To Sow With Love

Marvin Dunn’s interest in horticulture began as a teenager, when his father bought a truck and he and his four brothers were enlisted to do landscaping chores across the city. “We learned how to do landscaping by trial and error as kids, and I loved it,” says Dunn, 64.

Dunn’s love for landscaping grew over the years. And now, as associate professor of psychology at Florida International University, he has created a community service project that aims to bring out the best in Overtown, a historically black neighborhood and one of Miami’s poorest communities. For the last seven years, he has spearheaded Roots in the City, a nonprofit organization that joins psychology majors, volunteers, and community residents to plant, prune, clear, and beautify the unoccupied land in low-income communities. Dunn organizes weekend trips during the semester to sites in Overtown, where students work for eight hours planting bougainvilleas, roses, shrimp plants, and vegetables like sweet potatoes, greens, and string beans. What started as a handful of students tilling two acres of land has mushroomed into a 25- to 30-student operation, with 300 to 400 other workers and volunteers, who tend 20 acres of gardens and beautifully manicured green spaces.

Although Dunn spent less than a year living in Overtown as a child, he says the community has always stirred something in him. “Overtown was not so much the place that I identified with as home,” he explains, “but a place that I identified with as needing a lot of help–a place that needed to be saved.” Dunn’s Roots in the City project is his way of using Declaration of Financial Empowerment principle No. 9: to use a portion of my wealth to strengthen my community. His goal is to restore Overtown to the positive community he remembers.

The author of Black Miami in the Twentieth Century, Dunn appreciates the historical significance of Overtown. During the 1950s and ’60s, Overtown was home to a thriving community of some 40,000 blacks, many of whom owned their own businesses, ran their own schools, and welcomed the likes of Billie Holiday, Sammy Davis Jr., and Nat King Cole. When the community was literally torn apart for the construction of Interstate Highways 95 and 395, economic dollars were diverted away. Today, Overtown’s population of 8,000 to 10,000 mainly comprises poor single women, seniors, and unemployed youth with a high illiteracy rate.

Dunn established Roots in the City as a nonprofit organization through which donations and grants could be dispersed. Although starting the project was relatively inexpensive, costs have risen as it has expanded. “In the first two years, I spent less than $2,000 of my own money on tools, trash bags, manure, and other paraphernalia I needed for the students to conduct the project,” says Dunn. “By the third year, I spent $4,000, and now I’m spending about a quarter of my $92,000 salary on the project.”

To save money and to run the project more efficiently, Dunn enlists his for-profit company, Black Reflections, which handles his publishing ventures,