On a drizzly Sunday afternoon in Olympia, Wash,, two young women sit in a basement and open mail, reading and sorting under a 40-watt light bulb. They're surrounded by brown paper parcels stacked on chairs and a table.
One letter reads: "I wouldn't mind a book on creative writing or books with photos of birds, flowers, and natural colors that have been absent from my life for many years."
One of the women scours the basement shelves for a nature book to send this inmate in a Texas prison.
The two are part of Books to Prisoners, a group that sends free reading material to inmates across the United States, operating on the slimmest of shoestrings but with a dogged determination.
RECOMMENDED: When prison doors swing open
Organized in Olympia in 1996, Books to Prisoners is motivated by a desire to show solidarity with prisoners. The organization believes that conditions in prisons can further dehumanize the people who are held there.
The letters they receive, some written on small scraps of paper and many written months before, are a window into the lives of prisoners.
A California inmate requests any self-help and educational books that are available. He has abundant time, and he needs to use it wisely, he says.
“My devaluing of the importance of education was a major factor leading to the damage I caused my victims …” he writes.
Another says: “If you have any survivor memoirs that would be cool, especially survivors from German concentration camps or Russian gulags.” He likes to compare himself to them and feel fortunate in comparison. He signs off: “Peace and chocolate.”
Prisoners most often request dictionaries, African American history and fiction, books on native American studies, legal publications, GED study guides, and books in Spanish. They also request general fiction, politics, and art.
Books to Prisoners volunteer Tina Echeverria says her desire to help was shaped by family experiences.
Her younger brother was a Vietnam War draft resister who narrowly avoided prison. Her two daughters spent a night in jail after taking part in a protest against the Iraq war. Her uncle in Guatemala was imprisoned after his son, who lived with him, committed a crime and he was considered an accomplice. Her grandfather owned a gas station in California and was murdered in a robbery. His killer was never caught.
Ms. Echeverria understands that many people, including her friends, don’t have the same level of empathy for prisoners as she does.
“I think the majority of the general population believes that people who are in prison deserve to be there,” she says. “I do think there are individuals who are unsafe to be around other people and need to be in some kind of institution where they can get help. But a lot of people are in prison just for trying to make it with the only resources available to them.”
The organization’s needs are basic (rent, postage, book donations, some volunteers), and its structure is simple. It has the feel of operating in a back avenue of society with a minimum of resources – much like the prisoners it serves.
Olympia Books to Prisoners pays $50 a month to rent its basement in a residential area. It has a steady flow of used books dropped off at two donation bins.
Many volunteers are students or graduates of Evergreen State College in Olympia. They come on Sunday afternoons and Monday nights to maintain the “library” by sorting and shelving. Others open letters and roam the basement to find any book that might resemble an inmate’s request. Up to five pounds of used paperbacks – a weight dictated by postage rates – are wrapped and sent to each inmate. This usually translates into four to six books.
The organization is a nonhierarchical collective that makes decisions through consensus. It doesn’t believe in presidents, CEOs, bosses or anyone having more authority than others.
Members think this model is part of the group’s longevity. As volunteers come and go, the current ones have the power to decide together how things should be done. They say this has allowed Books to Prisoners to adapt to the waxing and waning of volunteer muscle, financial stability, and other conditions. Currently, half of the volunteers are key holders with the ability to unlock the basement and host volunteer shifts. They have more responsibility, but not more authority. Only the owner of the house, who gets to vet the key holders, has a larger say.
A number of groups across the country send books to prisoners, but the Olympia and Portland organization are among a handful that have a nontraditional structure. The Seattle parent organization is larger, more formally organized, and more active in fundraising. It was founded by Left Bank Books in 1973.
One volunteer came to Olympia Books to Prisoners after spending five years in prison. The books she received there meant everything to her. “It's survival. It's a way of learning and furthering your mind and going to places you can't go because you are behind bars,” she says.
RECOMMENDED: When prison doors swing open
She prefers not to give her name because of her incarceration, but she says communication with people outside prison makes an enormous difference.
”To get a few words from a stranger and know that they're rooting for you is something that reminds you that you are a person and that there is this larger world you belong in, that not everything is closed off by the prison gate.”
While still in prison, she vowed to join Books to Prisoners upon her release.
“There are days that are so hard. You miss your life, your lover, your cat. You miss lots of things for years on end. Then one day you get this piece of mail or this book you were hoping to read, and it changes everything.”
“We just met at church.”
She didn’t know it at the time, but when Mary Gispert met Father James Okello of the Archdiocese of Gulu, Uganda, during his visit to her home parish in 2012, her life was going to change.
While she had met and spoken with several missionary priests who had visited her parish in the past, something about Father Okello’s message resonated with her.
“The way he presented the story just triggered a soft spot in my heart for the people there,” Ms. Gispert says.
Father Okello shared the story of his parishioners, the people of Gulu, Uganda – who are slowly recovering from a more than 20-year war with the Lord’s Resistance Army. In spite of the overwhelming issues facing his congregation, Father Okello was determined to achieve his goal – the building of a new pre-school for children in Gulu.
The stay-at-home mother soon wound up adopting that as her goal as well.
“Give it up for Gulu” began as a simple fundraiser she launched with the Roman Catholic school attached to her home parish, a project during Lent that encouraged students to donate the change they might otherwise spend on snacks or other things to the cause of building a school for their counterparts in Uganda.
The effort raised roughly $2,500, and it got Gispert thinking about doing more for the cause.
“That was just awesome,” she says. “It gave that little kick start. I was just really drawn to figure out ways to do this.”
She continued her efforts with a restaurant fundraiser, in which a portion of the proceeds from each check went to the cause.
And through collaboration with others, a “buy a brick” fundraiser began, through which folks seeking to support the building of the school could make a donation to essentially sponsor one of the bricks that would go into the structure – an effort that raised some $11,000 in donations.
Throughout more than a year of fundraising efforts, Gispert communicated regularly with Father Okello via email, keeping herself apprised of the building process and eventually accepting his invitation to visit the site.
Her two-week trip to Gulu this past May allowed her to witness the initial stages of building what is to be named St. Catherine’s Nursery School – honoring the namesake of Gispert’s home parish in Delaware.
She recalled Father Okello driving down the road when he suddenly turned onto a tract of grass, finally parking near what, at the time, was just the foundation of the school.
“I was sort of like in a cloud,” says Gispert when describing the moments when she first saw the property. “It was a good experience – I instantly felt right at home.”
By the time she left, the building had begun to show signs of progress. And today, the roof is on the schoolhouse and restroom facilities are under construction.
Through the generosity of many people, the effort has raised nearly the needed $35,000 estimated to construct the school – which includes two classrooms with furniture, as well as a pair of offices for teachers.
“It is a very simple school,” she says. “It is nothing like anything here.”
As the construction process winds down, Gispert says, it is easy to envision the school as it will be when it opens its doors to the children, who will range in age from three to seven.
“What I am picturing is this little school in an area that has been hard hit,” she says. “These little children … would be able to go to school and get a start on their education.”
Gispert recalls a powerful moment she shared with Father Okello during his visit, when she volunteered to show him around the area and take him to the University of Delaware, where her daughters attend classes.
“He had never been out of Uganda before, so this was a big trip for him,” she says.
It was when they passed a pet day-care center that Gispert was struck by just how different their worlds were.
“I actually felt embarrassed of what we have; we have so much,” she says. Her community had a care facility for household pets, while his parishioners could barely afford to eat. “That is when I came to the realization of how different our two worlds really were.”
She continues, “I just had this passion that I was going to see that he got this school. I really wanted to see what I could do to help him.”
While the project to build the school is nearing its fund-raising goal, Gispert envisions future efforts that would help construct a playground, and even allow the sponsoring of students, helping to cover their school fees.
• For more information or to provide support, visit www.giveitupforgulu.com.
Helping those in need isn't a liberal or a conservative idea. It isn't Democratic or Republican.
It's simply American.
That's the message behind One America, a new initiative by Points of Light, which calls itself the world’s largest organization dedicated to volunteer service.
Americans "always seem to unite around one thing, and that is service to the community, service to others, helping people realize their full potential as humans," says Neil Bush, chairman of Points of Light.
Despite that tradition, a partisan divisiveness has created a kind of paralysis in Washington that "has become part of our culture," says Mr. Bush, who is the son of President George H.W. Bush and brother of President George W. Bush. "To counter that we believe that a campaign to highlight how we unify around service could be just the thing to move the country in a better, more constructive direction, where even people who have disparate interests find ways to work together."
The One America effort is taking on three issues: education, hunger, and protecting the environment. It began at an event in Columbus, Ohio, in July that was followed by Sept. 11-related activities in New York City last week. Future events will take place in Chicago, Miami, Houston, Atlanta, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C.
In Houston, Bush's hometown, "I'm hoping to be able to attract people of different political persuasions, different faith interests, and corporate interests, and have them all participate in a 'One America' launch," Bush said in a telephone interview last week. The aim will be a real "roll up your sleeves" effort, he says, not "just some Kumbaya moment where everyone gets together and talks about the importance of unifying around service."
In the 21st century Americans have rallied together to recover from sudden disasters, from the Sept. 11 attacks to the devastation left behind by hurricanes and tornadoes. But persistent, long-term disasters need attention too, Bush says.
"So long as we have communities where there are high rates of illiteracy, or there are high dropout rates, or where [there is] teenage pregnancy, where there are high levels of violence – I view them as persistent problems, problems that create an underclass," Bush says. There is a need for volunteer helpers, for one-on-one mentors, for group projects, "for volunteers to come in and serve in a way that gives everyone the potential to realize their God-given strength and live the fullest life," he says.
Points of Light was founded in the 1990s, inspired by a speech by President George H.W. Bush in which he commended the many Americans who became "points of light" by helping others. Since then, volunteerism has grown: There were 22 million to 23 million Americans doing volunteer work back then, Neil Bush says. Today there are more than 65 million.
Points of Light recently celebrated making its 5,000th award to outstanding volunteers at a White House ceremony attended by President Obama and President George H.W. Bush.
Neil Bush's daughter, Lauren Bush Lauren, is an example of a younger generation that's putting its own imprint on volunteering, he says. The "proud father" notes that she started an organization when she was a Princeton University student called FEED that has "caused over 60 million meals to be served in Africa" and 10 million meals in schools in the United States, Bush says.
Social media such as Facebook and Twitter are transforming the way people can volunteer. A friend can ask a friend online to join in a volunteer effort. People can quickly self-organize when a disaster strikes. Volunteers may even be able to see online how many slots to serve are left open or how others volunteers have rated this activity.
"There's a lot of work being done in [social media], and it's very exciting to me," Bush says.
A growing body of research suggests that volunteering is a "win win" activity that also benefits givers by making their lives happier and perhaps even longer. "People feel good serving others," he says.
And it's easy to start. "You just go. You roll up your sleeves and go," Bush says. "You're participating in an activity with friends. It's a joyful experience and kind of a part-social experience. But you're helping provide a benefit to the community."
• For more information, go to www.pointsoflight.org.
Nine out of 10 children give money to charity, according to a study released Sept. 12.
While some just give pennies, the efforts that parents and others are making to encourage giving show that charities would benefit by doing more to start early to nurture future generations of donors, says Debra Mesch, director of Indiana University’s Women’s Philanthropy Institute and one of the authors of the report.
Children whose parents talk to them about giving are 20 percent more likely to give than those whose parents don’t, she said, a finding that she says charities should let their supporters know.
“Parents today, especially women, are very interested in leaving a giving legacy,” says Ms. Mesch. “So charities should think about how they can involve more families in these kinds of discussions and in volunteering for an organization, or involving the children in the charity of the parents.”
The report, by the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University and the United Nations Foundation used data from a decades-long study of 903 American children from age 8 to 19. The children’s giving behavior was tracked during two 12-month periods, from 2002 to 2003 and from 2007 to 2008.
Among the findings:
- Giving rates among boys and girls were the same, but girls were much more likely to volunteer: Forty-nine percent of girls had given their time at least once, compared with 39 percent of boys.
- While children from households at all income levels gave, children from the most affluent households—those with $72,000 or more in income—were most likely to give. Sixty-one percent of kids in the highest-income homes gave in both years, compared with 56 percent in middle-income households and 44 percent in families that made less than $38,000.
• This article originally appeared on the website of The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
Working with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the organization analyzed satellite images taken over the past year of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and the site of a long-running battle between the government and rebel forces.
The study found hundreds of damaged or destroyed buildings, disproportionately in opposition-held neighborhoods, and a proliferation of roadblocks, with more than 1,000 visible in imagery from late May.
Earlier satellite projects focused on the Syrian cities of Homs and Hama and on documenting the growth of makeshift camps of displaced people near the Turkish border.
Satellite imagery allows the organization to gather critical data quickly and without putting witnesses or researchers in danger, says Scott Edwards, project manager for Amnesty’s Science for Human Rights project. He says the organization will continue to use multiple channels to collect information about abuses.
Satellite imagery of Syria shows damaged or destroyed buildings and a growing number of roadblocks and camps for displaced people.
“In many ways, Syria has become one very large crime scene,” he says. “Actors on the ground should be aware that there are satellites overhead and a wealth of video evidence emanating out of the country.”
Cell phones are transforming lives in places like sub-Saharan Africa, where they are crucial for advancing everything from education to medicine to commerce.
The problem? Many developing countries lack access to the electricity needed to charge mobile electronics. Over a billion people lack access to electricity worldwide, about 99 percent of whom live in the developing world.
Enter SolePower. Using a basic shoe insert, SolePower allows users to charge mobile electronics simply by walking. In capturing the kinetic energy of footsteps, SolePower’s shoe insert converts energy into electrical power that is stored in a battery for later use. The battery is then used to charge electronics like cell phones.
The device has the potential to be a game-changer in places like Kenya, where 84 percent of the population owns cell phones but only 14 percent has access to electricity.
The same applies to lights: energy poverty, as its termed. $10 billion is spent annually on kerosene-fueled lighting in developing nations, which is highly polluting, inefficient, and more costly than electric lighting, particularly when the electricity is generated from a footstep. SolePower wants to address both – the cellphone and the light bulb.
Matthew Stanton, co-founder of SolePower, says the biggest challenge his team faces is making the device as efficient and compact as possible. “There are only 20 watts in a step. So if you’re losing a few percentages in efficiency, you are drastically reducing the power output in the device.”
The cost of the insert will vary depending on location. In developed regions, SolePower expects to charge between $135 and $150 per insert. Targeting hikers and backpackers, it will focus on distributing to high-end outdoor retailers like REI.
In developing nations, the insert will likely sell for $35 to $50, which Stanton says is in line with similar solar solutions that have yielded substantial sales in areas like Kenya and sub-Saharan Africa.
“It’s hard to imagine there are that many people who don’t have electricity when you consider how important things like cell phones and lights are to being able to develop and innovate at all,” Hahna Alexander, co-founder of the Pittsburgh-based startup, reflects.
It may still be beyond the reach of consumers in these $2 a day markets; that will require SolePower to develop its consumer finance model further, perhaps adapting models of micro-payments and microfinance to make it within their reach.
In this video, Alexander and Stanton explain how they came up with the idea for the insert, and how they plan to use it to put a spring in the step, and a charge in the phone, of movers across the world.
• Monica Gray is a DC-based filmmaker and the Senior Video Correspondent at The Diplomatic Courier.
Salam, a 20-year-old from Jordan, wants to improve opportunities for Syrian refugees coming to her country. Arwa, 21, from Iraq, hopes to start an organization to help street children. And Jouan, 23, from Israel, plans to engage conflicting groups in her country in peaceful dialogue.
Coming from a region plagued by conflict and high unemployment, these students have big challenges ahead. But an intensive six-week classroom-based and experiential curriculum in Portland, Ore., this summer aimed to build job-related skills and promote civic engagement in their home communities.
The youths were among a group of 18 university students and recent graduates from 13 countries across the Middle East and North Africa who came to Portland State University (PSU) and the Mercy Corps Action Center to develop leadership skills and design community engagement projects they plan to put into action after returning home.
Developing the community-based projects was a catalyst for students’ thinking about how they might make lasting change in their communities, said Kendra Manton, education and operators officer at Mercy Corps.
What the students got here was a crash course in the process of how to think about an issue and transform it into an actual action.
The classes students took at PSU focused on conflict resolution, community leadership, democratic institutions, and participation. They used those components to develop projects that will address local and regional challenges.
This was the second year that Portland State, one of six US academic institutions to receive a $500,000 two-year grant from the US Department of State’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) Student Leaders Program, hosted student leaders.
Student leaders came to Portland from Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco, The Palestinian Territories, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen. Although they represented widely diverse countries spanning thousands of miles, their home communities face many similar challenges, especially around youth unemployment.
Youth unemployment has reached record levels across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, and young people aged 15 to 24 account for 40 percent to 60 percent of all unemployed people, according to Nemat Shafik of the International Monetary Fund. And, as evidenced by recent events, young, educated people who want to be employed and engaged are critical to the stability of the region.
The goal of the student leaders program is to arm a rising generation of leaders with a toolkit of leadership skills and a broad understanding of civil society in order to fuel change in their home communities and countries, according to the Department of State.
And for a region in such dire need of new and continuing opportunities, the program is one step toward the broader Department of State mission of empowering citizens to build more pluralistic, participatory, and prosperous societies.
Portland State’s partnership with Mercy Corps presented an innovative platform for leadership development and the potential for lasting economic impact among the participants and their communities.
“The students gained an understanding of program creation and implementation by taking an area of interest and brainstorming around what’s causing it to happen, and then developing a framework to address it through actionable steps,” Manton told Global Envision.
The experience provided a primer of additional life skills for the student leaders. “At Mercy Corps students were in a professional setting, which is different than a typical classroom,” Manton said.
We practiced a lot of tangible things that are essential in the workplace – communication skills, how to present a message, and other hard skills like managing the planning process – that are useful and applicable across all fields.
The student leaders said their experience ignited passion to have an impact in their home countries and communities, and spoke of their visions of how they can create change.
Salam hopes to work with youths and university professors in Jordan to provide technical training and networking opportunities to young refugees flowing in from Syria.
“The refugee population is full of formerly ambitious youths who are losing dreams and the ability to be engaged,” she said.
“The first step in making peace is a dialogue between both sides,” Jouan said. She envisions people throughout Israel coming together to work toward common, rather than divisive, future goals.
“This is a deeply impactful program for students, not only through the academic component, but also through the cross-cultural experiences within the group that potentially extends the mission of the program more than anything else,” Manton concluded.
Kevin Kecskes, professor of public administration and the MEPI-PSU program director, agreed.
“They have the opportunity to connect on a human level,” said Kecskes, who also taught the community leadership class. “Because of programs like this we have a way to learn about our common humanity.”
As students leaders returned to their home region, they took with them a better sense of what it means to work together, and new tools to mobilize teams of peers toward common goals.
And that could be one small step toward cooperation among emerging leaders and increased stability in a volatile region.
• Get more information about the MEPI program at Portland State University.
• Read about the US Department of State MEPI Student Leaders Program.
• Watch PSU-MEPI student video of their experiences in the US.
Splaying an an elfin hand atop the wooden table, Yorm Bopha says “Five hands wide. This is all the space we have to sleep, seven ladies, in a cell four meters by four meters [13 feet by 13 feet].”
Also present were three of her neighbors – women like Yorm Bopha – who live at the edge of Boeung Kak Lake in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. Actually, it's a former lake, as the waters have been replaced with a landfill on which a company called Shukaku – which is owned by senator from the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) – will build offices and apartments in partnership with a Chinese investor.
The case is probably the best known of the many land grabs that have made headlines in Cambodia in recent years.
Around the once-lively lakeside, many of the array of budget hotels and nice cafes are now boarded up, and a blue galvanized barrier rings the former lakeshore. More than 3,500 families have been evicted, pressured into taking insufficient compensation for their land in what is a prime location in Phnom Penh. Some residents have stayed and been granted land title, but others – around 90 families – have not.
At Boeung Kak, residents have turned into activists, but have run afoul of powerful and wealthy interests close to the government, leaving Yorm Bopha, listed by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience, at the sharp end of what is a widespread problem in Cambodia.
The Cambodian League for the Defence and Promotion of Human Rights released a study last year suggesting that “land grabbing has affected an estimated 400,000 Cambodians since 2003, helping to create a sizable under class of landless villagers with no means for self-sustenance.”
Yorm Bopha was accused of egging her brothers into attacking two men in August 2012, in what prosecutors alleged was a revenge attack after her car mirror was stolen. An analysis of the case by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) suggests that the prosecution produced little evidence to back its charges, prompting CCHR Director Ou Virak to conclude that the arrest was little more than “a creative way of putting someone in jail and intimidating the community.”
Yorm Bopha captured the public's attention while campaigning for the release of 13 women and two men – most of them her neighbors – who were jailed last year for protesting against evictions around the lake. She drew the attention of Cambodia's police, saying that before her arrest she “was on the blacklist” for her efforts on behalf of her neighbors, who are now free.
CCHR's Ou Virak told the Monitor that “once the 13 were released, they targeted her, but had to invent a new scheme.”
Now those neighbors are doing their bit for their jailed friend. Bo Chavy, one of the trio visiting her in jail, points out a bruise on her calf, the legacy of a confrontation with police two days previously, when around 150 of Yorm Bopha's friends marched through Phnom Penh to remind the public that the young woman had been in jail for a year – an injustice they feel should be righted.
A previous protest for Yorm Bopha's release, held in March, was forcibly dispersed, with police breaking several of Yorm Bopha's husband's teeth as well as knocking out an elderly neighbor.
Toward the end of the 45-minute chat with her visitors, Yorm Bopha disappears back to the cell area for a couple of minutes. Returning, she tips a small plastic bag onto the wooden table in the visitors area, revealing a half-dozen white knitted headbands.
“To wear tomorrow,” Yorm Bopha says to her friends, laughing that she didn't know how to knit before being jailed. “The white means peace, “ she explains.
The following day, Sept. 7, the three visitors attended a party rally in Phnom Penh, where the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) protested what they contend was a flawed election held July 28.
The CNRP says that more than 1 million Cambodians were denied the right to vote, and that an independent investigation into the alleged cheating should be held – though the CPP has ignored the CNRP, saying that it will govern based on the reduced majority it won July 28.
So have the land-grab protests and opposition party politics aligned? Have the Boeung Kak protesters given their full backing to Sam Rainsy, the opposition leader?
“I don't know about him, so much, but it would be better for Cambodia to have change,” says Yorm Bopha of Mr. Rainsy. She reminds her visitor that Prime Minister Hun Sen has been in office for almost three decades and has not done enough to halt land grabs, despite announcing a moratorium on concessions last year.
The national coverage of Detroit's recent bankruptcy filing reminds me of 1967, when rebellion erupted in the city after police raided an illegal after-hours bar. It was one of the worst of the riots that roiled the country during the 1960s in Watts, Newark, Chicago, and other places.
Detroit remains a major American city.
I was away at Boy Scout camp when it happened, and radio reports I heard there made me believe the entire city from Eight Mile Road to the Detroit River was burned to a cinder. When I returned, I expected to see horrible devastation everywhere—burnt ruins, smoke in the air, and armed military personnel on every corner.
What I found was exactly what I had left behind. The modest, well-kept houses still stood in neat rows. Lawns were still trimmed and green. This was several miles from the epicenter of violence, where 41 people were killed and lots of buildings burned. But it was a far cry from the total devastation I had gleaned from the media.
Since Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in July, I've been getting flashbacks of that experience. I hear about garbage piled up in the streets and blackout conditions with streetlights out, while the national news shows images of abandoned, dilapidated buildings and vacant lots. Few of these images have people in them. Much of this coverage sounds and looks like the networks just pulled out their canned footage and commentary on Detroit and slapped a bankruptcy headline on it. Based on what I've seen, one would think that nobody lives in Detroit but a handful of marginal folks and some gangsters busy killing each other.
But Detroit remains a major American city. According to the 2010 census, there are still 700,000 people living in Detroit, making Motown the most populous city in Michigan and in the top 20 nationally. We still eat, work, and shop like people everywhere. We get married, have babies, and die. We love, hate, laugh, cry, and hope like people everywhere. Most of us are not thugs and want great neighborhoods as much as anyone else.
The bottom line is that the coverage of the bankruptcy reinforces a tired old story. But the internal narrative of Detroit has already changed direction. There are plenty of positive major economic stories coming out of Detroit, starting with the federally bailed-out General Motors and Chrysler auto companies emerging from bankruptcy with improved sales and record profits, and continuing with the likes of the booming Midtown as a flagship community of the new Detroit.
The people of Detroit are certainly not bankrupt for resources or ideas. Here are six ways that they're helping to create a stronger Motor City.
1. The powerhouse riverfront
There is a reason that Detroit is where it is. Its French name, le détroit du Lac Érie (the Lake Erie strait), describes its geographic position on a river between Lakes Huron and Erie. It's such a convenient spot on the Great Lakes that it's almost unimaginable that the area would be abandoned as a transport center.
One of the reasons the auto industry grew up in Detroit is that the needed technical expertise and facilities were already here serving the commercial ships on the Great Lakes. Basically, gigantic liner engines were downsized to become car engines.
2. At the forefront of urban agriculture
Keep Growing Detroit's garden resource program supports more than 1,400 gardens, many of them organized as community projects. That's in addition to a few dozen market gardens and numerous uncounted home gardens in yards and adjacent lots. Meanwhile, groups like the Detroit Food Policy Council, the Eastern Market Corporation, and the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network have been developing produce markets to bring more fresh nutritious food to the public.
Recently, their work has received some official support. In 2012 Detroit Public Schools initiated a program to teach agriculture at 45 schools with the expectation that jobs growing, selling, processing, and preparing food will be strong options for future Detroiters. In February of 2013, the city council passed an Urban Agriculture Ordinance that gave the nod to the phenomenon and set some rules as to how it's going to be done.
In addition to feeding people better, community gardening has proved to be a powerful community organizing tool. Organizers in the Brightmoor and Penrose areas have leaned heavily on gardening as a pathway to get people involved in their neighborhoods. As communities become used to raising their own food, it's natural for people to look around to see what other problems they can solve. Urban gardeners know that decay becomes the compost that nurtures the future.
3. Making the city council accountable to the neighborhoods
In the past, Detroiters tended to vote for well-known names, such as Motown singer Martha Reeves, former television personality Charles Pugh, and Monica Conyers (the wife of long-time U.S. Representative John Conyers). Because city council elections were held on a citywide basis, candidates had no accountability to specific neighborhoods.
That way of doing things is over. In November, Detroiters will vote for city council members in seven districts (or wards) for the first time in nearly a century. This makes it possible for candidates to win based on their work at the neighborhood level; it will also be much cheaper to campaign in a district rather than across the entire city.
After a politically dysfunctional era in Detroit with an ensconced, ineffective, bickering, and even criminal council (Conyers was convicted of taking bribes), voters want better results. Citizens chose the new system because they expect more direct accountability for what's going on in their neighborhoods. And if they aren't happy with the performance of their councilperson, it will now be easier to unseat them in the next election.
4. The Boggs factor
The James and Grace Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership is a nonprofit organization that has been creating community leaders since being organized in 1995. Its do-what-you-can-with-what-you-have ethos has empowered Detroiters living at ground zero for deindustrialization to truly reimagine their possibilities. The Boggs Center is a place where people meet to engage in problem-solving discussion and imaginative ideas—not to receive marching orders from a leader.
Although 98-year-old philosopher-activist Grace Lee Boggs has a kind ear and an engaging personality, her true skill is helping others see that their power lies within themselves. After a lifetime working in leftist politics, Boggs and friends have redefined revolution as personal transformation to meet the needs of where you live—be that safety, hunger, education, or artistic expression.
For instance, Julia Putnam was the first volunteer for Detroit Summer, a Boggs-related program begun in 1993. She is now a lead administrator at the Boggs Educational Center, a charter school that opened its doors on Sept. 3. Another example is Ron Scott, director of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality and a Boggs Center board member. The Coalition had a hand in the lawsuit that brought U.S. Justice Department oversight of Detroit Police in a consent decree that started in 2003 and is still in effect. Scott is still active with the coalition and with efforts to mediate neighborhood disputes before they become violent through a program called Peace Zones for Life.
5. Grassroots urban renewal
One of the ongoing debates in Detroit has been about whether to focus on development downtown or in the neighborhoods farther from the city's center. Most of the major efforts to revitalize the city—the Renaissance Center, Hart Plaza, Campus Martius, Comerica Park—have been downtown. At the same time parks, recreation centers, neighborhood city halls, police stations, and other services in neighborhoods have steadily closed down.
But many Detroiters aren't waiting for the city government anymore. Among the efforts to create change from below are the Motor City Blight Busters, which started 23 years ago when insurance agent John George got fed up with the drug dealers operating out of a nearby abandoned house. One day he started boarding up the place. A few neighbors came out to help and a community group was born.
Since then, the Blight Busters have leveraged nearly 700,000 volunteer hours cleaning up, fixing up, establishing businesses, recycling building materials, and more. A recent ambitious project is to clear two full blocks to establish Farm City Detroit, an urban farm and community hub.
There are plenty of other efforts. One of them is the Lower East Side Action Plan, a community-based process focused on cleaning up and stabilizing neighborhoods, getting businesses to locate in clusters, fostering food-related development, and encouraging green infrastructure. Another, the world-famous Heidelberg Project, works to transform individuals and neighborhoods through art.
6. Regional cooperation
The wealthiest county in Michigan is Oakland County, right across Eight Mile Road from Detroit. Brooks Patterson, Oakland's county executive, has historically been a staunch defender of separation from Detroit. After the bankruptcy, he publicly discussed his concern that his area might receive a lowered bond rating due to Detroit's difficulties. If business is bad in Detroit, it's not helping things in nearby Oakland County.
However, even Patterson is beginning to soften his views as the reality of living with a burned-out hulk next door to your mansion sinks in. Plenty of others have already concluded that separation is not the answer, and hands are reaching across Eight Mile Road, long known as the divider between the city and suburbs.
The bankruptcy makes this kind of cooperation all the more important, so it's good to see these efforts multiplying. In the past decade regional cooperation has come together on funding the Detroit Zoological Park and the Detroit Institute of Arts, as well as on upgrading and running Cobo Center, a convention facility. The notion of turning the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department over to a regional authority is beginning to have an air of inevitability, as well as a regional transit system.
Detroit is a story in progress with many possible endings—which one comes to pass depends on the way the six trends discussed above play out.
It will be years, even decades, before the conclusion is known. Detroit burned down in 1805 and was rebuilt. Following the recession of 1893, it began taking off as the center of a worldwide auto industry. Detroit will rise again; it's a question of when.
If we do the right things, then it will be in the near decades. I contend that the pieces are already in place to make Detroit a modern, socially and economically diverse urban village sooner rather than later.
• Larry Gabriel wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media project that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Larry is a Detroit-based writer and musician. He is the former editor of Detroit's Metro Times and UAW Solidarity magazine, and was an editor and writer at the Detroit Free Press.
Have you ever wondered what happens to the barely touched bottle of shampoo left behind in a hotel room?
In Chicago, that perfectly usable product is likely to make its way to a homeless shelter or another nonprofit helping those in need, thanks to the efforts of Jud Kinnucan.
In 2009, Kinnucan founded Bin Donated, a nonprofit organization that seeks to link the excess inventories of city businesses – usable items that would otherwise be discarded – with the charities that can put such items to immediate use.
“I look at large companies, such as hotels and businesses, that have large amounts of the same thing they do not need,” says Mr. Kinnucan. Recently a company was going to throw away cases of unused paper so they wouldn’t have to move them to a new location. “Instead of throwing it away, they called me, and I went to pick it up,” he says.
Kinnucan networks with some 150 charities in Chicago, regularly soliciting their product and donation needs, and collecting items from businesses to fill those needs.
And he does so using repurposed 55-gallon bins – former candy syrup barrels that have been donated to the cause – that are placed in partner locations to collect goods.
Bins can be placed for long- or short-term periods, in locations ranging from dental offices to hotels, apartment buildings to sporting events, or private parties.
Common items collected include hygiene products – such as those gathered from hotels – as well as books, pet and baby supplies, school supplies, winter coats, and toys for the holiday season.
The goal is twofold – while saving usable items from making their way to landfills, Bin Donated works to serve organizations that help homeless and transient communities, programs focusing on education and literacy, schools, animal shelters, and American troops and their families, among others.
“I am really looking for anything and everything, and finding a different use for it,” Kinnucan says.
Partially used bottles of shampoo, or even sheets with a small tear, might be discarded in bulk by a hotel or another business, but they could also be redirected to someone in need.
Kinnucan had been working for a recruiting firm when he decided that he wanted a change.
“Frankly, I just wanted to do more with my life,” he says. “I enjoyed connecting people to new jobs because it changed their life, but I just didn’t feel like I was doing enough, and that I could do more.”
So he quit his job, and a few weeks later he hatched the concept behind Bin Donated.
The idea was in part inspired by his six-week stint in 2006 driving a van for a local food bank.
“I got to see different parts of Chicago, and how in need many people were in the city,” he says. “That, and just life experiences, just brought me to the point where I wanted to do something more.”
For two-and-a-half years, Kinnucan ran Bin Donated full time without taking a pay check. But his own economic situation has demanded that he return to work. So, although he works a job full time now, he operates Bin Donated in the evenings and on weekends.
And for the most part, he runs things on his own.
“It can get very big, very quickly if I wanted it to, but I don’t have the time or money to do it,” he admits, though he adds that the idea has already spurred action from others who have heard about it.
Those include a woman in Australia and a teenager in Indiana, two of many who have been inspired by his concept and are trying to start similar initiatives in their own communities.
“What I am doing is pretty basic,” he says, adding that anyone can do something similar if they have the time, dedication, and resources to do so.
To date, Kinnucan’s hard work has led to more than 150,000 pounds of in-kind donations, valued at over $1 million, being provided to Chicago-area charities.
“Everything is local,” he says. “If people look hard enough, there is need in someone’s back yard.”
One of the benefits of helping local charities, he says, is the immediacy of the help that the items yield.
While shipping items abroad or across the country delays distribution, driving a bin of hygiene products to a local shelter down the street allows for those items to be given to those in need even the same day.
“You don’t know how things you do for people affect them,” he says, “The thing is – do what you can do.”
• To learn more about or support Bin Donated, visit www.bindonated.org.