An Open Letter from Founder & Executive Director, Levi Gardner

Dear Grand Rapids and Friends of Urban Roots, May 22, 2019

It’s me Levi.


You may know me as the Founder & Executive Director of Urban Roots, a drummer from Mars Hill or a Grand Rapids Montessori / City High Middle School Dad. You may also know me as a Professor at Grand Valley or Kendall, the Muteflutes drummer, Eastown resident, or one of my many other identities.

Today, I am writing to you as just me. Just a human being.

This weekend I gave a talk. A TEDx talk actually. I’ve given lots of public presentations, but have never shared my story. My actual story. The honest truth.

The two weeks leading up to it, my retinas hurt from sobbing so hard.

For the first time in my entire life, coming to terms with my own history meant acknowledging just how much I’ve hidden behind masks. The identities I’ve worn to protect myself from threats of the outside world. And in pursuit of being one whole actual person, it’s time to own some things.

I recently read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 with my daughter, deeply empathizing with Guy Montague's journey from unknowing to learning the truth about the Fireman. It seems to happen in the blink of an eye. And for 1000 reasons, my life is in a similar spiral. While many things are absolutely falling apart, I have clarity about myself and the world that transcends anything I’ve ever experienced.

The truth is that a few months ago- in the wake of a second failed marriage, I really wanted to get away from you. To sprint as fast as I could in the opposite direction, and to start over somewhere else. I couldn’t hold onto the duality of stepping into being one human being while also holding all of the masks. And getting out feel like the only way to survive as a human. If I didn’t have daughters that I care for so deeply, I would have been gone. But alas, I do and so I won’t.

So I want to be honest with you. I am incredibly proud of the work that I’ve done, and of who I am. I don’t have any shame about my history, because part of this journey has been developing a deep love for me. For all the parts of me - the beautiful ones and the ones that are still growing.

And also to a large extent, the work that I have done has often come at an enormous hidden cost. A pursuit of justice and love and community and health has sometimes come with an inner hidden life of self-harm and abuse. My self-worth has at times been 100% connected to my work, and so I haven’t just wanted to be inspiring - I’ve HAD to be inspiring. If you believed I was anything less than brilliant, passionate, and insightful, my personal ego was completely derailed - leading me down a rabbit hole of self-harm.

In owning my truth, I own the fullest extent of this paradox: I am an intelligent, creative, thoughtful and inspiring community leader. And in the protection of that identity, I have been arrogant, dismissive, irrational, and judgmental.

I have been what a human is: inconsistent, despite believing I’m incredibly rational. And, in interest in self-preservation and protection, I have sometimes been inauthentic. Despite desperately wanting truth in my life, deception has been a coping mechanism. A tool to protect me from the loud inner-critic and shame in my head.

You have asked me how I’m doing and I’ve responded with “Great!” Full of smiles, small chat and conversation. Instead of owning the truth. That I’ve been lonely, scared, worried, broke, clueless and tired. That years of psychological underdevelopment, fear, trauma, and complete paralysis significantly wounded my psyche. That I’ll turn 35 this year and I feel sometimes like I’ve already experienced an entire lifetime of pain. That I’ve wanted someone to care for me, and in order to receive the love that I didn’t have for myself, I’ve faked it.

And in my Guy Montague journey, I have decided I want the truth. Honesty. Wholeness.

In pursuit of that wholeness, I making some pretty significant changes in my life. The largest and perhaps most fundamental is that I am stepping not down, but aside at Urban Roots. I have the privilege of working with an absolutely amazing team of people who carry forward the mission, the ideals, and a wholehearted pursuit of redemption and health in the world. These people, the board and staff make up the organization. For a few months this winter they kept things going in my absence of beginning this journey. Though you may recognize me as the leader of the organization - these individuals are the heart and soul of amazing work.

Though I’m not leaving Grand Rapids, I will be stepping out of the day-to-day operations of the organization. To make space for my own healing, my own journey, and the next chapter of living. I will also be stepping down as the Board Chair of the Urban Agriculture Committee, and will not be teaching as an adjunct anymore. I will generally avoid showing up to many things other than my honest self. Claiming that self - something I really haven’t done nearly ever in my life - means actually being me. For the first time. Ever.

If you ask me about urban farming, I’ll probably talk to you about my kids.

If you ask me about mission, I’ll tell you about long-boarding.

If you want me to talk about food, I will tell you about my deep love of bagels.

Not because I’m not proud of my work. I am proud of it. Really proud. And for the immediate future I will remain on staff, dedicated to supporting the staff and team because I believe in the work of Urban Roots more than I ever have. Collectively, I have the rare honor of working with staff, board members, volunteers and program participants that are pursuing health and justice at every level. From the humanity of our interactions to our care for the earth to education to reimagining the models of a non-profit, I am more proud of this organization and its people than I can put into words.

But the time of being synonymous with an organization has come to an end. It’s time for me to move on. I don’t know where my journey is leading. I’m been doing some writing, something I have recently begun to nurture and love. But I can’t tell you what is after that. I just know that this is the next right step. And in only being certain of the next right step, I’m trusting that process.

In this city, there are many really kind supportive caring people that I’ve been able to encounter.

Over the years, I have met many of you, people that are full of kindness and honesty and warmth and love. To the people who are supportive and human. Thank you. I won’t lay blame to the entire city for the anger that I have because I have created much of my own prison.

But, I have to say this Grand Rapids: we can do better than West Michigan nice.

While taking complete ownership of my own role in faking, lying, pretending, covering up, I have realized just how easy we make it to be dishonest. To pretend, and to deceive ourselves and one another.

And we can do better.

Not just the off-the-shelf sort of Facebook brand of vulnerability. But actually being honest with one another. Being honest with ourselves. Becoming fully human.

Nothing more and nothing less.

And in that regard, if at any time I ignored you, talked over you, dismissed you, interrupted you, minimized your humanity or your experience, or plowed over you in pursuit of my self-interest, I am sorry. Truly sorry.

Paradoxically, if my work or interaction with you has been encouraging, inspiring, educational or uplifting, I’m glad.

As a clarification, this letter isn’t a cry for help. In my recent healing journey, I have just a few humans with whom I have deep relationships. And other than those, I’m not looking for friends or colleagues. I’m not looking to have coffee or tea or to sit down or to share my story or to talk more. My e-mail will still be active for a select time, but in this transition, I will both support and encourage the board and staff; the individuals who will help curate this next step.

I’m very excited to announce that Leslie Yarhouse - my esteemed colleague - will be stepping in as Co-Executive Director. Leslie is intelligent, talented, capable and a force in Grand Rapids. She is a kind and supportive human being, and I am excited for her and the whole staff; they are going to do great things.

Secondly, my friend and colleague Wendy Hammond, will be replacing me as the Urban Roots Board President. Wendy not only has had an impressive career, but she is a kind and deep soul. Someone with whom I consider myself honored to call a friend. The Board of Urban Roots has never been stronger, and I trust not only Wendy’s ability to lead, but also to represent an organization that is dedicated to restoration, justice, and health. An organization willing to ask hard questions, challenge the status quo and be brave enough to take risks that open us up to the pursuit of restoration in a world that desperately needs it.

We are walking paradoxes - us humans. And while I don’t know exactly what this is about to look like, I know that unlike Guy Montague perhaps, this spiraling has given me a hope that I haven’t had - maybe ever. Despite all the hell in the world, I’ve never been more hopeful about humanity than I am right now. Spend just one day with the folks that I am lucky enough to call my colleagues, and you will too.

Finally, the only thing I can tell you that the unexpected fruit of this journey is both a book I recently finished and my TED talk. Just like this letter, I wrote it and said it for me, but at the right time it will come to fruition; I look forward to sharing it with you.

In the meantime, if you read this far, thank you for giving my thoughts your time.

Grace and Peace,