Susan Newell’s been fighting the good fight.
A self-described “child of the ‘60’s,” an era when personal values often clashed with society’s agenda, the Three Mile Block Club president values few things more than her community. So it comes as little surprise to those who’ve known her that, even as a senior, Newell stays at the forefront of efforts to maintain and improve her east-side neighborhood.
But even though the retired nurse exudes youthful passion and energy, she’d love to see new blood joining her ranks. Newell is among the generation of Detroit block and community activists hoping to recruit younger residents to take the lead in building the city from within. Perhaps the greatest challenge, Newell and others say, is finding an able and willing pool of Detroiters younger than 40 who’ll take the baton and carry it with their peers for the next 10 years or longer.
“That’s something I’ve noticed in workshops I’ve been to,” Newell says. “Invariably, people lament the fact that young people are not getting involved. They say, ‘We can’t do this forever.’”
Sixty is the average age of about a dozen active members in her block club, which serves the Morningside community.
“There’s sort of a generational developmental stage going on here,” she says. “The older you get, the more you pay attention to your environment. All you have to do is look at a teenager’s room for evidence.”
Though it doesn’t specifically highlight neighborhood service, the Michigan Civic Health Index, an in-depth survey on volunteerism throughout the state, offers what might prove to be insightful research about trends among citizens in Detroit and beyond.
Published in 2012, the Index defines civic health as “how actively individuals engage in their communities” through uncompensated, direct involvement of various types.
“Volunteering by generation,” a section of the inaugural report, shows Michigan “baby boomers” (those born between 1946 and 1964) as the largest demographic – 58.3 percent – of those who volunteered 50 hours or more weekly in their communities, compared with 38.5 percent among “Generation X” (born 1965-1980). The study reported a percentage “too small for reliable reporting” among so-called “millennials” (born 1981-2004).
Michigan State University Ph.D. student Jay Meeks, 30, who studies urban education, says the miniscule showing by his generation might partly reflect long-held feelings of powerlessness in urban communities and a significant disconnection in leadership. A rare exception of neighborhood involvement among his peers, Meeks recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of his move to a renovated home in Detroit’s Marygrove College district.
“In terms of ripping and running, calling people on the phone (to plan meetings), it’s a lot of work, especially if you’ve spent 40 years of your life doing it already,” Meeks says.
He counts himself fortunate to have been groomed by two of the Marygrove Community Association’s elder members almost as soon as he joined the neighborhood.
One was Lenora Hall who mentored him to lead the Marygrove Community Association. She was one of the inaugural class members recognized in 2015 by Michigan Community Resources (MCR) in its “Power of One Dedicated Woman” awards ceremony. MCR encourages its honorees to pass the baton to dedicated young leaders.
“I learned from Mrs. Hall’s actions and words that the dream of a better place may take 48 years of work, but it is worth every bit of working toward making a new reality for Marygrove,” Meeks says.
Still, he also says poor government responses, even at the level of adding curb lighting or stop signs, can frustrate people of any age.
“From my own experience and as someone who has spent a lot of time dealing in bureaucracy – being in a school, working in a school, all sorts of layers of bureaucracy – government doesn’t always make it easy for people to get involved,” he says. “Sometimes systems can disempower people, and sometimes systems that are designed to help people leave them discouraged.”
Meeks, on the other hand, is undeterred by much of anything that threatens to obstruct his efforts to improve the Marygrove neighborhood. While he’s quick to give credit to his mentors in the association, in less than a year he’s helped the organization achieve non-profit status, aided recruitment of Marygrove College’s president as an association member, and contributed to an anti-blight marketing campaign, cleverly suggesting signs on mowed, vacant properties. “This lot has been given a haircut by Marygrove Community Association,” the signs read.
The youngest member of the organization, which has an average membership age of about 60, Meeks recently accepted a nomination to the executive board.
Luther Keith, founder of the ARISE Detroit! neighborhood and community organization network, says young leaders like Meeks might not be as rare as the average local resident thinks. All those who don’t see activists younger than 40 at work in Detroit need do is, look closely, he says.
“There’s no question that, by and large, the folks who run the block clubs are 50 and up, some a lot older. There’s no question that those are the core of community leaders,” he says.
Yet, he adds, “I sit at tables now where there are young people, there are older people, people of all generations, so you have to be careful not to over-generalize.”
“All of them may not have worked themselves up to leadership positions, but they are in the pipeline. They’re doing things, they’re volunteering.”
Even Keith’s daughter Erin, who’ll graduate from Georgetown University Law School in Washington, DC, this year, has plans to return and contribute her talents to Detroit, he says.
While the City of Detroit reports about 450 registered block clubs, Keith says it’s virtually “impossible to quantify” the representation of youth he sees actively involved with ARISE-affiliated programs. It helps to recruit young adults where they naturally gravitate, such as in entrepreneurship and the arts.
“We need to make sure these young, talented people find their way into the pipeline so the old folks who die out and tire out can have their (efforts) raised to another level,” he says.
Conversely, Keith says, younger Detroiters can do a better job of making their presence felt, and reaching out to neighborhood elders, who might assume apathy on the part of next-generation residents.
“You don’t get leadership positions by divine right,” says Keith.
He and Newell agree stage-of-life focus also plays a part in community interests since it’s common for active, professional neighborhood residents to be more interested in careers and income than the streets they travel daily between work and home.
Michigan Community Resources’ Shamyle Dobbs says young leaders, ages 5 to 35, must be trained and supported to assume leadership and membership in block clubs, community development corporations, non-profit organizations, local businesses, and civic associations that will improve their quality of life, schools and neighborhood.
New and emerging community leaders are encouraged to attend Michigan Community Resources’ Neighborhood Exchange Workshops and Quarterly Forums. The workshops aim to help members of block clubs and community-based nonprofits in Detroit enhance their skills in key organizational areas through presentations, peer networking and more. Quarterly Forums are an opportunity for groups to connect and share ideas and resources.
For more information, visit Michigan Community Resources.
Hoping to recruit an even younger corps of activists who’ll be trained in the ways of engagement, Newell and Three Mile Block Club have mapped out plans for a program to attract residents as young as 14.
Three Mile will train those as old as 24 to tend neighborhood lots and combat blight, in return for the club’s support in operating an independent lawn care business, including equipment and a bank account for the individual’s professional use. Newell says she’s working to find funds to launch the program, especially since blight removal often requires strong, able bodies.
Sadly, Newell says, many Detroit youth and young adults come from areas where blight is the norm.
“It’s something that becomes embedded in the culture of the neighborhood,” she says. “It’s what they’ve always seen.”
Meeks says a combined, multigenerational effort is required to attack blight and other common neighborhood issues, and elders can’t afford to completely disengage from dialogue.
“If they’re stepping away that’s fine,” he says. “But stepping away doesn’t mean going away.”
Apart from the gratification of maintaining their community, Meeks says his peers can find a “wealth of knowledge” and even camaraderie by engaging with elders, as he has with Marygrove’s seniors.
“I love them,” says Meeks, enthusiastically. “They’re my best friends.”
– Photo credit: Paul Engstrom