On Thursday night, the Detroit Institute of Art (a Knight Arts grantee) screened “Grown in Detroit” as part of its “Detroit Revealed on Film” exhibit. The film is a close look at the Catherine Ferguson Academy, a public school for pregnant and mothering teens that incorporates hands-on agricultural practice into its curriculum while also providing on-premise childcare. The Academy represents a breathtakingly innovative approach to education, lighting a new path that feels both necessary and heartening.
What began as a small garden for the Academy has grown into a bustling farm, producing apples, cider, vegetables, honey and goats milk, some of which the students are able to sell at Eastern Market. While the ability to sell what’s produced ties their actions into the money economy, the knowledge the students gain about farming potentially eases their dependence on that economy by encouraging them to grow their own food. It also re-establishes the connection between land and food, a connection that’s become so tenuous in post-industrial America, where produce typically travels 1,500 miles from where it’s grown. At one point in the film, one of the school’s teachers remarked that before the students came to the school they didn’t even know they could eat an apple off a tree. She was joking, but there was clearly a lot of truth in the joke.
The students at the Academy are not only bright, but incredibly optimistic, despite having grown up in some of Detroit’s roughest neighborhoods, and despite being far too young to have so many challenges stacked against them. One reason for that optimism is undoubtedly the enlivening and supremely practical abilities they’ve gained at the Catherine Ferguson Academy. The ability to turn vacant lots and backyards into productive sources of food, for starters. But also, through the Academy’s encouragement coupled with the invaluable resource of on-site childcare, the ability to complete their high school education, which is no small feat for a demographic whose drop-out rate nationally is 50 percent. At a crucial moment in these students’ lives, and in the lives of their children, the Academy gives them the rarest of gifts — opportunity and hope, two things these young women had very nearly resigned themselves to living without.