What would a more equitable, sustainable restaurant industry look like? This Detroiter is on a mission to find out.

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Devita Davison
Devita Davison
| Credit: VAL WALLER

After Hurricane Sandy flooded Devita Davison's house, she gave up her two-decade life in New York (and the small local grocery she owned) and moved home to Michigan. Today she is executive director of FoodLab Detroit, an organization that helps food entrepreneurs build businesses that make money and fuel the greater good. Interview with Dorothy Hernandez.

DH Why did you move back to Detroit?

DD My mother saw an article in The New York Times on a sustainably focused coworking space in Detroit called Green Garage. She said, "There are 1,000 Devitas in New York; you should come back home and be a part of all of the energy and excitement happening in Detroit." I reached out to its founders, Tom and Peggy Brennan. Leaving a message for them, I got emotional, being homeless and losing every single thing that I had owned. I started to cry. Peggy called me back 15 minutes later. She said, "I have somebody I want you to meet—a group of young entrepreneurs that's working out of the Green Garage." And that's how I got introduced to FoodLab.

DH What convinced you to join?

DD A personal tug on my heart. I felt a great deal of responsibility as a native Detroiter: How do I give back in a very real and equitable and collaborative way to a city that has given me so much?

DH How do you describe FoodLab?

DD FoodLab is an ecosystem of food industry entrepreneurs. It provides resources, technical assistance and mentorship—but first and foremost, a community of support for people who want to do a food business differently. They all share the idea that profit is not the only thing that you need in order to scale a successful business. So we are the hub in the wheel, the connection piece, bringing like-minded entrepreneurs together. That's where our new fellowship comes in.

DH Yes! Explain.

DD Over the last 10 years, FoodLab has supported hundreds of businesses. Now we're asking, "How do we begin to really go deeper, instead of going wider?" We launched the Fellowship for Change in Food and Labor in 2020. It's a yearlong program that provides resources and connects 10 chefs and restaurateurs to collaborate.

DH What kinds of networking have come out of the fellowship?

DD Ji Hye Kim (owner of Miss Kim, a Korean restaurant in Ann Arbor's Zingerman's family of businesses) and Omar Anani (owner of modern Moroccan bistro Saffron De Twah) did a pop-dinner series. They had never worked together before. Omar also works with Tony Vu (owner of Vietnamese-inspired MaMang in Flint) as part of High Road Kitchens, an initiative started by One Fair Wage that is fighting for a $15 hourly wage.

DH Fair pay is one FoodLab goal. Racial and gender equity are others. It's a lot! How do you gauge success?

DD With the fellowship, we're able to facilitate conversation, set schedules, but more importantly, curate a community of changemakers. When you have collective voice, you have power. And now you can start to advocate for the changes that you want to see not only in your restaurant, but across the industry. Together, we can amplify voices, inspire others and slowly but surely whack away at systemic changes. The kind of transformation that we're talking about can't be accomplished by one business. It requires all businesses to be working together on one accord, lifting each other's voices, finding our voice and really beginning to advocate for change in the food system.

DH You often talk about how your family came to Detroit. How does that inform or inspire your work today?

DD My mother and father were part of the Great Migration. They fled rural Alabama and came to Detroit. They wanted to find better opportunities for themselves and their future children. Many Black Southerners migrated north from the Jim Crow South to escape the drudgery of farm work. That said, they couldn't deny the farm knowledge they had accumulated. They brought with them their ability to grow fresh fruits and vegetables. I get my agricultural inspiration from my parents, along with the food activists who are deeply rooted in the soil and committed to building a healthy community. As a descendant of sharecroppers and a daughter of the Great Migration, I work aggressively at FoodLab to support urban farming by strengthening Detroit's local food supply chain, in addition to promoting healthy lifestyles and building businesses that make a positive social impact in their community.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.