Tyler Gersh: Sowing Seeds of Change

I’ve only met Tyson once and just from first meeting him I genuinely thought he was a smart, kind, and humble person. For this interview I had to do research about Tyson and his baby, the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI). What I discovered exceeded my first impression by leaps and bounds. Tyson is a guy that if the word lazy were a person, that person would be his mortal enemy. He has accomplished so much in his young life from teaching neuroscience, becoming a William J. Clinton distinguished lecturer, creating social change through volunteering, being recognized for his leadership left and right by multitudes of organizations and publications, and being a founder of MUFI. It takes a remarkable person to devote his life to helping the world and his community within it.

Your organization is called Michigan Urban Farming Initiative. Besides the obvious setting, what is the difference between urban farming and rural farming?

Other differences include a variation in what the priorities are. Rural agriculture is focused on its value, the thing it’s sort of evaluated on is how much food it produces, and is very much tied into our national economy. Urban farming is very visual and interactive. One of the big focuses for us is how we interact with the surrounding urban setting. Some of these goals include enhancing the walkability of a neighborhood, increasing property values, and engaging people more in an educational perspective in the food system. Additionally, given the premium put on urban land and it’s by-design interaction with adjacent urban land-use typologies, the placement of urban agriculture must be very intentional. The difference between one city block versus another can have a profound impact on both how urban agriculture is used and how adjacent non-green space is used.

In your mission statement on MIUFI.org, it says that your organization hopes to empower urban communities. How do you accomplish that through farming?

Empowerment is a tricky thing to track so I’m a little hesitant to make any definitive claims to having done that, but I would say it’s through a variety of ways. Foremost, through the increased economic and physical access to healthy food alternatives for people in urban communities. There’s a limited number of grocers, and within those, a limited number of food options that tend to trend toward being more processed, preserved, and lower overall nutritional value. One example is that we offer four varieties of collard greens. Being able to offer that is empowering in terms of people’s personal relationships with their own diet and cooking behavior. Less obvious is that we tend to commit a lot of our time looking at driving innovation in blue and green infrastructure. Furthermore, the very act of physically changing one’s environment, a basis of agriculture, is an empowering act in which people take ownership of their surrounding environment.

Many photos on your website and Facebook page show a lot of people are having a fun time! Besides having fun, what else do volunteers take away from their experience with MUFI?

Every volunteer takes away something different based on their own experience. It’s largely dependent on their background. For people who live in the area, it’s an opportunity to get locally sourced organic produce, or to physically engage with their neighborhood. For those in the metro area/suburbs, a lot of the times it’s an opportunity to come into the city under the pretense of volunteering, but to actually get into the city and see what’s happening. An important value that we’re providing that isn’t immediately recognized is moving people and getting people into the city. What’s also cool is having those disparate communities interacting in the same space on a common task. I think one of the greatest things that we do is create an opportunity for people of different backgrounds to interact. It really allows people to be outside of their comfort zone, but in the context of something that is comfortable for them.

Other than those photos, how has social media impacted your farm?

Social media has really been the meat and potatoes for this organization since its inception. Virtually all of our volunteers are recruited through social media. More interestingly, in the larger non-profit context, we’ve done a pretty good job of using social media almost exclusively for fundraising. Currently about 85% of our funding comes from winning social media-based contests. We’ve been able to corner the market of this new paradigm shift in corporate donations, as the companies realize they get a bigger bang for their buck if they allow the public to decide where their dollars should go. Generally, all non-profits are eligible candidates, they start the contest, and whoever gets the most votes wins the prize. To date, we’ve raised over one hundred thousand dollars this way. It’s allowed us to really position social media as a major fundraising source.

What type of produce does your farm grow and where can we get our hands on it?

Currently, we are growing over two hundred thirty varieties of produce. Pretty much any crop that you’ll find in the grocery store, we are growing, although we tend to be more vegetable-focused than fruit-focused, given the climate. We tend to prioritize one of two types of produce. The first being crops that are culturally relevant to the communities that we serve, and secondly, crops that are really unusual that you wouldn’t find in traditional grocery store settings. What’s cool about that is if I harvest a purple carrot in front of a kid who lives up the street, that’s not like something they’ve ever seen before, and it starts a larger conversation about the food system and about how the crops that you see are sort of controlled by the industry for packaging and production. The reality is, the way produce exists, and the way it was created throughout the history of vegetables, looks a lot different than you may think. In terms of accessibility, we encourage people to come on Saturdays between 10am and 4pm when we have a small stand set up on the farm and accept suggested donations.

Where does the produce go?

Produce goes to one of four places. Our first priority is individual households in the area, using a suggested donation model. At any time, people who live in the neighborhood can come on site, we’ll harvest alongside them, weigh it out by variety, and then they could make donations based on a market guide. There’s no pressure to pay at all; the goal is to serve our charitable purpose, which is to get that produce into the hands of individuals living in an urban setting. The second priority is local markets, the third priority is local vendors, and then anything that doesn’t go to one of the first three is donated to the Coalition on Temporary Shelter or Forgotten Harvest.

In 2013, you were recognized as a Michigan Difference Maker by University of Michigan–Dearborn. In a YouTube clip they posted you said you felt a social charge to make a difference. What sparked that motivation?

The answer to that question really goes back to the founding of the nonprofit. At the time, I was working for the Urban Community Oral Health Intervention Project, looking at nutritional literacy and oral health practices in women of color who made less than ten thousand dollars a year, who had children under the age of five, and used the services of the WIC offices. I was essentially running these educational modules and getting what was ultimately a really salient introduction to what structural inequality in the food system looks like. I ended up seeing a lot of really poor food choices from nothing but well-intended people for themselves and for their infant kid. After this research experience, being my first real introduction to larger social inequity, I was faced with an existential crisis where it didn’t seem appropriate for me to continue living the way I had been living. I wanted to do something about all the problems I identified. It started as wanting to start a community garden that could end food insecurity in Detroit, which was super naïve and simplistic, but it was important that it was that way. A metaphor I like to use is this: imagine you’re standing in a room and you see a piece of string on the ground. You think somebody should pick that up, so you pick it up and realize it goes around the desk, so you kind of keep winding it around your hand. You walk around the desk and realize it goes across the room, so you continue because you’ve already started. Soon you realize it goes down the hallway, then out of the house, and up the street. This problem is so much bigger than you can handle, but you’ve already started and have made significant progress, so you keep going. I think that naivety is critically important to socially minded startups. When people realize how large some problems are they don’t even attempt to tackle them because realistically there’s little chance they could even make a dent. That’s where that spark came from, basically my limited understanding and thinking I could make a difference. I picked up the string.

Outside of your work with MUFI you are an avid lecturer, having spoken for TEDx twice. You were also recently a director of development for optiMize, a social innovation challenge to help those with innovative ideas. So the question is, how do you manage your time and maintain a social life?

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I have not mastered time management whatsoever. I do tend to take a lot on. When it comes to public speaking, lectures, or interviews, I tend to take a very on-the-fly approach, which I think leads to a more candid response. As a result, it doesn’t take as much time as it might for somebody who focuses on preparation. When it comes to a social life, I don’t really have one. I really enjoy the work that I’m doing. I wake up everyday and jump right back into work until I go to sleep. I rarely feel like I’m lacking in a social life.

I have read that you grew up in Ann Arbor, and you became obsessed with Detroit. What attracted you to the Motor City?

I grew up alternating between Ann Arbor, Michigan and Belton, Texas as a kid. Once I entered high school, I stayed in Ann Arbor. It wasn’t until college that I actually went to Detroit for the first time. Prior to that I always just stayed away because I was told to stay away from Detroit. When I went for the first time, my biggest surprise was that there were skyscrapers. I really had no idea I was that far removed from a city so close to where I lived. Once I got there it was so different from Ann Arbor, and so contrasting to my understanding of what America looked like, that I was really fascinated by it. A big motivation was just pure curiosity. Organizationally, it was really attractive, because that’s where we saw the need. As an organization started and run by lower-income twenty-somethings, it was the only place we could afford to buy a building and create an organization that was place-based.

For quite some time, many publications and conversations people have been having are about the rebirth or rejuvenation of Detroit. How does MUFI fit into that mold?

My knee-jerk reaction is to push back on any of the words that start with “re-.” We’re not trying to create the same Detroit that used to exist. It’s a different time, and the major powerhouse that was Detroit back in the day doesn’t have that much relevance in 2015. I think we’re really looking at the lessons learned from post-industrialization and trying to be really innovative in our approach to building cities. The hope, I believe, that is shared among us, is that Detroit can be, and holds the potential to be, the best new city in America. It can be the city that we’ve always wanted, and I think that’s what we’re all interested in.

What does the future hold for MUFI?

In the immediate future, we are currently finishing our two-square-block site development, which includes the completion of a dozen place-based projects, all adjacent to each other and positioning that space as an epicenter for urban agriculture in the city. Moving forward from that space, we will be positioning ourselves as an active resource across the state. If everything we’re trying to accomplish is successful, just the model of the organization has scalability and applicability in other urban spaces, not only across the State of Michigan, but nationwide.

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