Leslie Hatfield

Grown in Detroit was screened at the AFSCME Building (600 Lafayette) at the US Social Forum in Detroit, and at the Detroit Windsor International Film Festival this past week. The USSF screening was followed by a question-and-answer period with filmmakers Mascha and Manfred Poppenk, Catherine Ferguson Academy principle Ms.G. Asenath Andrews and several students.

Last month at the 5th National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in Detroit, I was part of a workshop called Media Bootcamp, where a few colleagues and I lectured school food advocates on how to pitch stories about their programs to media, including bloggers like me. One attendee, filmmaker Mascha Poppenk, approached me at a reception that night and invited me to visit the Catherine Ferguson Academy (CFA), a local high school for teenage mothers and the subject of her documentary, Grown in Detroit.

As we drove across town the next morning, Poppenk gave me the scoop on the school. It is one of only three remaining high schools for teen parents in the country -- there once were hundreds. About three hundred teen mothers are enrolled, and their children attend day care there. There is a big farm in the back, with crops and animals and an orchard. Although some of the produce is eaten by the students, it is not incorporated into their school lunch program. Mostly, the farm is used cleverly to suit the educational needs of the young mothers. Milking goats becomes a lesson about breast feeding. Taking produce to market is an exercise in entrepreneurship.Along the way and against major odds, they succeed; CFA boasts a 90 percent graduation rate, with most of the students continuing on to college.

Either we taught Poppenk well or, more likely, she is a natural promoter -- not so much of herself, but of the things she clearly loves, including the city of Detroit and the school. That afternoon, she took me all over town, pointing out sights. The old brick grand dames, graffiti lending an edge to their sad beauty, ivy crawling through their broken windows. The abandoned Grand Central Station. The best view of the old skyline (as opposed to the postcard view of the modern Renaissance Center, from across the water in Windsor). She is frustrated by the way that media have told the story of Detroit, mostly as a lost cause, largely ignoring the hopeful forward motion of projects like CFA's farm, just one of over 800 farms in the city. She impressed upon me several times that she hoped I wouldn't focus on the movie so much as the school, which she worries about.

Like many public schools in Detroit, the future of CFA is in the air. They might have to move, a prospect that saddens many who love the farm but whispers of promise -- a larger school might have room for a K-5, which would keep students with older children in school longer. They may be forced to revert to "transitional" status, which would mean that students would attend while pregnant, then return to their regular high schools. This is more troubling, but when I spoke to Ms. Andrews yesterday, she wasn't worried. She thinks they will be able to convince the powers that be that the transitional strategy is a bad one. If forced to move, they will start a new farm.

Rather than focus on what might happen to the school, Ms. Andrews has her sights set on an International Youth Conference in South Africa later this year, where CFA urban agri-science students have been invited to speak about their experiences. But they need some major funds to get there. Toward this end, they will be selling beads, seeds, buttons, DVDs and water bottles in the nonprofit section at the US Social Forum this week, and CFA science teacher Nicole Conaway has set up a donation page on DonorsChoose.org. If you're as inspired as I am by these women, toss them some cash and help them take advantage of this opportunity.

As activists of all stripes from around the country converge on Detroit, with its troubled past and tenuous but potentially amazing future, Ms. Andrews welcomes their interest and support, but isn't looking to them to save her school. "Give money to Catherine Ferguson!" she said, when invited to give the final words of this post. "I want to take these kids to South Africa to teach urban gardening!"

Originally published at Ecocentric.


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