by Leslie Ellis
“Working together, the ants eat the elephant.”
That African proverb set the tone at ARISE Detroit’s sixth annual Neighborhoods Rising Summit in early November at Wayne County Community College District’s downtown campus. More than 300 people came to network and learn about resources and funding opportunities that can help them improve their communities.
Speakers from ARISE Detroit!, The Kresge Foundation, Detroit Future City and Black Family Development kicked off the summit. It featured a slew of exhibitors, 50 panelists and 12 workshops on topics including entrepreneurship, overcoming job barriers, Detroit banks, partnerships for neighborhood change and more.
“(The summit) gives neighborhood groups the necessary tools they need to go back into their neighborhoods and make all kinds of improvements,” said Wendy Lewis Jackson, deputy director of The Kresge Foundation. “It’s the one place in the city where block clubs can come and talk to experts and access resources. It’s the one place that brings the neighborhood warriors together in one place to learn from each other as well as various programs that (support) their work.”
ARISE Detroit! Executive Director Luther Keith said he feels momentum building in the city.
“More people care about it. More people are getting involved,” he said. “All these announcements about grants, about resources, they weren’t available six years ago. Now, the funding is getting pushed down into the grass-roots groups.”
‘DREAMING ON A WHOLE OTHER LEVEL’
Kim Sherobbi of the Birwood Block Club Association said she was interested to learn that Detroit Future City is launching mini-grants to help residents transform vacant lots. The grants of up to $5,000 will be awarded in late February to help with preparation, technical assistance and execution of projects in the spring.
Sherobbi said her block club plans to transform a vacant lot that kids pass on the way to school. Turning it into a focal point of the neighborhood will tell passers-by that people there care, she said.
“I’m a big supporter of ARISE Detroit! I always meet new people (at the summit) and, actually, I always gain new ideas,” said Sherobbi, who also serves on the Boggs Center board. “For example, I sat next to a lady and we exchanged info. She said, you seem to know a lot of people. I said call me up! She was having trouble getting people to engage in the community.”
Karen Williams of the Bennett Street Block Club also had questions about how to engage her neighbors during the summit’s Neighborhood Organizing/Planning workshop.
What gives, she asked panelists? She and others have been knocking on doors and hosting get-togethers since the club formed in June. But, they wanted to have more impact. “You have folks following you. You have folks watching you. Folks are going to recognize a true leader,” panelist Prophet Cedric Banks from Heart of Jesus Church said. “(They) are going to come out.”
Panelist Vanessa Peake of the Urban Development Corporation offered context. “Sometimes people aren’t coming out because people’s spirits are broken,” she said. “You have to be patient.”
Over a lunch of buttered noodles and meatballs, in WCCC’s sunny atrium, Karen Williams reflected.
“We just need to be persistent. We’re doing the footwork, the legwork, the assessment,” she said. “I got a pat on my back and I learned to be diligent.”
First-time summit participant the Rev. Rita Monique Henderson of Empowering Through The Word Ministries said she came to see where she fits in. She hopes to create a community organization focused on faith, family and finances. Neighbors also have urged her to form a block club.
“I love the event,” she said. “I’ve had a wonderful time. I have a bunch of resources. “It (the summit) has me dreaming on a whole other level.”
OLD MEETS NEW
Laced throughout the summit were discussions of “Old Detroit” and “New Detroit.”
Panelists in the “Old Meets New” workshop addressed the issue head-on. There has been some controversy over how new comer Detroiters should interact with long-time residents.
“We are living in an interesting time in Detroit, with a lot of people moving into Detroit without understanding the history,” said Aaron Foley, author of “How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass.”
He cited the paving over Black Bottom, a mostly black neighborhood, to make way for urban renewal projects, including Lafayette Park, in the 1960s.
“People still have that in the back of their minds,” he said. “I don’t want to say history is repeating itself but echoes of the past are getting louder and louder.”
An audience member asked the panelists to address racial tensions.
“People are reluctant to talk about race – it’s too big,” responded Jordan Twardy, executive director of the Eight Mile Boulevard Association. Instead, start small, he suggested. Meet after hours over a beer or a coffee to create safe spaces for those conversations.
Panelist Carl Zerweck III of Rippling Hope said his faith-based blight-removal organization, many of whose volunteers are white out-of-towners, tackles race by creating opportunities for engagement.
“We deal with racial tension just by bringing them here and having them live in a safe place and be exposed to neighbors,” he said. “I’m more and more stunned by the number of people who come here and say, ‘We thought all this racial stuff was behind us.’ We try to create conversation and dialog.”
Policy also has a role to play, the panelists said.
“No matter how many buildings Dan Gilbert buys, that’s not going to close the education gap. That’s not going to close the poverty gap,” Foley said, in reference to the billionaire investor behind much of the “New Detroit” boom downtown.
Twardy suggested closing the gaps requires commitment from leaders throughout Metro Detroit.
“The subjective assumption of regional policies is there’s a line at Eight Mile: Keep blacks away from whites,” he said. “That’s a policy challenge.”
WORKING TOGETHER FOR CHANGE
While there were plenty of thorny problems to sort out, there was no shortage of inspiration during the Neighborhoods Rising Summit.
During her opening comments, keynote speaker Alice Thompson, CEO of Black Family Development, urged the audience to see vacant lots as opportunities instead of eyesores, redefining them as open space just waiting to be beautified.
“What do kids see on the way to school? Vacant space or open space? I’ve reframed that. Detroit is rich in land,” she said. “With open space, we can be creative.”
Thompson urged residents roll up their sleeves and to tap into the Detroit Future City framework and field guide to working with lots.
“You can purchase the vacant lot next to your house and transform vacant space into vibrant open space,” she said.
Thompson laid out a series of steps to help residents get started. Among her suggestions:
- Form a block club.
- Frame a vision for the community and get consensus.
- Develop an action plan with a timeline.
- Develop a community revitalization co-op. For example, if Miss Jones needs to have her grass cut, neighbors will do it for her, no questions asked.
- Engage all community residents, including youths. Keep knocking on the doors.
Thompson then shared with the audience the African proverb that motivates her: “Working together, the ants eat the elephant.”
“No matter how big the elephant is in your neighborhood, working together, you can conquer that,” she said. “Your block clubs have power. Your associations have power. Use your power!”
If you are interested in learning more check out these resources:
Michigan Community Resources http://mi-community.org/
Detroit Future City detroitfuturecity.com
Impact Detroit http://www.impact-detroit.org/
Detroit Future City detroitfuturecity.com
Kresge Innovative Projects: Detroit grants kresge.org
– Leslie Ellis is a metro Detroit freelancer