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To Sow with love: Marvin Dunn turned his affinity for gardening into a community pride project.

MARVIN DUNN'S INTEREST IN HORTI-culture 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, to donate services like on-site supervision, clerical record keeping, and bill paying. The project grew substantially last year with the help of a $194,000 grant from the James L. Knight Foundation. That money pays about 46 part-time people to maintain the gardens during the week and between semesters when the students are not available to work.

"We felt it was important to hire people from the community and train them for work," says Dunn. "Many of the people we employ have prison records or past drug addiction problems. It's important that these folks have a paycheck coming in because that helps them stay out of trouble."

The grant money Dunn receives can only be used to pay community worker salaries, so costs like the purchase of lawn mowers, weed whackers, gasoline, trash bags, fertilizers, and rented toilet facilities are all paid by Dunn. He estimates such costs totaled $10,000 over the last two years. A $52,000 grant that he hopes to receive from the city of Miami to pay operating costs for the project will relieve a great deal of the personal financial burden he has shouldered.

While Dunn's out-of-pocket costs have risen, he says the rewards of helping people in the community far outweigh the personal expenses. "When I look at the beauty of the gardens, and when I remember the dirty, dank, littered, drug-infested place of the past, it's all worth it."


To use a portion of my wealth to strengthen my community

Dunn advises anyone starting a community project to:

* Seek resources from surrounding institutions. Dunn's community garden project has been successful in gaining grants from FIU, the Florida Department of Transportation, and the Florida Department of Agriculture as well as donations like plants, labor, and other services from local businesses. "Look at the public and private sector organizations that surround the community and make sure that the project is something they will be willing to support," says Dunn.

* Employ people from the community. "When we advertised for jobs, we were flooded with people from the community looking for work," Dunn says. "When people in the community get involved in the project, they'll want to make it work."

* Involve people Item other communities. For the Overtown project, the volunteers provide more than free labor. Host are Hispanic and white college students who gain a better understanding of Overtown, and Overtown residents get a better understanding of them. "After spending several weekends there, my students realize that Overtown residents are no different from any other people they've met," says Dunn. "They have the same aspirations, hopes, and dreams."

Declaration of financial empowerment

From this day forward, I declare my vigilant and lifelong commitment to financial empowerment. I pledge the following:

1] To use homeownership to build wealth

2] To save and invest 10% to 5% of my after-tax income

3] To commit to a program of retirement planning and investing

4] To engage in sound budget, credit, and tax management practices

5] To measure my personal wealth by net worth, not income

6] To be proactive and knowledgeable about investing, money management, and consumer issues

7] To provide access to programs that will educate my children about business and finance

8] To support the creation and growth of profitable, competitive black-owned enterprises

9] To use a portion of my wealth to strengthen my community

10] To ensure that my wealth is passed on to future generations
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Title Annotation:Black Wealth Initiative
Author:Lewis, Nicole
Publication:Black Enterprise
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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