Making Composting Sexy: A Conversation with Detroit Dirt's Pashon Murray

by Leslie Reese on July 03, 2020

 

It takes a visionary like Pashon (pronounced the same as passion) Murray to make the dirt of sustainability look sexy! This descendant of nature-loving Mississippians and urban landfill treasure excavators - sporting her generous afro and mud-tromping boots - is a passionate advocate for the environment. Pashon’s message is clear: we can help alleviate global-warming by keeping food and yard waste out of the landfill! To prove it, this solutions-motivated woman created a model for processing such waste into high-quality compost for local gardeners and farmers back in 2010. It’s called Detroit Dirt, and since then, Pashon Murray has been advocating and educating all over the world about what it means to create positive social, economic, and environmental impact.


Growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Pashon often went to landfills with her dad, who had a small contracting company. She learned early that a lot was being dumped in landfills that didn’t belong there, including furniture and appliances that could have easily been recycled and repurposed. Questions around that stayed with her for years. 


We don’t often hear about the people of color in the sustainability movement, so I was eager to interview Pashon Murray by phone during the first week of May 2020, when many of us were trying to find our sea legs in the new reality created by COVID-19. It felt good to talk to this Black woman about environmental sustainability. I was energized by and grateful for her willingness to share, as we acknowledged black people’s complicated relationship to the land, and talked about climate resiliency, regenerative agriculture, and more! Here are some outtakes from that conversation.


Why composting?

When food waste is not properly managed it produces greenhouse gases. But there are composting processes that are more beneficial to the earth than burying waste in a landfill or allowing that food waste to sit and rot. Composting food waste and organics can improve healthy soil.

Pashon Murray tossing vegetables for compost.

With Detroit Dirt we push a movement around the “closed-loop" composting system because it allows us to regenerate biodegradable waste and empower people by getting the material back to those who can use it. It’s regenerative agriculture:  instead of sending everything to the landfill, you’re reusing and repurposing materials within a community and within an economy.


Do you see the pandemic impacting people’s awareness around food waste/environmental sustainability?


The pandemic is revealing inefficiencies within the food system which is inspiring people to sustain within their own households.  I started getting questions from companies and individuals on how we should be composting.  People are interested in sustainable practices that they can continue as we move forward. I think we are going to come out of this with more organizations and platforms committed to managing resources better.


Our response to the pandemic removed us from our daily routine and gave us a glimpse of what a cleaner earth and environment might look like.  It’s helping people to better understand the sustainable industry movement. It’s very inspiring to me and means that more of us will be fighting against current antiquated practices, and creating future paths to sustainability.


People talk about “climate change,” but I notice that you use the term “climate resiliency.” What do you mean by that?


I’m not just going to talk about how Mother Nature is negatively impacted, I’m going to come up with strategies to complement Her resilience.  We are the destructive forces here, so resilience is the solution. Are we going to keep living our lives in the same manner? or are we going to become resilient and say “Okay, I probably could invest in an energy-efficient car or use public transportation or reduce my energy consumption;” “Maybe I can bike to the local grocery store.” “Maybe I can support brands like this new Tracy Reese jacket because it’s made from this sustainable material.” We have to start thinking in that way. To me, climate resiliency is when you come to grips with the issue by aligning with solutions. Sustainable lifestyles will shift society.


You started Detroit Dirt 10 years ago.  How has Detroit become more sustainable in the last 10 years?


Pashon Murray on tractor.

Detroit’s Office of Sustainability did not exist 10 years ago. The city shut down the incinerator, curbside recycling has been implemented, and organizations dedicated to environmental justice are making progress. Detroit is one of many cities that is in need of infrastructure investment. We need to adopt policies and mandatory guidelines for sustainable economics that are less reliant on fossil fuels. 

The automotive community has shifted in the last five years.  Manufacturing more efficient vehicles requires the use of certain materials, and more companies have been created to address that demand. Sustainability opens-up the possibility of other industries. That’s the beauty in all of that.

In terms of the urban farming movement, I think they are trying to figure out “How do we create more bridges with the local farming community within the circular economy?” “How do we grow more locally?” But urban farmers need more resources.  They need more people to contribute funding to support their infrastructure. Land and resources are key.

Detroit has made drastic changes in the last couple of years. I hope that they can continue to build on more efficient and sustainable economies.

 

Where do you find hope and beauty in the world?


I find hope with our youth, who have shared their excitement about being involved with the sustainability movement and future careers. They give me hope. And then, I see the beauty in nature, and how Mother Earth responds to positive alignment. I also find hope in seeing more people of color involved in the movement.  We need people of color making decisions and creating strategic implementation in order to facilitate us overcoming our dependence on fossil fuels.  No matter what race or culture, we have to put the ecosystem first in order for humanity to thrive.


Which of the following is a MUST for you: peace of mind, delight, or good news?


Peace of mind. I’ve always yearned for that and from a spiritual standpoint, it’s just good to have my own space and peace of mind. It’s recalibrating:  you plug in, right? You unplug. You do an assessment. You re-group, and then you go back out into the world. I have to be able to redirect to be the best version of myself.


What makes you feel empowered?


Pashon Murray in the dirt.

I am encouraged, spiritually every day. Empowerment for me comes from our ancestors. They’ve provided guidance and wisdom. So many throughout history have done such a tremendous job with minimum resources. We now have an abundance of technology and examples of solutions, along with the talent and expertise to bring people together.  There is no room for excuses. 

For me, empowerment is overcoming social and environmental injustices; we need an economic shift. That’s the resiliency that I was referring to. Climate Resiliency has the potential to create a healthy ecosystem of social, economic, and environmental justice that disrupts current negative impacts. The sustainability movement needs experts, leaders, and entrepreneurs who can translate how to overcome the climate change crisis with resilient models that support eco-economics. 


I am energized by change. I believe in it. I am living my passion and that pun is intended!

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