By Sharon Grigsby
Bonton Farms’ Daron Babcock, long the face of this South Dallas oasis of decent jobs and healthy food, has figured it out: If you want to get stuff done, put a woman in charge.
Daron isn’t leaving. But for the first time in the history of the life-saving operation that sits where Bexar Street dead-ends into a Trinity River levee, he has made space for a formidable partner.
“This is a freeing of Bonton Farms to allow it to become something much more than it could be with just me,” Daron said as he introduced me to the nonprofit’s first-ever president, Gabrielle “Gabe” Madison.
Gabe’s résumé is the kind that Fortune 500 bosses drool over. Most recently the director of community relations for software development giant Thomson Reuters, her name shows up on a variety of local “most powerful business leaders” lists.
But more revealing than the Frisco businesswoman’s credentials was what happened Sept. 1, Gabe’s first day on the job at Bonton Farms.
Going into the busy Labor Day weekend, sickness struck the coffeehouse staff and it was all hands on deck.
Gabe doesn’t drink coffee. She doesn’t even understand coffee. But there she was, top-dog-turned-barista slinging one iced honey butter latte after another.
Nearly everyone Gabe served took time to share why this place is so important to them — and in their comments she heard the same themes that drew her here.
“They just wanted to hear more and more and more about what we’re trying to do for people’s lives here,” Gabe told me as we sat in the coffeehouse a few days later.
Most of us first visited Bonton Farms to see the urban gardens, chickens and goats or to spend a few bucks in the market, café and coffeehouse. But what we learned after sticking around awhile is that its true aim is to disrupt inequitable systems by providing both the basics and entrepreneurial opportunities.
Gabe felt the healing aura when she led a dozen Thomson Reuters staffers in volunteer carpentry and gardening work at the nonprofit in 2017.
A devout faith guides Gabe as surely as it does the farm’s CEO. “I didn’t come here on my own and I don’t believe that Gabe came here on her own,” Daron said.
“No, God has been in this from the beginning,” she added.
Feeling the call to repeatedly return to lend a hand, Gabe saw in many of Bonton’s 5,000 residents the faces of family members and acquaintances from her childhood in the Piney Woods of tiny Pollok, Texas.
Her parents divorced when she was young, so her mother mostly had to make ends meet for Gabe and her brother on a teacher’s salary.
An education at Baylor University was Gabe’s ticket out of East Texas, but other members of her extended family didn’t escape poverty and racism.
“I was running from the challenges that I had to deal with because of my skin color and I was running from poverty,” she said.
But she also was running toward the words her grandfather instilled in her: “Always go do more.”
Bonton Farms, where she saw entire lives being changed, seemed like a one-of-a-kind place to live up to her grandfather’s words.
As Gabe moved from volunteer to board member and eventually board chair, Daron developed a deep trust in her. He was certain she was the partner he needed who could execute ideas and see every detail to allow the nonprofit to live up to its aspirations.
Gabe wasn’t so sure. “We saw how well we worked together, but for the longest time I wasn’t brave enough to break those golden handcuffs of the corporate world,” she said.
Her reluctance began to soften when the two worked last year on the Bonton Farms Act, which helps former inmates wipe fines from their records upon release so they don’t leave jail burdened with debt.
“That’s when things started opening up even more,” Gabe recalled. “I saw there was a way for me to serve in a different way.”
Many people pushed hard against Gabe’s decision to leave her corporate climb. Some argued that an executive-level job within a company like Thomson Reuters would allow her to best support Bonton Farms.
One comment in particular — “your compensation is really what they need” — sticks with Gabe. “Yes, we do need funds in nonprofit work,” she said. “But we need love, community. No amount of money builds relationships.”
As a Black woman, she also understands that communities like Bonton need “someone who looks like them leading. That’s huge.”
Representative leadership — reflective of the community that the nonprofit is trying to serve — is at the core of this transition from Bonton Farms as “Daron’s project” to the nonprofit as “Gabe and Daron’s project.”
So why does Gabe, with her drive for lifting up people from generational cycles of oppression and neglect, live in Frisco? A devastating tragedy, one that coincided with Gabe’s first volunteer work at Bonton Farms, led her to move there.
Not long after she and her husband brought home their two newly adopted children, he suffered a heart attack and died as the family was getting ready for church.
“We had only been a family for five months,” she recalled. “Now I have a 5- and a 2-year-old and what do I do?”
She badly needed a support system and because most of the people she could count on lived in that part of North Texas, she feels blessed to now call Frisco home.
The long commute gives her time to prioritize the myriad projects underway at Bonton Farms.
Sewer and water soon will be hooked up for the first of the tiny houses coming on line. A bike repair operation will be set up nearby. Around the corner is the temporary space for “Pie’s Barbeque and Blues Joint,” where Gary “Pie” Payne sells mouth-watering pecan-smoked meat every weekend.
“That’s the least we can do for someone who has protected, advocated for and even fought for Bonton Farms,” Daron said. “If there’s an unsung hero, it’s Pie.”
Thanks to its $11 million-plus fundraising campaign this year, the nonprofit also expects to break ground in the first quarter of 2023 on a community health care and banking complex as well as construction of a 34-unit affordable apartment building.
Daron hopes that turning over much of the operation to Gabe will give him time to help the many communities that have reached out in recent years in hopes of developing their own version of this special urban garden.
“Bonton Farms started almost by accident, but it’s turned into something extraordinarily special,” he said. “People visit from all over the world to say ‘We desperately need this in our community.’ And it breaks my heart that we’re not positioned to help them.”
I left my morning with Gabe and Daron with hope — and a sense of relief — that Daron finally has a “let’s get it done and here’s how” partner for his chaotic kaleidoscope of visions.
Gabe knows she’s the right person for that job.
“It’s not an easy partnership because we are diametrically different,” she said. “But we have committed to each other that we’re going to fight together on this.”