The official launch party for the Detroit Residents First Fund (DRFF) was set against a perfect backdrop: the In Memory of Community Garden, one of the first recipients of funding through the historic partnership between Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency, Ford Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Community Development Advocates of Detroit, Erb Family Foundation and Skillman Foundation.
The DRFF uses a participatory grantmaking model – the first of its kind in Detroit – to invest in Detroit-based grassroots nonprofit organizations led by Black, indigenous or other persons of color with the least access to power and social capital who are working to transform Detroit’s neighborhoods.
Its showpiece on launch day was the In Memory of Community Garden, a sustainable community space, created through the transformation of 10 vacant lots and burnt-out homes by Barbara Matney, who has lived in the Warrendale neighborhood of Detroit her entire life, and her husband. The idea came to them after they saw a family knocking on doors on their street in desperate need of food and shelter.
“Once we helped, we couldn’t go back to our daily lives,” Matney said. “We had to do something. It’s not okay for Detroiters to be in need of food.”
Matney and her husband got to work. Four of the once-vacant or dilapidated lots now house an expansive garden with 40 raised vegetable beds, a veterans memorial flower garden and a community gathering area with a fire pit, picnic tables, a solar-powered greenhouse and an outhouse with a composting toilet, running water from a rain barrel and electricity from the solar panels on the roof. Another four lots have been transformed into a playground for children, and two additional lots are comprised of orchards, with 100% organic food options available for free to those who volunteer and reasonably priced to the neighborhood.
The Detroit Residents First Fund enabled the In Memory of Community Garden to expand its playground area and add monkey bars, a teeter-totter, two spring animals – a butterfly and an inch worm – a hoverboard and two additional swings.
“We were blessed to find out about the DRFF,” Matney said, remembering that before the Garden existed, people in the community kept to themselves, stayed inside and kept their blinds closed. “Nobody was outside – not even the kids,” but as the space was built out, she started seeing people walking, kids playing and people on their porches. “It was a rebirth of the community. I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve watched it through the good, bad and ugly and I’m looking forward to see where it can go from here.”