A purpose worth digging into

Working with dirt may not be the most glamorous job for a spirited entrepreneur looking to make a difference but Pashon Murray believes turning waste into compost is what she was put here to do.



Family ties

Pashon Murray was not your typical kid. While others her age were dreaming of Disney World, the Michigan native most looked forward to her visits to her grandfather’s farm in Mississippi.

“This man, he could call the animals in. He knew when it was going to rain. He knew when something was wrong with the soil. He was literally in tune with nature, and that fascinated me more than anything,” she recalls. “I wanted to be the kid out there on that land paying attention to my grandfather.”

The deep connection she felt to her ancestors’ agricultural roots would ultimately inspire her career.

Today, as the co-founder of compost company Detroit Dirt and her educational nonprofit, the Detroit Dirt Foundation, Murray is one of the most recognizable faces of the urban renewal and farming movement.



Dirty appeal

“Composting, when people think about it, it’s not sexy,” she says. “But this touches all people because at the end of day when it comes to food and soil, we’re all affected by that. When you don’t know where your soil is coming from and where your food is coming from and you’re putting it in your body, you’re already at a loss.”

With Detroit Dirt, Murray is responding to the questions that baffled her as a child growing up in Grand Rapids. There, her dad ran a small snow-plowing and waste management business, and she would sometimes accompany him to the landfill.
“At first, it was just this odd place,” she says. “But as I got older, I started asking, ‘Are people just going to keep dumping stuff here? How is this going to work?’ To me, it just seemed like chaos, an ordered chaos that was contained.”


Recovering a resource

That budding interest in sustainability would propel her to consult on green building projects, develop workforce training and lobby for organizations like the Sierra Club and Repower America after college.

But as the automotive industry started to focus its attention on a landfill-free Detroit, so did Murray. Having made her home in the Motor City, she co-founded Detroit Dirt in 2010 with urban farm developer Greg Willerer to keep organic trash out of the landfills.

Last year, the coalition Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Data reported the U.S. wastes 62.5 million tons ($218 billon worth) of food annually, most of it going to landfills.

“When people throw things away, they don’t see it as a resource,” says Murray, who now runs Detroit Dirt on her own. “But you don’t want to discard those types of organic materials. We have to take them and repurpose and reuse them.”



A champion for Detroit

Detroit Dirt collects yard and food waste from restaurants, civic organizations and big businesses, along with manure from the Detroit Zoo. Murray then turns it all into nutrient-rich soil for urban gardeners and farmers who are working the city’s abandoned parcels of land to grow food for local communities.

Her “closed-loop model” is not only building a new economy, it’s helping to shape a post-industrial Detroit into a prototypal green city.

“I knew being in a city like Detroit was going to be a whole lot of work. I knew I was going to have to give my life to this,” says Murray. “But I had to be part of that revitalization.”



Recognizing her purpose

Her effforts catapulted her into the spotlight when she appeared in a Ford commercial celebrating her commitment to social good in 2014. She’s since been named a Martha Stewart American Made Award winner, become an MIT Media Lab fellow and shared the stage alongside Fortune 500 and 100 company leaders at this year’s Sustainable Brands Conference, among other honors.

With every step forward, she feels more rooted to Detroit’s entrepreneurial spirit — and to her own family’s history of enterprise, and the integrity and determination she’s seen modeled throughout her life.

“I’m here to make a contribution to humanity,” says Murray. “I think we we all are. We just all have different assignments. Mine is helping people with something as simple as compost because we’re all connected to the soil.”


Photo credit: Doug Coombe