Mayor Mike Duggan announced longtime urban farming activist Tepfirah Rushdan as the city’s first director of urban agriculture on Monday. Rushdan started her position Sept. 5.
This position within the Mayor’s Office comes after a series of meetings with Detroit’s urban agriculture community to help develop Duggan’s land tax proposal. Community members had advocated for land being used for urban agriculture to be exempt from proposed tax increases.
Ten years ago, when Duggan was first elected, Detroit had 45,000 abandoned buildings in the city. As the buildings were demolished, community members wanted to find a way to repurpose the leftover land, Duggan said at a press conference Monday.
He acknowledged the delay in creating Rushdan’s position, given the fact that Detroit has a growing number of urban farms and gardens, with more than 2,000 established spaces. But, the mayor is optimistic Rushdan’s appointment will be beneficial to the urban farm movement.
“You may think of Tepfirah as (someone) speaking truth to power, but now she is the power,” Duggan said.
City of Detroit Chief Operating Officer Brad Dick, City Councilmen Scott Benson and Fred Durhal III and various community leaders showed their support for Rushdan’s appointment, a job that comes with an annual salary of $112,000.
Rushdan helps support urban farms through educational programs encouraging the consumption of locally grown produce through her position as co-director of Keep Growing Detroit. The organization grew 8,500 pounds of healthy food through its Garden Resource Program in 2022.
She also co-established the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund, which provides Black urban farmers with capital for land and infrastructure. Rushdan has also been director of Urban Agriculture for Greening of Detroit, a member of the Detroit Food Policy Council and a board adviser to several community projects.
“(Rushdan) obviously has the experience, but she has so many other admirable qualities,” said senior city planner Kathryn Underwood, a longtime colleague of Rushdan. “She’s a good listener, which is very rare, and very thoughtful on how to resolve conflict and challenges.”
Rushdan is focused first on improving the process of purchasing land in the city, a process Rushdan said averaging two years through the Detroit Land Bank. She also plans to find ways to make the process more efficient between buyers and the Buildings, Safety Engineering, and Environmental Department (BSEED), which is responsible for issuing permits to landowners.
Rushdan has meetings planned with Detroit Land Bank Authority CEO Tammy Daniels and BSEED Director David Bell in the coming weeks.
“A lot of times we find that folks in higher up positions don’t know the issues,” Rushdan said. “We’re struggling on the ground, and they don’t even know why that struggle is happening. Conveying those struggles to people who can make change is my top priority.”
She uses her knowledge and passion for the community and the environment to support and educate urban farmers through youth and adult farmer training programs, outdoor therapy and climate change resilience research.
The new director joins a small community of urban agriculture directors. Few other large cities — the Detroit role follows similar ones in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Boston and Washington, D.C. — have a department focused on urban agriculture or a position like Rushdan’s. But these positions do have high levels of success when it comes to improving the intersection between a community and its environment.
“I stand on the backs of (urban farming) giants,” Rushdan said. “They’ve been doing this work so long, pushing to get the access that farmers and gardeners need in this city. … I’m just so excited that we have a foot in the door to be able to meet with all of the top people that we need to meet with to get this work done.”