ARISE Detroit! Neighborhood Rising Summit drew record crowds and renewed enthusiasm
Orlin Jones has spent decades volunteering for various groups focused on improving the quality of life in the city.
But one day two years ago, he tired of the wave of negativity he saw pushing through his beloved Conant Gardens neighborhood and decided he would take matters into his own hands.
Armed with a battery-operated drill, he punctured two tires of a vehicle driven by men illegally scrapping a house in the northeastside neighborhood.
“I called the police but got tired of waiting,” the 81-year-old Jones said. “After I took out their tires, they never came back.”
Jones shared his experience during the fourth annual ARISE Detroit! Neighborhoods Rising Summit on Nov. 2 at Wayne County Community College District’s Downtown District. The summit was co-sponsored by the Kresge Foundation and Detroit Future City.
Jones was one of more than 400 people who attended the summit, which offered a full day of 12 workshops on how residents could improve their neighborhoods.
While law enforcement officials advised summit participants not to improperly take matters into their own hands, they did support residents standing up for their neighborhoods.
“There is a sickness,” Detroit Police Chief James Craig told attendees. “We have a solution. The secret to all of this is your involvement, your engagement.”
This is no surprise to ARISE Detroit! executive director Luther Keith. He said his organization works to bring people together to make the city a better place. But none of the efforts will work without community involvement, he emphasized.
That is why the summit is important, he said. It shows Detroiters and city boosters are not taking the city’s problems laying down.
“I want people to see this side of Detroit,” he said as hundreds of attendees filed into workshops on topics such as recycling, public safety, entrepreneurship and forming community groups.
Participants, many of whom have volunteered for 20 years or more, learned strategies, exchanged contact information and found ways to apply for grants. Workshops were held on urban farming and farmers markets, youth employment and youth development, environment and recycling, community arts, obtaining grants, fighting blight and doing neighborhood renovation projects.
“They work so hard and suffer so much,” Keith said of city residents and activists. “I want to help them to be recognized and get help.”
One of those activists was Toni McIlwain, who has spent the past 30 years fighting for improvements in her Ravendale community on the city’s east side. But this month she is retiring and closing a community center she helped operate for people in her neighborhood.
Mcllwain, who moderated the panel on neighborhood organizing at the summit, said she hopes someone can step in to keep Ravendale alive, but no potential successor has come forward.
“You have to have the will and you have to have the inner strength. Grassroots is about reaching out,” she said.
For the past seven years, ARISE Detroit! has organized Neighborhoods Day the first Saturday of every August, drawing thousands of volunteers for various community service projects across the city. Keith, a former award-winning journalist, said his organization was established to help people like Mcllwain.
“These people are passionate,” Keith said. “They just want some help. They just want some solutions.”
Those solutions will not come from outside the city, said Dan Pitera of the Detroit Design Center and a leader with Detroit Future City, a massive effort aimed at reimagining Detroit. He said similar efforts in other cities can be guides but not templates.
“Detroit is a unique place now,” Pitera told the audience. “Every neighborhood makes this uniqueness.”
And some of those neighborhoods need people to step up even when it is not convenient, said John George, founder of Motor City Blight Busters on the city’s northwest side.
“Allowing children to grow up around negative energy is child abuse,” George said at the event, echoing a current refrain when he publicly speaks. “If the city isn’t going to take care of it, I would.”
For 25 years, Blight Busters has knocked down abandoned buildings, cleared debris-covered lots and worked to make his area a bright spot.
“The media loves to beat up on Detroit,” George said. “We have put the focus on the positive in the Detroit.”
Elizabeth Valdez, a founder of Detroit Southwest Pride, attended the summit for tips and to support her daughter, Nyasia, who was a panelist for a session on community arts. She would like to see the summit evolve into numerous neighborhood-specific offerings.
“Something like this needs to be done in our community,” she said. “People really want to step up. If they have the information and the tools they need, we can move the city forward.”
Alease Cookie Moore, an activist form the city’s Cornerstone Village area on Detroit’s east side, said the summit had her feeling more positive about community work.
“I’m ready to go,” she said. “I’m ready to do this. It makes me feel good about Detroit. It makes me feel there is help.”
Keith said the summit reinforces in his mind that residents have the desire to improve their communities.
“It is a great thing to see the hunger,” he said. “These people are serious.”
Editor’s Note: Funded by the Kresge Foundation, ARISE Detroit! is a non-profit community coalition of more than 400 organizations, promoting volunteerism, community activism and positive media images to create a better Detroit. Santiago Esparza is a Southwest Detroit-based freelance writer.