It’s mid-December 2014. I’ve arrived at King Karate Youth Karate-Ka on the 5300 block of Saginaw Street in Beecher, a community adjacent to Flint, MI. Across the street between three hoop houses that make up the core of Harvesting Earth Educational Farm is a pile new to me—a heap of black ash where a chicken coop once stood.
I sense a story in those ashes and a metaphor.
Behind the karate studio, I spot Jacky King riding a monster tractor as if it’s a Formula One racecar. I chase after Jacky, but he maneuvers behind a fence and doesn’t see me.
I take a reality check as the greenhouse structures and a man with long dreadlocks driving farm equipment stands out in contrast against a strip of abandoned homes, gas stations, and liquor stores. I then flash back four years, remembering the day we first met Jacky and Dora King, described appropriately by a friend beforehand as “walking and talking sound bites.” Rows and rows of karate students outside on a sunny August used pitchforks, rakes, and hoes, circling the Kings, an arresting, incredible image. The students, carefully choreographed, made for good TV.
That day of surprises led to several days during which we stepped lively with our video cameras to capture the Kings in motion at their karate studio and urban farm. The hours and hours of video would be edited to become The Kings of Flint, a half-hour film that would receive multiple state and national awards and would become the first of our documentary films to be aired nationally on PBS World.
Today, several years later, the Kings continue to move in time-lapse mode, but with a different urgency, ignited by a new independence that may result in true sustainability.
I walk into the karate studio, giving Dora a hug. In between opening up mail and talking to her assistant, Jay, she answers my questions. She looks up at the leaking ceiling, then toward me and then to her assistant, saying, “I need to multi-task.”
Then Jacky walks in, gives me a quick hug, and reaches for a mop to sop up the water dripping from the ceiling. He talks about how he loved working on the documentary film, calling it one of the easiest things he’s ever done. Jacky wanted to know how Troy (Hale, the co-director of The Kings of Flint) was doing so I gave him a rundown of Troy’s latest film pursuits. Asked about how The Kings of Flint changed his life, Jacky says, “What we do got told to other folks. The seed spread. It spread in Flint. A lot of it had to do with the documentary.”
Jacky mentions a kick-a-thon in January that he was hosting at multiple sites throughout the country to raise money for the farm, and grabs the bag of DVDs of the film that I brought, saying he’s going to send them to Oprah’s OWN network. In what seems like forty-five seconds, he says goodbye, letting me know he’s headed to check on the cracks in the roof.
I want them to sit still for a few minutes so I can catch up. Then I have to remind myself of Jacky and Dora’s schedule: They wake up at 5 a.m., teach karate, and manage an urban farm that in recent years has grown from one greenhouse to three and extends a few blocks away to an orchard on Detroit Street that has infant fruit trees: 100 apple trees, 50 pear trees, 40 peach, 10 cherry.
Prior to visiting the Kings, I had lunch in downtown Flint with an associate professor at the University of Michigan-Flint who is developing a couple courses on local food systems. I invited her to meet the Kings, who have become local legends.
We both ask Dora questions and in those inquiries, I un-pack the back story, the reasons behind Jacky and Dora’s urgency and multi-tasking: In June 2014, the funding from a local foundation ended. “Talk about some scary stuff,” Dora says, “If it weren’t for charitable gaming … it’s been a lifesaver. Without Jay [the Kings’ book keeper], it’s not going to happen.”
Since the summer, the Kings have hosted Bingo three nights a week at a local community center. They’re looking at adding a night for poker. So busy with managing their karate studio, farm, and now, Bingo nights, they haven’t had time to apply for grants.
But grants, Bingo nights, and crowd-funded sites like Indiegogo may be vehicles to support Jacky’s next project, which is to build a stand near their hoop houses so neighbors can buy vegetables instead of travelling downtown to Flint’s Farmers Market.
“It’s fine and dandy if you have vehicles, but the ones that don’t, don’t have access to fresh food,” Dora says. “And if you’re carrying a bag of potatoes and you have to hop on a bus then transfer to another bus, it’s impossible. It’s a beautiful thing if you’re part of the group who is privy to that, but it’s not a beautiful thing when you don’t have a car.”
Dora explains that the food desert in Beecher became even drier when two grocery stores in the area closed last summer.
Stretched thin from the lack of grant funding, the Kings experienced another challenge. In October, their chicken coop went up in flames. The hens, as Dora explains, were “rowdy” because they were about to lay eggs, and in their excitement, kicked over a heat lamp. Jacky fought with the firefighters as he tried to save his fifteen chickens and three guinea hens. The fire also melted the back of one of the hoop houses where gourds were growing.
After talking to Dora, I stand for a few minutes between the hoop house and black pile of char, looking into the hoop house where browned-out vines stand. When spring comes, insurance will provide the Kings an opportunity to replace the plastic on the back of the greenhouse and to rebuild and restock the chicken coop. When spring comes, these ashes will be gone, and once again, the Kings will be able to grow food and grow hope.
To learn more about King Karate and Harvesting Earth Farm, visit www.kingkarate.org
To view an abbreviated version of the film, visit worldchannel.org/programs/episode/urban-gardening
The DVD is available for purchase at shop.msu.edu/The_Kings_of_Flint_p/msut-61.htm