© 2024 WEMU
Serving Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County, MI
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Washtenaw United: 'We The People Opportunity Farm'- Building new lives through agriculture and service

We The People Opportunity Farm founder Melvin Parson.
Doug Coombe
Concentrate Media
We The People Opportunity Farm founder Melvin Parson.


Melvin Parson (AKA Farmer Parson) has spent approximately 13 years of his life incarcerated.

As such, he has experienced many of the challenges that come along with either being on parole or probation. In 2016, Melvin earned a BSW from Eastern Michigan University. In 2015, he co-founded a mentor program for men and women returning home from incarceration called, A Brighter Way.

In that same year, Melvin founded We The People Growers Association (WTPGA) and in 2018, he started a nonprofit organization called, We The People Opportunity Farm (WTPOF). WTPOF’s vision centers around providing “soil changing” opportunities for both men and women returning home from incarceration. Melvin believes that a main factor that causes people to return back to prison, is a result of not being able to find meaningful employment.

One of Melvin’s goals is to provide as many meaningful job opportunities as possible and to create a culture where folks will have enough support to make meaningful strides towards caring about themselves, others, and their community.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And today, we're going to talk a little bit about giving back. I'm David Fair, and this is Washtenaw United. Melvin Parson spent about 13 years of his life incarcerated. When he came out of prison, he had a mission help others who come out of prison to stay out. Melvin founded the mentorship program A Brighter Way as one form of assistance. The other is hands-in-the-dirt kind of help. It started as the We The People Growers Association and has evolved into the We The People Opportunity Farm. It not only provides work and sense of purpose upon reentry but provides skills and a further mission to give back to the surrounding community, be it one person or one neighborhood at a time. Melvin, it's so good to have you back on WEMU.

Melvin Parson: Hey, David, it's great to be back. Thanks for having me.

David Fair: Well, you like to say that the farm provides "soil-changing opportunities" to the men and women coming out of our correctional facilities. What do you mean by that?

Melvin Parson: Oh, great question. Well, what I mean is that the thing that I learned most about farming early on was that it's all about the soil. And if your soil's good, chances are your plants will flourish, and they'll be healthy and do what they're supposed to do. And it dawned on me that the same thing applies for human beings. It's all about our soil. And so, now our mission is to break the cycle of incarceration here in Washtenaw County.

David Fair: Now, I am betting that some of the folks that you work with have never even been on a farm. So, what about this specific kind of work do they find motivating?

Melvin Parson: You know, being outdoors, and being outdoors for some folks is just not their jam, right? That's just, you know, they're not geared towards that. But we found, more often than not, we've had people come in to our program, formerly incarcerated men and women, some of them with who certainly never farmed or gardened before. Some of them with a severe unfortunate mental diagnosis that includes schizophrenia. And it's something about being outdoors and having their hands in the soil that really shifted their psyche and their perspective and calm the noise inside of their head, right, as it does mine, when I have when I have my hands in the soil. And so, we just try to be out there at the farm. Of course, we've got a farm. We've got to weed. We've got to grow food. We've got to harvest and delivery and all that. But our goal is just to provide a rich environment for those opportunities to happen and for our folks to feel as though they're heard they're valued, and one of our other goals is to treat them with kindness and dignity.

David Fair: In building that community at the farm, do they find that the support of one another, someone who has lived similar life experience, that they better interact not only amongst each other, but out in the world?

Melvin Parson: Oh, I mean, that's just a human condition, right? And, you know, if you got folks, for example, went to the University of Michigan and graduated there in whatever: the engineering program or social work program. You know, just being around like-minded folks who had those like-minded experiences, you just, you know, almost just normally gel and tend to gravitate in that way and the same our folks who are formerly incarcerated. You know, they speak the same language right? They've had some of those same experiences. And so, they're able to communicate in a way with one another that sometimes folks who haven't had those experiences in translation gets lost.

David Fair: Washtenaw United and our conversation with Melvin Parson continues on 89 one WEMU. Melvin is executive director of the We The People Opportunity Farm. And, of course, obviously a major part of the mission is to keep people from going back into the correctional system. The recidivism rate in Washtenaw County and State of Michigan is high. Has the program at We The People Opportunity Farm helped lower those numbers, at least among those you work with?

Melvin Parson: We don't know if the program has lowered those numbers. But what we do know, David, is that we've had 15 folks come through our program since its inception three years ago, and two of those 15 have to return back to jail for minor infractions. But no one's gone back to prison for any lengthy period of time.

David Fair: So, everybody goes through a personal process to get to where they want to be. As you work with these and have worked with these 15 people, at what point in working the farm do you find that the formerly incarcerated become much more interested in finding ways to be of service and of giving back?

Melvin Parson: Oh yeah. There is no magic. There is no magic time for that, right, because we're all human beings. So, we all operate on different timetables. We've had an opportunity to observe folks catch on to that concept right away. And we've had other people where it's taken a little bit longer. And to be honest, we've had those come through our program where that hasn't happened yet, but we've got some folks doing some amazing things that have come through our program that are pillars of this community now and have gone back to school and are doing advocacy and policy work in the form of the criminal injustice system and prison reform. And we got folks that have come to our program that are just everyday people, right? Because at the end of the day, there's many more everyday people than there are people who are just like setting the world on fire.

David Fair: We're talking with We The People Opportunity Farm Executive Director Melvin Parson on WEMU's Washtenaw United. And in discussing the concept and the practice of giving back, I want to talk to you about what you and your team are doing in the Sugarbrook neighborhood. For those unfamiliar, it's a community located east of Harris Road, north of Grove, and runs to about Smith Road. It's an area, I think, is fair to say that is in a food desert. Do you agree with that?

Melvin Parson: Yes, we agree with that.

David Fair: How does the Sugarbrook food distribution program work?

Melvin Parson: Every year, this will be our fourth year with our food distribution program, and it starts late June, early July and the first and second week of every month from, let's say, July through the first and second week in November. We distribute food back to our community at no cost to them the first and second Saturday of every month.

David Fair: And I'm sure because you are the kind of person that likes to be up close and personal and hands-on in all the work you do that you have encountered many people who have needed to take advantage of this program. Have they expressed to you the kind of difference it makes?

Melvin Parson: Yeah, we've had a few more stories since our inception. And to be honest, just in reflection, we've probably, since we started our food distribution program, we distributed at no cost to our community well over 15,000 pounds of food. And in that, David, we've met, oh, we've met over 600 new people easily who we would have never known before. They would have never known about us. And we've had some really great stories about how giving our produce, they look forward to getting our produce, and how and when we distribute it. We like to talk about healthy eating and how important it is to eat organically and what that does to your body. You know, what kind of long-term effects that can have on your health--and short-term, to be honest. So, we've had some really great stories about people who come back the following year and get our produce and even come back the following month and tell us how much they enjoyed it and how much they appreciate us being where we are and doing what we're doing as best we can to be a good community partner in the Sugarbrook neighborhood.

David Fair: As we look towards the rest of this year and on into the future, what comes next in the mission to change the soil at We The People?

Melvin Parson: Well, what comes next is we're getting ready to start our 2023 cohort of formerly incarcerated folks and our paid internship program. Just keeping in, you know, for us as an organization, just keeping them in line with the rising cost of everything. Last year, we paid our interns $19 an hour. And this year, we'll be paying our interns $21 an hour to be with us about 20 to 25 hours a week. We're getting ready to kick off our season overall with an orientation and a tour of the farm for our interns, taking them out to Cabello's to outfit them with farm gear and a couple of nonviolent communication workshops will be the start of our first week. And then, we'll begin working at the farm the following week. And this year, we'll have six people in our program--four the men and two of them women. So, we're super excited about what's in store this year.

David Fair: Well, thank you for the time today. And thank you for the work over the years and the work that lay ahead.

Melvin Parson: Hey, back at you, David.

David Fair: That is Melvin Parson, and he is executive director of the We The People Opportunity Farm. And to find out more about the farm and the Sugarbrook neighborhood food distribution and community building activity program, Melvin and the farm team are leading it, but you can visit our website at WEMU dot org. And we'll get you linked up to all the right places. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and you hear it every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU.


We The People Opportunity Farm (WTPOF)

WTPOF 2022 Annual Report & Thank You

Help "Change the Soil" in Washtenaw County


Recently, We The People Opportunity Farm is a recipient of UWWC’s Community Impact Fund, which aims to support solutions that mitigate and disrupt the intersectional impacts of poverty, racism, and trauma.

The Community Impact Fund provides multi-year (3-year) unrestricted general operating support to our grantees. We The People Opportunity Farm will receive $15,000 per year (2022-2025) to invest in the employment and development of returning citizens, through farming and agricultural endeavors. This includes helping formerly incarcerated individuals seek long-term employment with paid agricultural internships.

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

Non-commercial, fact based reporting is made possible by your financial support.  Make your donation to WEMU todayto keep your community NPR station thriving.

Like 89.1 WEMU on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Contact WEMU News at734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
Related Content
  • Addressing trauma-related mental health more equitably will be the focus of a high school elective course in Washtenaw County next fall. The idea is addressing trauma earlier in life creates better outcomes. The non-profit “Growing Forward Together” is creating an intervention class called Trauma & Society. Co-founder and CEO, Julia Seng, joined WEMU's David Fair to discuss development and implementation of a new and innovative approach.
  • There is increased focus on promoting and highlighting diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in Washtenaw County. In fact, Destination Ann Arbor has created a new series called, "Walking the Walk." It puts a spotlight on local businesses living the DEI promise , impacting the local quality of life and making the county a more attractive tourist destination. Destination Ann Arbor's Amy Karbo joined us with all the information on how "talking the talk" is evolving into "walking the walk."
  • Historically speaking, women have been undervalued and have lacked equal opportunity and pay. As we mark Women's History Month, we explore the importance of being financially literate and articulate as the quest for equity and equality continue. Melissa Joy from Pearl Planning, in Dexter, joins WEMU's David Fair to discuss running a woman-owned business and helping prepare a generation of women for their financial futures.