Work, reimagined: Detroit gets creative
How residents of Detroit, America’s most famously down and out city, are building livelihoods that also rebuild their communities.
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When pieced together, these projects aren’t merely aimed at figuring out ways for people to make a living; they’re about neighbors helping neighbors to build new lives. The city is becoming a place, in certain pockets, where citizenship isn’t defined by voting and paying taxes. It’s thought of more broadly – creative collaboration to create new ways of living out of necessity.Skip to next paragraph
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Nearly seven years ago, Brother Ray Stadmeyer, a Capuchin monk, realized something had to change. He was working at a soup kitchen on the east side of Detroit. Over several years, he served thousands of meals and got to know hundreds of men and woman. And a lot of them were just stuck.
He remembers seeing his clients at the soup kitchen “go through treatment and come back real excited about their sobriety, or they’d come out of prison and be real excited about getting a new life, and there was no place for them. Our sense was that we had to counteract that.”
That idea became On the Rise, an east side Detroit bakery operated by a dozen men who have recently been released from prison or drug rehab programs. The bakers also live together in a house a half-mile from the bakery.
Sixty-two-year-old Edward Collins, a supervisor at On the Rise, was one of the original participants in the enterprise. He spent 30 years moving in and out of prison; while on the inside, learned how to bake. Today he trains the new hires. He wants to show them, he says, “that a person can be incarcerated, and can be old, and also be on the bottom of the barrel and be able to bounce back.... Hey, it’s not over.”
The formerly incarcerated, the homeless, the unemployed, the young, the recovering addicts, these are segments of society often deemed burdens, or hopeless, or victims. But looked at in a different way, many of these people also have the potential to be assets to their communities, with the ability, experience, and time to directly impact their neighborhoods in meaningful ways.
On the Rise isn’t an anomaly. The bakery was hatched by one of several organizations that see themselves not as charities, but as regenerative and sustainable incubators of ideas and human capital. The Sunday Dinner Company and Cornerstone Bistro – and more recently, COLORS-Detroit – have programs similar to On the Rise, training homeless and unemployed Detroiters to become waiters, cooks, bartenders, and bakers.
And, of course, beyond the institutional projects, countless individuals, like Gloria Lowe, are figuring out ways for Detroiters to re-think their role in their city.
Take Carlos Nielbock, for example. He was born in 1959 to a German mother and an African-American GI father in Celle, Germany. Trained in Germany’s guild system as an architectural, ornamental metal worker, Mr. Nielbock came to Detroit in 1984 to find his father and immediately fell in love with the city.
Today he builds ornate and beautiful, fences, gazebos, bike racks, and windmills. He’s teaching an apprentice, 23-year-old Sharay Kodihem, who never imagined spending his days as a metal worker.
Formerly into, as he puts it, “gang-bangin’ and all that,” Mr. Sharay met Carlos through his cousin; he’s since fallen in love with metal work, and has been welding, grinding, and riveting ever since. Sharay told me that he tries to talk to his friends about what he’s doing, but they’re just not interested. ”When I tell ‘em it sounds like it’s going in one ear out the other. They think selling drugs is the way to go and there’s more than that out here.”
Seeing opportunity in a new Detroit
The founders of the Boggs Educational Center – a Detroit school set to open its doors next fall – understand where Sharay Kodihem’s friends are coming from. They understand Detroit’s education issues run much deeper than budget deficits and the debate between public and charter schools.