It’s only been a week? – Detroit Community-Engaged Research Program

It’s only been a week?

Well, no wonder it feels like it’s been so much longer. I’m in a new city, surrounded by new people, doing new things, trying to survive off of my own attempt at “cooking” for the first time. Not to mention the extraordinary amount of learning that’s only just begun. I could go off on winding tangents about all of these things and more, but for the sake of the reader and the writer, I’ll get right to the meat of the matter.

Going into work on the first day, I had little idea what “researching food security” would mean, and I knew just as much about my organization, GenesisHOPE.  I had vague notions about the lack of access to produce and healthy food (“It must be hard to fit a Walmart in that city” may or may not have been uttered by yours truly a few weeks ago.) Compared to my understanding of the “community-based food system” referred to in the job description, however, my understanding of food security was spot on. GenesisHOPE’s director, Jeanine, wasted no time in getting me up to speed. By the end of that day, I had learned the basics of food security, the purpose of GenesisHOPE, the goals of this project, the role that my work plays in the bigger picture, we had toured the neighborhood, and I had read through the first forty pages of a 160-page by the USDA, entitled “Community Food Security Assessment Toolkit”. I was truly impressed by the vision Jeanine has for that neighborhood. It wasn’t just a fantasy of bountiful gardens sprouting up in every yard. She had a well thought out solution, specific, well-defined goals, a realistic plan of action, and the calm conviction with which she spoke about it made it clear to me  that she would see that it comes to fruition.

I spent the rest of the week poring over manuals. It seems like I ended with a pretty role at GHOPE. I’m designing, administering, and analyzing assessments on community food security, then providing the group with recommendations and ideas based off of my analysis. This month. There is no grunt work, no senior researcher, nobody else, save for Jeanine, working on creating this assessment. I can’t say I expected that level of responsibility to be handed to me, but that is the rewarding and terrifying thing of being part of a budding nonprofit. Effort I put into this organization will directly impact its success. And the more I learn about the issues involved and opportunity we have to improve the lives of the many people in communities we reach, the more I care about it and believe in the work being done at GenesisHOPE. This project isn’t just a summer internship. I’m not working for Jeanine or Jenna or U of M. I’m working  for the people in these communities, people who live all around the church we work from who I see every day. I knew this truth abstractly all along, until today, it was an abstract idea. I think I felt that realization brewing in the back of my mind all week as I became more and more aware of what I was dealing with here. This afternoon, while talking on the phone with Jeanine about some unrelated business, I asked her the terms “food justice” and “food sovereignty” meant, terms which I had heard mentioned earlier that week. As she explained these concepts to me, it was like the last pieces of the puzzle were put in place, and I realized with much more clarity the nature of the food issues (food crises?) we are working on. Not just the abstract web of issues itself, but how people I could see right out the window were hurting because of it, how what GenesisHOPE is doing will help them and people in neighborhoods around the city, and where my work fits into the whole picture.

I won’t go into the sociological causes of these issues we’re seeking to address, nor the political, social, ethical, and moral reasons for which I find the present state of food systems here so completely unacceptable. I still have much to learn about them before I even think about getting preachy, and the politics of the bigger picture detract attention from the most important issue at hand and the essence of my most profound realization this week: there are a lot of people around here who really need help, and I’m in a position where I can (hopefully) make a real difference. I’m just beginning see and feel the (somewhat) direct relationship between the quality of work I do in providing data for and assisting with these projects, and the effectiveness that GenesisHOPE and other groups will have in improving  these communities. That’s a bit of pressure, a lot of responsibility, and some incredible motivation to take away from week one.

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