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Washtenaw United: Ypsi Farmers and Gardeners Oral History Project shares stories of BIPOC community members

Patricia Wells
Ypsilanti District Library
Patricia Wells


Dr. Finn Bell

Dr. Finn Bell
Julianne Lindsey
J. Lindsey Photography
Dr. Finn Bell

Originally from St. Louis, MO, Finn Bell has been putting down roots in Ypsilanti since 2013 when he first moved to Michigan to complete a PhD in social work & sociology at the University of Michigan. An avid gardener and chicken tender, Finn’s research has focused on interviewing farmers and gardeners, first at a Catholic Sister-led ecojustice center, and then in Ypsilanti for his dissertation research.

Finn is particularly interested in how growing food helps people to find meaning and practice hope amidst environmental crises, as well as how growing food is a strategy of collective survival. Finn has long dreamed of ways to make the stories that have come out in his research more fully accessible to the community, and the Ypsi Farmers & Gardeners Oral History Project is a realization of that dream. Finn is an assistant professor of human services at the University of Michigan - Dearborn.

Patricia Wells

Patricia Wells was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. She is proud to be from an historical Afro-American community in Northwest Detroit. She retired from the State of Michigan, Wayne County Circuit Court in the City of Detroit. She has experience as a Master Gardener in Wayne County. She has trained with Keep Growing Detroit and Urban Roots.

She attended University of Detroit Mercy and Madonna University. Patricia is a widow, mother, grandmother, and a great grandmother. Patricia strongly feels the need of being connected to the land and to our elders. Patricia’s favorite quote is, “An elder sitting on the ground can see more than a youth standing in a pine tree.” Patricia enjoys life long learning, gardening, traveling and spending time with family and friends. She also enjoys teaching people how to put a penny in the ground and how to pull out a dollar.


Ypsi Farmers & Gardeners Oral History Project @ YDL

Funder: Arts & Resistance Theme Semester through U-M Arts Initiative

Finn Bell’s dissertation of Ypsi Food Growers

Arts & Resistance Theme Semester through U-M Arts Initiative

Willow Run Acres


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to Washtenaw United. I'm David Fair, and this is our weekly exploration of equity and opportunity. And today, we bring you the first in what will be a month-long series of Black History Month conversations. Now, there is a rich tradition of agricultural pursuits among African Americans in Washtenaw County and in Ypsilanti. Much of it has been overlooked and certainly underappreciated. Finding and preserving the stories and traditions are a big part of the Ypsi Farmers and Gardeners Oral History Project. It also helps shine a light on the fact that, even today, there's a lack of equal food access for people of color. This is the passion project of Ypsilanti resident Doctor Finn Bell. Finn as an assistant professor of human services at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and he is our first guest on Washtenaw United today. Thank you for being here, Finn.

Dr. Finn Bell: Thank you for having me.

David Fair: Where did your interest in creating this project come from?

Dr. Finn Bell: Yeah. So, I completed my Ph.D. at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, and, in my dissertation work, I was interviewing farmers and gardeners in Ypsi, who identified as Black/Indigenous/people of color, BIPOC, and/or working class. And, you know, not a lot of people read dissertations. And I really wanted just the immense wisdom that was in these stories to be available to the communities and also for people to be able to just tell their stories, not filtered through my lens.

David Fair: So, what is the goal or the mission of the project?

Dr. Finn Bell: Yeah. So, the Ypsi Farmers and Gardeners Oral History Project collects the stories of Black, indigenous and people of color and are working class farmers and gardeners in their own words. They're telling their own stories. And we have four aims in doing so: first, to increase food sovereignty or the right to have rights over food in Ypsilanti, second, to document the rich stories and histories that are often ignored, third, to remember what was possible in the past to help sustain our dreams for what's next, and fourth, to be able to provide for ourselves and actually sustain our community.

David Fair: It sounds like it is an intensive endeavor. And I assume you cannot do it alone. Do you have some sort of financial support?

Dr. Finn Bell: Yes. So, the launch of the project was funded by the Arts Initiative as part of their Arts and Resistance themed semester, but we are actually currently looking for additional support to keep the project going. And we do it in partnership with the Ypsilanti District Library and some wonderful other community partners.

David Fair: The Black History Month edition of Washtenaw United continues on 89 one WEMU. And we've been talking with Doctor Finn Bell. He heads up the Ypsi Farmers and Gardeners Oral History Project. And Finn brought a woman with him today, who certainly have stories to tell. Patricia Wells is a master gardener. She is Detroit born and raised and now lives in Superior Township. And she comes with deep conviction that we need to be connected to the ground and to our elders. Welcome to WEMU, Patricia.

Patricia Wells: Thank you very much.

David Fair: How did you connect with Finn?

Patricia Wells: Yes. Some mutual friends informed him of what I was doing and told him all about me.

David Fair: So, what is it you are doing?

Patricia Wells: Yes, I'm involved with young people in this county and also in Wayne County, especially the Detroit area, that is showing young people how to put a penny in the ground--a seed in the ground--and pull out a dollar and to be self-sufficient and to empower each person and our community.

David Fair: Now, put a penny in the ground and pull out a dollar. That is some wisdom right there. And I sense that it's not just something financial you're talking about, but it is a life theme. Am I correct?

Patricia Wells: Absolutely. Because we want to nurture strong people, strong bodies and strong minds. And with food, we can do that. Food is mood. And if you have the right food, the mood will be right--the person.

David Fair: I want to mention that Patricia is a retired State of Michigan employee. She worked at Wayne County Circuit Court. She's a widow, a mother, a grandmother, and great grandmother. There's a lot of accomplishment, and, as you were hearing, a lot of wisdom that Patricia brings to the table today. Why is gardening, and in particular urban farming, such an important part of your personal story?

Patricia Wells: Yes. I lost a son many years ago, and it was over a few dollars. He was at work. And so, after that happened, especially, I see the need to help the young people because it's easier to help a broken child than it is a broken man. And I worked in the one of the busiest courtrooms in the state and in the country. And the pipeline to prison from the Great Three all the way to prison, it's terrible. And we have a lot of great minds. We have great minds. I think all people are great. We just have to find and help them become even greater because we need each person.

David Fair: When you help young people connect to the land and understand that "food is mood," how does that help change the life trajectory?

Patricia Wells: It helps because, with food, we have something now as a new field called nutritional psychiatry. A lot of doctors now realize the connection with food and people because that's where we get our nourishment from. And we get that from clean food, not food that's in a box or in the package or in a can. Food that's grown. That's clean food. And it helps all of us, and it helps our environment because we're all connected to one another and the ecosystem. We all are a village.

David Fair: Do you think in working with the youngsters, as you do, that they are understanding the importance of connecting to land but also connecting to their elders?

Patricia Wells: Absolutely, because we are the ones that can teach them. Because we are the ones who have been here, and this is where we come from. We have greatness in each one of us. And our ancestors taught us this, and we got away from it. And now, we see a lot of the troubles that we have in our society. It's because of lack of connection with the land, with the soil, to watch something grow, and that you helped it, and you grew it, and you understand, "Oh, it's science! It's everything!" You grow food to share to eat for your family and yourself. But you can share it. And this is happening all over the world and in this country especially.

David Fair: And, Doctor Bell, what have you taken away from Patricia's story? And what did you walk away thinking after recording her story?

Dr. Finn Bell: Oh, there's so much wisdom in Patricia's story and other folks as well who we interviewed. But I think especially the pieces that Patricia talks about in terms of ancestral wisdom, and I think for this project in particular, it's all about how do we do cultural transmission, right? How does this ancestral wisdom not get lost? How do we learn from elders? And I think, as Patricia said, there are so many young people who are hungry for this. And so, I'm just so grateful for you for being willing to share your story, as well as other folks, obviously, as well.

David Fair: WEMU's Washtenaw United continues with Finn Bell and Patricia Wells, as we explore the Ypsi Farmers and Gardeners Oral History project. And in a rather personal way, in sitting with the two of you today, I kind of have the advantage of seeing you while those who are hearing our voices cannot. Patricia is African American, and Finn is white. Finn, how do you ensure that the stories you are told by members of the BIPOC community aren't somehow filtered through a Caucasian lens?

Dr. Finn Bell: Yeah. So, I mean, that's really the whole point of the oral history project, right, is that, for me, I really see my role as just sort of enabling people to tell their own stories or providing a space for that. But then, for people to tell their stories in their own words, the things that they think are important to focus on, and then for it to be available to those folks' own communities and to the wider community, if that's something that they're interested in versus just kind of living behind an ivory tower.

David Fair: Patricia?

Patricia Wells: Yes.

David Fair: Have you found that, through gardening and urban agriculture, that there is a bridge that can be built between divided races?

Patricia Wells: Oh, absolutely. Because food is a connection. And this is where you listen to people, and you learn from each one. You learn from the recipes, and you share. And I think that's a common bond. We all have a need for food and to eat and to be happy. And food gives us happiness when we are able to eat high-quality food.

David Fair: Finn, how can we best access Patricia's story and the others that you've collected in the oral history project?

Dr. Finn Bell: Yeah. So, this is now available on the Ypsilanti District Library--YDL's website. So, if you just go to history dot Ypsi library dot org, you'll see the Ypsi Farmers and Gardeners Oral history project. And if you click on it, then you'll see Patricia's story, and then you'll see the five others that we've already collected. And then, we'll keep adding to that as well.

David Fair: And, Patricia, if people want to connect with your efforts at creating a greater sense of connection to the land here in Washtenaw County, how can they go about doing that?

Patricia Wells: Oh, yes. They can always call Willow Run Acres—Willow Run Acres with TC. And there's a website.

David Fair: Very good. And we will make sure that that is a part of the post on our website, so you can get linked up conveniently. I'd like to thank you both for making time to be here and share your stories with us today.

Dr. Finn Bell: Thank you so much.

Patricia Wells: Thank you.

David Fair: That is master gardener Patricia Wells and Doctor Finn Bell, the head of the Ypsi Farmers and Gardeners Oral History Project. Again, for more information, go to our website at wemu.org. This has been the first in what will be a series of Black History Month conversations on Washtenaw United. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan. You hear it every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.


This Black History Month, United Way is exploring topics, achievements, and individuals in our community that contribute to the rich history of Washtenaw County.

The Ypsi Farmers & Gardener Oral History Project (YFGOHP) is a collection of audio interviews featuring working class, BIPOC farmers and gardeners in Ypsilanti. The project is facilitated by United Way for Southeastern Michigan community partner and grantee, the Ypsilanti District Library. YFGOHP was directly funded by the Arts & Resistance Theme Semester from the University of Michigan Arts Initiative.

The project was also made possible by current Community Impact Fund grantee, We The People Opportunity Farm, and previous Opportunity Fund grantee, Growing Hope.

YFGOHP aims to shed light on the hidden history of local farmers and gardeners, while promoting their food resources and increasing food sovereignty in Washtenaw County. Today, there are roughly 40,000 Black farmers in America, owning less than one percent of our nation’s farmland. In Washtenaw County, out of our 2,134 farmers, only eighteen of them are Black.

Help support the work of African American farmers and gardeners by donating to the Washtenaw County Black Farmer Fund and reading more about our local African American farmers.

WEMU has partnered with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan to 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 today to keep your community NPR station thriving.

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Contact WEMU News at 734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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