As befits someone whose name is pronounced "passion," Pashon Murray has done a lot of things, all of them interesting. Among other jobs, she's worked for an NBA team, lobbied for the Sierra Club and Repower America, and now is the owner and co-founder of composting business Detroit Dirt.
But the thing she's been getting the most attention for lately has nothing to do with any of those.
It's the Ford commercial. You know the one: a shot-by-shot sendup of a brashly capitalistic Cadillac ad that ran during the Winter Olympics earlier this year. Murray's ad, produced by Team Detroit, provided a more hands-on, socially engaged version of what success looks like, delivered with devastating confidence and style by Murray.
And the Internet went nuts – the ad had a million views after a week of launching. "I heard from people all around the world who wanted to be my Facebook friends, (like) teachers who shared the message with their students," she says. "That meant so much to me, because everything that I do is for the next generation. We're borrowing the Earth from them."
Lots of those fans didn’t know that the tall, gorgeous woman rocking Carhartts and a pantsuit with equal aplomb is not an actress or a model, but an entrepreneur working to create a more sustainable, less wasteful world right here in Detroit. Those Carhartts aren’t a costume, and when the cameras shut off, Murray went right back to doing her job.
That job is owner of Detroit Dirt, which takes food scraps from restaurants, corporate cafeterias, and even animal feces from the Detroit Zoo and composts it all into nutrient-rich dirt that makes plants grow like crazy, sometimes even where nothing would grow before.
The ad came about because of a relationship she had established when she and her fellow Detroit Dirt co-founder, Greg Willerer of Brother Nature Produce
, were starting the business back in 2011. Toby Barlow and his team at Team Detroit helped them get the brand established and the website launched; Murray has since taken over running Detroit Dirt by herself. Shortly after the Cadillac ad aired, the folks at Team Detroit called her to pitch the idea of a Ford ad that answered back with a vision of success that was "less about stuff," Murray says. "I was driving—getting compost, as usual," she says. "I knew I wanted to start a campaign around waste reduction, and Ford stood behind me."
Murray's connection to the earth – not to mention her familiarity with heavy equipment and hard work – started when she was just a little girl in Grand Rapids. Both her parents worked in the auto industry, and her father had a side business as a contractor, doing waste removal and plowing snow. He'd often take her along, and seeing trash end up in landfills started her thinking about sustainability at a young age.
She came to Detroit 10 years ago as a consultant on green building projects, and got the idea to start a recycling business. She met Willerer when she was working on a project and they got to talking about the need for compost among Detroit's burgeoning urban farming community. "The whole basis of Detroit Dirt is a closed loop model, where the community could benefit socially, economically and environmentally," she says. "We're forming a little ecosystem within the big ecosystem."
They collect food scraps from about 15 businesses altogether, including restaurants at the Renaissance Center and Blue Cross headquarters, as well as smaller clients like Brooklyn Street Local, Two James Distillery, and some of the local brewers.
Murray is also working with the Idea Lab at MIT to create soil blends optimized for different uses, such as growing flowers or container gardening. And she's also working with them to create a series of workshops for young people in Detroit schools around waste reduction. She'll be partnering with Detroit Public Schools later this year to supply compost to school gardens and educate students on waste reduction and sustainability.
Detroit is poised to become an important example of how former industrial cities can be reborn as vibrant, sustainable communities, she says. "Detroit is trying to recover from so many different things, and now we have an opportunity to diversify our economy. Sustainability can play a role in helping Detroit recover – some of the most industrial cities will be some of the greenest cities."
Murray intends to contribute to that growth by opening up another location on the East side and perhaps more around the city in the next few years, and with those create sustainable, good-paying jobs for people. Right now it's just her and a few volunteers, which fits with her community-minded ethos.
"So many people are doing awesome things throughout Detroit, and more support is going to come when people of like minds are coming together for the benefit of [the city]," she says. "There are so many people right here in Detroit who want to make a difference, and it's so simple to support one another and all work together to build a new economy [here]."
Photo by Doug Coombe.