needed a food business incubator. We had so many back in New York, but none in Detroit. FoodLab had no money, but we had an idea. We knew that the infrastructure in Detroit did not go anywhere when the people left. There were probably underused kitchen spaces all over the city.
Rachel: So how did these incubator kitchens get started?
Devita: My whole family is preachers, so I said to the FoodLab group, “If you would allow me the opportunity, I will talk to churches and ask if they will open their kitchen spaces to entrepreneurs who are looking to have legal, certified kitchens.” So I did, and those churches agreed to work with us. The United Way believed in us and gave us $10,000. We chose two churches, vetted them, and gave each $5,000 to make repairs and renovations so they could be made accessible to food entrepreneurs. Then we were able to leverage funds from the McGregor Foundation, who offered $200,000 to create Detroit Kitchen Connect. They hired me to run the program. The Detroit Kitchen Connect mission is to increase entrepreneurial success by providing supportive, diverse, inclusive community along with access to commercial, licensed kitchen facilities and equipment in a reduced risk environment.
Meanwhile, the meet-up that started with seven people around a kitchen table has now grown into its own nonprofit, FoodLab Detroit, with 192 food entrepreneur members, organized around the mission that we will together to create a sustainable food system that is just, fair, local, equitable and delicious. Every day I cultivate this platform and community where people can meet each other, receive resources, find knowledge, gain mentorship, and get a sense of community.
In order to make change happen, you have to be close. It took losing everything I had to bring me back home. The answers were in the community but I had to go there in order to listen to people, knock on doors, and have conversations to figure out how we fix this thing. The solution lies in the people who are most affected by the problem.
Rachel: What are your goals for FoodLab Detroit down the road?
Devita: We have a staff of four people providing resources and knowledge. We’ve been doing this, but we haven’t been asking our members to be very active. Over the next 3-5 years, I’d like to empower our members to lead that charge too.
People have also asked me about replicating this model elsewhere. I’m concerned with how we duplicate the model but make sure it is authentically-connected to the place. I don’t want this to be a top-down approach. A phrase I take from the Black Lives Matter movement is, “We aren’t a leaderless movement. We are a leader-full movement.” The whole “lab” part of Food Lab Detroit is an experiment. We test things out and see if it works. We’re still in experimentation mode. We’re just two years old. We want to be agile and flexible.
Rachel: You wrote in an email to me, “After decades of losing residents, jobs, and investment to the suburbs, Detroit is coming back. But that comeback story eludes the critical question: For whom is Detroit coming back?” I think it’s a very important question. Tell me your thoughts on that.
Devita: There are four key things that will help the comeback be equitable.
The first thing is something I had to do myself: You have to get proximate. You have to get beyond the downtown and midtown. Detroit is 142 square miles. We have to get into these neighborhoods and listen to the voices of the community.
The second thing is that we also have to create a counter-narrative. The white middle class narrative dominates the food conversation: farm to table restaurants, chef-driven restaurants, CSAs... Yes, that’s happening, but let’s also talk about the people opening up hyper-local corner grocery stores outside of the downtown and midtown because they want their residents to have access to healthy food. Let’s talk about how Detroit is the only city in the country with over 1400 community gardens and school gardens.
Detroit hasn’t had a major grocery store in its city limits since the 80s. They all left and not one has returned. We said, Fine, we’ll grow our own damn food. With the agricultural background of Latinos and African Americans like my parents who came here in the '60s, we’re able to start those farms and gardens. So let’s talk about a counter-narrative around food. People in these communities are resilient problem solvers.
The third thing is, you have to call out racism. You have to have difficult conversations around race, patriarchy, sexism. When we see it, we have to tear it down.
The fourth thing is, we have to have hope. We have to understand that this is possible. The other day I was at a conference and someone asked, “If we didn’t have FoodLab, what would the city lose?” Yes, we’d lose coffee shops, cafes, and local grocery stores, but I’m sure someone could replace those. Without FoodLab, what we’d really lose is hope. When a baby sees his mother get up every morning and try to start a business, that gives him hope. I’m playing a long game, a two-generational game.
So those are the four key factors in making sure this Detroit renaissance is equitable: You have to get proximate. You have to create a counter-narrative. You have to have uncomfortable conversations about prejudice. And you have to have hope.
If you're attending CNU, you can catch our live interview with Ms. Davison this Thursday at 9am in the Detroit Opera House. And for those of you who can't attend, we'll post it on our website afterward.
(All photos by Francise Hearn unless otherwise noted)