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Food as a Catalyst for Community Change

A recap of FoodLab Detroit's Annual Network Gathering

Story by FoodLab Detroit August 9th, 2017

what is FoodLab detroit's annual network gathering?

At FoodLab you won't hear us preaching about “design thinking”. While we're fans of it, we think it’s flawed, because it’s a system that continues to have too many outsiders. Instead, we start from the premise that design’s greatest value is seeing the problem from the eyes of those that we are trying to serve. We purposefully describe FoodLab's Annual Network Gathering as a space that uses “creative problem solving” to address instances where oppressive structures keep neighborhoods - places where our member businesses are located - from attaining the socially and economically vibrant, culturally rich, and environmentally friendly place they desire to live and work in.

At our Network Gathering we invited designers, policy experts, food justice activists, FoodLab member businesses and community leaders to address the problem of economic inequality and the rise of the working poor in Detroit. We believe that businesses have the power to create equitable economic opportunity for everyone, and that food can be a vehicle for that opportunity. Because of this, this year's Network Gathering focused on the role of food in equity and inclusion, and the importance of ensuring that good food and good jobs are accessible to all people.

Our Network Gathering, which took place on June 15th, 2017 at Cass Corridor Commons, became a space where FoodLab member businesses, our community partners and allies could use their backgrounds, learned experiences, and insight into their own neighborhood to redefine how we think about good food and good jobs. Together, we worked to determine how we all can do our part to ensure that these things are accessible to all Detroiters.

Detroit's equity profile

Our Annual Network Gathering began with a presentation by Chris Schildt, Senior Associate at PolicyLink. Her message was clear: Equitable development is not just a moral imperative, it is also an economic imperative.

Recently, PolicyLink completed an equity profile of various cities throughout the United States - one of which was our home city of Detroit, MI. In this report, researchers used public data sources to measure the gaps that exists across socioeconomic classes and racial groups. Analysts used key metrics related to the city's demographics, economic vitality, workforce readiness, connectedness and economic benefits.

Key findings from PolicyLink's Equity Profile include:

Armed with this data, we discussed how to build a new economy in Detroit that is equitable, sustainable, prosperous and provides opportunities to restore power and agency back to those communities most marginalized.


lifting up the good food, good jobs model

"We are not only African American women-owned, but we are LBGT owned. We get a lot of young people that come to us and want to work for Detroit Vegan Soul because they know they can be comfortable being their whole selves, and they don't have to be anything other than that." - Kirsten Ussery Boyd, Detroit Vegan Soul
"At Slow Jams, we've been focused on working with disconnected youth, and we have grown in part specifically because of that... And at Slow Jams, our employees know that they are not simply what they can produce, but that they are individual people who are respected, cared about, valued, and invested in." - Shannon Byrne, Slow Jams
"I've decided to take it upon myself to create a training program for those I hire from the neighborhood. I want to give them the opportunity to gain a new skill set, so that even if they don't stay with us, they have something they can go forward with." - Lester Gouvia, Norma G's
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how are food businesses creating good food + good jobs?

When you mobilize diverse stakeholders along the supply chain to take actions that increase the effectiveness of the entire food system over time instead of just meeting the immediate self-interest of one business - that's systems thinking!

By blending storytelling into our Annual Member Network Gathering, we gave ourselves permission to dig deeply into the places we may have overlooked and honor those who have come before us. Listening to Malik Yakini, Executive Director of DBCFSN, talk about the best meal he ever had, reminds us that good food is more than just buying local it's about preserving culture and community. To add to that, Mr. Levi Johnson (pictured below) reminded all of the young, ambitious food entrepreneurs in the room, "Listen, young people, it's not just about what you sell, it's about what you stand for!"

From Shannon Byrne of Slow Jams to Lester Gouvia of Norma G's and Espy Thomas of Sweet Potato Sensations - FoodLab member businesses are working to build their businesses with the communities they serve in mind. Through employing people from within their immediate neighborhood, and providing them opportunities to grow and prosper, Detroit's good food entrepreneurs are building with the intention to create an inclusive food economy that empowers individuals and supports their community's vision for a vibrant, thriving economy.

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together, we are stronger

On top of the learning and working our members did at our Annual Member Network Gathering, they also built new relationships that will propel their business forward as they collectively work on creating a sustainable future so that all Detroiters have access to good food and good jobs.

help us build a more equitable detroit

Join us in lifting up FoodLab Detroit member businesses who are providing opportunities for growth in their neighborhoods, and who are working to make the possibility of good food and good jobs in Detroit a sustainable reality.

Footnote: Major support for our Network Gathering was provided by the New Economy Initiative.
Cass Corridor Commons, Cass Avenue, Detroit, MI, United States
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