“We need to change the stories we tell ourselves. Reframe the conversation. Look at vacancy as open space – don’t look at what was here but what could be here. Don’t focus on the past but the possibilities for the future.” – Gary Wozniak, President and Founder
Recently I learned about an incredible community development initiative aimed at creating accessible jobs for those facing barriers to employment called RecoveryPark. Based in Detroit, it is a massive collaboration between private business and non-for-profits that envisions the city along multiple components including: education, agriculture/urban farming, community development, food production, commercial and housing development and more. Not only does it promise to revitalize Detroit, but it represents hope and opportunity for struggling and marginalized citizens struggling to make ends meet.
On reading about RecoveryPark in the Toronto Star, I felt compelled to speak with Gary Wozniak, the visionary behind this impressive undertaking and I recently had the privilege of doing so. This is what he had to say about RecoveryPark and mindful living:
What is your definition of living mindfully?
I am 58 years old. My generation was about working for a company for 30 years and retiring with a gold watch, with little consideration for social or community responsibility, short of time spent weekly at church. That model served that space and time in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but it was ill conceived. Now, it’s unraveling as people are realizing that community extends beyond one hour of worship.
We are to be of service to others, our community, and the environment 24/7.
Our ability as we move through that space to treat the Earth as a home and treat business relationships as our brother’s keeper; that is what I consider mindful living. We need to carry our values through everything in life. They cannot be segregated.
Consider this. You go to the beach and the sand is level, but over the course of a day kids play and build sand castles. The next day the sand is level again. Things go back to their natural state. Humans are just part of the Earth – there is a natural state we are supposed to be in. We have problems when we buck that state, but Mother Nature always wins. Mindful living comes from the realization that though we are each only one out of 7 billion people, we are connected in a unique way. We are a grain of sand and have a place within the global hierarchy.
Of what achievements are you most proud that RecoveryPark has been able to accomplish?
When I closed my last business in 2008 there was an opportunity to help “rightsize” Self-Help Addiction Rehabilitation (SHAR) after the economic collapse. With a background in business, training in psychology and my personal experience, I understood the skill sets required for long term recovery from addiction.
We envisioned what SHAR would look like 10 years down the road, moving from substance abuse treatment to community empowerment. In that we identified the inability to find a job as the greatest obstacle in long term recovery.
The driving need was to create jobs in the city, easily accessible to transportation and housing. The vision was to use municipally owned available land to grow food and build community. Plants don’t care if you can’t read and write but these jobs give people pride in what they do. Today, this has grown into a collaboration of 125 organizations with $1.4m in philanthropic funding, bringing jobs into open space and creating urban villages.
What do you see as the future of RecoveryPark?
We are working toward getting a shovel in the ground for the first 30 acre indoor farm, a 5 million pound indoor tilapia farm, and a 77,000 square foot food manufacturing building/food studio with space for food trucks. We are also working on a three year career and life coaching program to empower our team and make them autonomous moving forward.
In the long term, we would like to have 1,000 acres of farming and adjacent processing that’s supports a local live fresh food distribution system and creates 10,000 jobs.
How do you hope to make a difference in this life?
I believe that when you talk about eternal life, the pieces of ourselves that we leave for future generations are what count. I believe in the value of building a local live fresh food economy, getting people involved and making it part of their everyday. By repurposing the land into a different type of space, I hope that people feel connected to the Earth and have a sense of community. I hope to build a different relationship between for profits and non-profits creating a healthier and more sustainable funding stream. This is what I hope to leave behind.
What advice do you have for someone who would like to make a mark, but doesn't know how?
Follow your passion. Passion can turn a mediocre idea into a great one and will get you through the ups and downs. People sense passion and want to be associated with people they know are going to make a difference. Ask yourself how your idea will help others and do it with passion.