Where most people saw-grass-choked, glass-caked ghetto lots, Marvin Dunn saw an opportunity to create jobs for Miami's most unemployable. In spaces politicians thought would forever be needle-strewn fields shaded by crack houses, Dunn imagined rows of organic herbs and vegetables cooled by mango trees.
Rather than give up on one of the Magic City's worst neighborhoods, Dunn started an urban farming collective right in the heart of Overtown, and even amid the economic free fall, his Roots of Hope project isn't just surviving — it's expanding to Coconut Grove in the near future.
"What we're doing is starting a wave that makes people appreciate that vacant land lying fallow for decades can be put to productive use," the 71-year-old says. "You can use that land to provide jobs and to feed a community."
Roots of Hope's success marks a surprising late career move for an intellectual and activist who has long made a mark speaking freely on issues of race — politics be damned. But in truth, it's also a return to his own family's roots.
As a boy in Central Florida, Dunn spent three years helping his father as a migrant worker in the Jim Crow-era Sunshine State, until his dad saved enough money to buy a small house in Miami. The experience helped drive him into academics. "I swore I would find a career that didn't involve getting to work before the sun rises," Dunn says.
After a stint in the Navy, he attended graduate school to study history and politics, a move that landed him one of the first tenured professorships at Florida International University.
He spent two decades at FIU probing black issues. After his research helped spark an interest in Rosewood — a tiny town in Levy County riven by a horrific race massacre in 1923 — Dunn bought five acres of land nearby to help excavate artifacts. "I was the first black man ever to buy land in Rosewood," he says.
He followed that by writing a history of Florida lynchings, set to be published soon.
In a sense, his Roots of Hope project fits into the same racially conscious activism. Through city grants and vegetable sales, Dunn plans to hire 12 Overtown residents by January to work the gardens; the produce they'll grow, in turn, will help feed local schools and those in homeless shelters. And once-hideous abandoned lots are now flush with tomatoes, melons, and greens.
"This is the last kind of work I expected to be involved with at this age, but it's the kind of work you can take to your grave," he says. "Turns out, you never really outgrow farming and gardening."
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