Rebecca Salminen Witt

Title

Rebecca Salminen Witt

Description

In this interview, Witt talks about how she came to work at the Greening of Detroit. Witt chronicles the Greening’s evolution and growth during the first ten years of her leadership. The Greening’s relationship with the Capuchin Monks is covered. Additionally, Witt delves deep into the rehabilitation of Sergeant Romanowski Park.

Publisher

Detroit Historical Society

Date

11/27/2018

Rights

Detroit Historical Society

Narrator/Interviewee's Name

Rebecca Salminen Witt

Brief Biography

Rebecca Salminen Witt became executive director of the Greening of Detroit in 1996. For twenty years, Witt led the Greening as it advanced its mission of restoring Detroit’s green spaces.

Interviewer's Name

William Winkel

Interview Place

Detroit, Michigan

Date

11/27/2018

Transcription

[INITIALS OF INTERVIEWEE:] RSW
[INITIALS OF INTERVIEWER:] WW
[REPEAT INITIALS EACH TIME EACH PERSON SPEAKS]

WW: Hello, today is November 27th, 2018. My name is William Wall-Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Urban Farming Oral History Project and I am sitting down with..

RSW: Rebecca Salminen Witt.

WW:Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.

RSW: My pleasure.

WW: You started as the executive director of the Greening of Detroit in 1996, how did you come to that role?

RSW: Well, I was practicing law in the city and (so my daughter was born in January 1996) I was doing mergers and acquisitions - a pretty high intensity practice. I just really was looking for a way to do something that more of an avocation rather than just a mark and time with a job that I did find fulfilling, but (especially with a tiny baby at home) was taking really a lot of time and didn’t really speak to my passions as much. So I just started looking around for you know, testing the old adage, “with a law degree you can do anything. “ I thought I would test that and see if that were true. How I came to the Greening? I didn’t really know the organization beforehand. I found a little, like, three line advertisement in the Detroit Free Press and sent them my stuff. Basically through a fairly long interview process, kind of, talked them into giving me a chance to lead that organization.

It was pretty much still a fledgling organization at that time. It had been started in 1989 by Elizabeth Gordan Sachs and a pretty strong group of Detroit civic leaders and they had a pretty simple mission just to plant trees. I could really see the potential in that organization (Having grown up in most rural places around the state - daughter of a conservation officer). That environmental mission, especially bringing more of the environment to the downtown setting, really spoke to me personally. And so, I was hired in November 1996 and at the time the organization had a budget of about 235,000 dollars a year and that was me a little old lady that worked at the front desk and one forster that was right out of college at that time.

WW: After you started, was were some of the first projects that you worked on?

RSW: Our main project at the time was a neighborhood tree planting program, so community tree planting. We worked directly with block clubs, who self identified. They would to us and say, ‘We think our street needs trees.” We would work with them and plant (generally) between ten and thirty trees usailly along a block or two. We had an environmental education project at that time, too. So we would go into schools and work with the established environmental education curriculums (Project Learning Tree, Project WET, Project Wild) and bring those to city classrooms, as well. Those were the two main projects. I kind of learned the ropes of what it meant to run a non-profit endeavour using those projects as our tool pretty much.

We expanded both of those project first and the first major new thing that was, kind of like, something I thought up and implemented (that was brand new) was our youth employment program: The Green Core Program. Which started in, we raised funds for it in 1997 and kicked off our first cohort in, 1998.

WW: What was the reception of [to] that program?

RSW: Of the Green Core Program? We, as most tree planting organizations across the country, had a big problem with maintenance. People will give you money to plant trees. Once they’re in the ground nobody wants to give you money to maintain them. Trees require three years of fairly intensive maintenance before they can be just left on their own to grow and they require maintenance beyond that time for pruning and that kind of stuff to make sure that they grow correctly.

So we invented the Green Core Program really as a way to solve that maintenance issue. I saw that the city had an issue, it had lots of high school kids with nothing to do in the summer. Our high school employment rate was the lowest in the country at the time. We also had this maintenance issue. So I thought the two of those problems could meet in the middle with a little bit of money. We could get kids summer jobs - they would water and prune our trees for us. Almost immediately, that was a really popular project. We started in 1998 (it was our first cohort) and we had six kids (all from Northern High School). It was funded by the Kellogg Foundation. By the time, probably, twenty years later we have two hundred kids every season from every high school in the county [city] and two thousand kids apply for the job every year. That program, still even to this day, still has tons of potential. We could still hire many, many more kids.

WW: Throughout the 90s, did you do any work with the Gardening Angels?

RSW: We did. Gerald Hairston was, kind of, the leader of that group at the time. It was funny because when I first started in the late 90s (even early 2000s), there was this kind of growing drum beat around urban agriculture, At the time, the Greening’s mission was strictly tree planting and so people would come to us all the time for help with gardens, but it wasn’t really in our mission. We would work our way around that by saying, “Yup, we can help you with that garden, but you gotta find a place for a tree.” Or, “Let’s go an orchard in conjunction with your garden.”

The issue with tree planting and gardening is, they are to some extent, mutually exclusive because gardens require sunshine and trees create shade. That was for, probably the first four years that I worked at the Greening, that was a growing issue. On our board there was a camp of strict tree planting folks, they just wanted to only plant trees forever. The city was missing, probably still to this day you could probably prove this is true, about half of its available tree planting spots were vacant because of Dutch Elm Disease and a bunch of other things. So they were like, “We haven’t gotten our original mission done yet, so why would we expand into something else that is going to eat up capacity and not help our primary mission?” But we could really see that there was a growing need for the kind of things that urban agriculture could provide.

Gerald and the Gardening Angels were one of the first organized groups around urban agriculture. We did a bunch of projects with them. We had tools. We knew about soil science - we could grow things. The Gardening Angels, in particular, kind of, had this “guerrilla wherewithal” to go out and make a garden where nobody was doing anything on the property. Back in those days, and it’s almost funny for me to say this, but back in those days there was plenty of vacant property and it was growing.

Folks, like Gerald, could kind of see that this was something that could provide a long term solution for a whole bunch of issues. It could create cared about spaces from spaces that weren’t cared about and it could feed people who didn’t have enough food. They were some of the earliest folks really doing urban agriculture as an organized movement not just like the, kind of, farming in an urban space that had been happening in Detroit forever. Detroiters, particularly African Americans, who came to Detroit during the Great Migration came from the South and so they had a farming background. Not only African Americans, a whole lot of White folks came. My mom’s parents came from the South and had a farming background. They came with those skills.

When talking about urban agriculture, I like to remind people that these are not skills that we had to teach people. These are skills that had been baked in for generations. In some cases, they had been dormant for a while because during better times everybody was able to get a job in the shop (which is what my grandpa called it). But for the auto companies, you could get a job in the shop, you didn’t have to raise all of your food. Lots of folks still had a kitchen garden - my grandparents did. But for a while, it was skill that wasn’t as “hip” or as needed. Then, when the city fell on harder times (the 80s and 90s were tough times in the city), it became something that people turned back to as a solution to some pretty serious social issues and to bring people together around those issues, too.

WW: The Greening also put on the Garden tour.

RSW: Yes.

WW: Could you talk about that?

RSW: Sure. That really came later. It’s probably useful to talk about how the Greening fully embraced urban agriculture. That was a progression of changing of its mission itself. For any non-profit, when you talk about changing its mission, you know, it creates lots of angst in people. Sometimes it’s an easier process than others, but at the Greening, everytime the mission has changed it had been a very thoughtful, kind of, intense process. It never happened accidentally and it never happened without a lot of thought and planning and conversation. The first instance, we went from being a tree planting organization (the mission called out tree planting specifically) to just a planting organization. We just dropped tree.

So we were still a planting organization, but that opened the, sort of, opportunities for us to plant other things and that could be.. For a while were doing lots of butterfly gardens. We did prairies and lots of different kinds of planting, but it also opened the door for us to plant food - plant gardens. There was a guy that we worked with a lot, on both the tree planting projects and later on urban agriculture called Brother Rick Samyn. He was a Capuchin Monk. He was the person that began urban agriculture.. Their project at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. We had done tree planting with him for a long time. All those tree planted around the Capuchins were planted by the Greening and Brother Rick at one point.

He came to us in probably 2001, I wanna say, and said, “I have this idea to create an urban farm as destination so that people could learn what it could do” - for all of those social issues that I talked about earlier - “But they would come to it as almost a field trip or become an attraction on its own. At the time, the city had lots of issues with its parks. We had 236 parks in the city (I wanna say). They [the city] were actively deactivating them. The city proper didn’t have enough money to take care of them all properly so it was picking and choosing where it was going to spend its resources. We at the Greening had been working on that issue as well. The social issues of access to park lands and trying trying to influence where those funds would be spent… raising additional funds so the Greening actually took over some of the care and maintenance of the parks that would have been in places where there would be a large swath of the city’s more needy population would not have a park to go to. So we were doing a lot of that work. We decided that would throw down with Brother Rick; take his concept and use it to solve one of these park problems.

So there is a park in Southwest Detroit called Sergeant Romanowski Park, it’s just south of Michigan [Ave] on Lonyo. It’s a 29-acre park. When we started working there it had, we like to say, three painted sewer tubes and a swing set with no swings. It was in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city: there were African Americans, Native Americans, Arab Americans, Hispanics, and the remnants of the original population which was Polish American (thus Sergeant Romanowski). It was a famous park where tennis tournaments were held in the 40s and 50s (I wanna say) so it had some left over infrastructure from that, but it was not being used for anything. We basically took Rick’s idea and created an urban farm park there.
It was a five-year plan. We did lots of community organizing around there. There were about a 1,000 children who lived in that neighborhood. O. W. Holmes was an elementary school at that time. That was there… it has since been sold to a private school (I think Academy of the Americas is there now). We worked with that school, those children, the families in that neighborhood. We had several focus groups over the period of weeks that were drawing 300/350 people at a time. So people were really interested in this green space. We did the classic dot thing (where you put up ideas on the walls) and people voted for what they want with dots. We were expected… we had lots of stuff on there… classic playground stuff. Do you want us to bring back the tennis courts? How do you feel about basketball? Everything, including farm stuff. How do you feel about an apiary? Can we bring bees to your neighborhood? All these kinds of ideas and we were really expecting to have to do kind of a hard sell after the fact on the agriculture stuff. So we were like, “Let’s listen to what they really want, so we can make sure we include that stuff too,” but we were expecting to have to be like “agriculture is really okay. It’s going to be cool, honestly. You’re going to be able to grow what you want to grow. Culturally speaking, we could have this really diverse farm that grows stuff Hispanic people want to eat and stiff that Arab American people want to eat.”

And we were really excited to find that people were excited about every single thing that was up there. Some of that was probably a reaction to “we just want anything. We don’t want to not vote for something because even that would be okay.” But some of it was a genuine interest in this kind of new idea about creating a community garden in the midst of an underutilized city park in the midst of a pretty densely populated city neighborhood. This was not a neighborhood that people had moved away from yet. It was a neighborhood where people were coexisting. Although they were coexisting (and that was probably the best way to put it), they weren’t intermingling necessarily. They were just living next to each other. There were language barriers. There were cultural barriers. And the school folks would really talk to us about that.

The city saw this community engagement stuff going on (they were excited about it). They ended up allocating all of their park resources for that quadrant (or whatever it was of the city that they had divided up. They would divide up the city into these zones and there was x amount of park money per zone they could spend). They took all their park money for that zone and invested it in that project. At the same time, we were raising money from foundations and corporations around town. We ended up collapsing what was a five-year budget and timeline into two years. What was really fun about that is that the kids who said they wanted a slide (because they were five years old and didn’t have one in their neighborhood) were still little enough to enjoy it once the thing got built. That was really cool. The community groups who wanted to see cultural expression in their planting activities, got to do that with the people who, sort of. were able to [unintelligible] that. Collapsing that time frame, I think, was really important for the long term success of that project.

That really was the first operating urban farm in the city. We did it again with the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. The Greening raised all the money and brought the city to the table, but we had lots of neighborhood partners as well. American Indian Health and Family Services was a big partner at that time. Some of the other schools in the area, O. W. Holmes… Detroit Public Schools was a big partner in the project and we had corporate and foundation support, too. Everyone came out and wanted to have a hands on role in this big urban experiment.

We ended up farming.. The plan was such that we would, sort of, expand the farm gradually. I think we ended up farming just under five acres there out of the 29-acre park. We added all the other amenities, too. We did bring back the tennis courts. We moved and created new basketball courts. We created five soccer fields. All of the cultural groups in that area like to play soccer. I’m telling you, the played the grass off that park. 29-acres of soccer fields… We did out in a big playground. We put in a teaching garden and a pavilion (there was a pavilion there that was renovated).

We did all of this stuff, but it was built around this concept that “if you - and this is funny, because at the time we thought “all right, we’ll put a farm in the middle of a robust recreation area and people will soak up the agriculture just by being near it. So they'll come to play soccer or they’ll come to play on the playground, or walk on the walking path (we put a walking path around there too) but they’ll see this urban agriculture going on and get sucked in in spite of themselves.” Well, and it did work like that. What we found was that the garden, more than any of those other amenities, turned out to be the thing that drew people there and turned out to be the thing that they [residents] could get together over - and instead of just coexisting - build community around. Language barriers became less important because they could recognize the same vegetable that was valuable in two different cultures. We had an evening gardening club where you could just come and stop in. It always starts with the kids, so little kids would come first. So at first it was an evening kids gardening club, but slowly but surely their parents would join and pretty soon it was two nights a week. There would be fifty people in the garden.

That was kind of the first really big toe hold that urban agriculture had that began that movement. That really was in 2003 where we started seeing the momentum building. That’s where the garden resource program started (off of that project). Again the Garden Resource Program was another very… the urban agriculture community is really quite very intentionally partnership oriented. That doesn’t always come easily [Laughter], but there is a lot of intentionality about wanting to do it that way.

So all the urban agriculture stuff: the Garden Resource Program, Romanowski Park, the Capuchin’s project, Earthworks Farm (you’ve must have run across Earthworks farm)... Gerald was involved in the early days before he passed away, which was a huge loss for the whole community. All that stuff was built around.. 4H was involved in that [and] MSU Extension.. The 4H group on the east side was a big early working partner of that. But they all came together to build these bones intentionally and with some strength.

So first there was Sergeant Romanowski Park and then there was the Garden Resource Program which was a program designed to provide resources, support, and engagement around the ideas of urban agriculture. The more interaction, the more engagement you had (maybe you would come and take a class or maybe you would do some volunteering) the more resources you had access to.. Was kind of the way be built that project. Once that started happening, now you had little independant gardens and farms and community gardens kind of popping up around the city.

The Garden Resource Program was also designed on a tiered system so you had family gardens, community gardens, and school gardens. Depending on how many people were involved (whether it was one family group or larger community - like a neighborhood group) you would qualify for different things. Once those started popping up because they now had access to resources that they wouldn't have had before and that could be education like… One year we distributed ground cherries and nobody knew what to do with them, right? So we were like, “okay, we need to have some classes on ground cherries. Here’s we distributed them.” We also always did it with an eye towards being able to add to the local economy with local food. So ground cherries is a good example. The reason we distributed those in particular is because you could sell them for five bucks for half a pint at a farmers market. We tried to very intentionally pick some high value items so that people who did want to have a farm stand out front or take their stuff to Eastern Market or where ever could have some high value stuff to sell.

But once all of these gardens kind of started popping up and the thing grew exponentially. It went from like twenty gardens the first year to two hundred gardens to (there's probably) three thousand now. Once that started happening people wanted to see other people’s gardens and because these were private gardens, they would always come to the Greening and also to the Capuchins and say “oh, can you [like reporters] could give us a map of where all these gardens are because we want to see some of them?” Well you can’t really just send people out.. I can’t send you over to Billy’s house to [unintelligible] around and look at his garden. The other thing was, at the time, urban agriculture as a single use on a piece of property in the city was illegal. So most of these gardens (pretty much all of the community gardens)… not so much the family gardens and not so much the schools, but the gardens that people really wanted to see were all guerilla gardens, you know, in the style of Gerald and the Gardening Angels because urban agriculture was not allowed as a primary use on any piece of property in the city. You could have a garden behind your house, because that’s not a primary use. But you couldn't move that garden to the vacant lot next door to you cause then it was a primary use.

So all of these folks and their gardening activities - no matter how big or beautiful or well kept or whatever - were[n’t] really operating under the law. So that was another problem. Another reason we couldn’t really just send people around. So we created the garden tour as an opportunity, once a year (the first Wednesday, I think.. Or Thursday.. The first Wednesday in August)... and we created like three different bus routes and a bike route every year and that was your, sort of, one chance to get on the bus and see all the cool urban agriculture stuff happening around the city and it’s still going on, that tour.

WW: Did have any undercover police officers sneak on to get those permit violators?

RSW: [Laugher] You know, well we probably did. I know for sure we had some police officers on the bus a few times, but they were just interested in seeing what was going on. At the same time this chicken movement was coming up and the bee movement was coming up. Those actually people had more problems with than the gardens. The gardens, most, people didn't have any issue with except some of them got kind of wild. As always, there were some glommers onto the movement. There was one group that came in and they would do these huge gardens right, but they would drop in and do a huge garden (you know, sort of “gift it” to the community) and leave. It was just a huge problem every time. They became overgrown… We did a lot of garden saving [laughter] of those things too.

WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me. Every time I went to ask a question, you preempted it. So thank you!

RSW: [Laughter] I am a quote machine after twenty-five years of doing this


[TIME STAMP END OF INTERVIEW 30:27]
[End of Track 1]

Search Terms

Capuchin Monks, US Army, Greening of Detroit, Detroit, Michigan, Southwest, Urban Agriculture

Citation

“Rebecca Salminen Witt,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed June 23, 2021, https://detroit1967.detroithistorical.org/items/show/775.

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