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.

Rebecca Cook/Reuters
Chrysler Transport worker James Theisen carries a 'Detroit Needs Jobs' sign as he joins a demonstration of about a dozen workers demanding jobs in front of Cobo Center in Detroit Jan. 8, 2012.

For nearly a decade, Gloria Lowe was a final-line inspector for Ford Motor Company, checking new Mustangs as they rolled off an assembly line in Dearborn, Mich. She worked at the River Rouge Complex, a hulking, mile-long structure that, back in the 1930s, employed as many as 100,000 people.

By the time Gloria started working there, just a fraction of the workers remained. (Since the year 2000, metropolitan Detroit has lost about 200,000 manufacturing jobs, despite experiencing a slight gain since 2009.)

Then one day, in 1999, Gloria was on her way back into the plant after parking yet another Mustang when an automated, two-thousand pound metal door came loose and crashed down on her head. She was diagnosed with left-side nerve damage from the top of her brain down through her feet, and later, with PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder.

“What image do you have in your mind about Detroit? Do you see only empty lots and abandoned buildings, and trash all over the place? Or do you see the empty lots as we who live there see them – as opportunities?"

“I was told by my doctors that I would never work again. I was only 50 years old. I didn’t know what it meant not to work,” Gloria recalls.

She was able to find a part-time job at a law firm, helping military veterans apply for aid and benefits. During those consultations, she listened to the stories of dozens of veterans, most of them men, who “were lost and didn’t know what to do,” says Gloria.

So she started asking herself what she could do to help. Over and over, Gloria asked them, “What kinds of skills do you have?” More often than not, they’d tell her they used to be carpenters in their former lives, or woodworkers, roofers, plumbers, electricians.

When she heard this, Gloria began looking at Detroit with new eyes. These men, she thought, were like the more than 33,000 vacant, sometimes blighted, homes in her city. They have good foundations; they just needed some fixing up. And maybe they could help each other.

And so began We Want Green Too, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to “re-educate, re-train, and re-build a 21st century, sustainable Detroit.” Gloria is working to assemble various teams with all the basic skills to make crumbling homes liveable: dry walling, painting, floor repair, and so on.

In addition to veterans, she’s finding craftsmen among former prison inmates, recovering addicts, and other un- or underemployed Detroiters.

“You have people who are challenged, they don’t have jobs. Why not make their jobs re-structuring their own communities?” says Gloria.

Hey, it’s not over'

We Want Green Too is just one of many ways that Detroiters are working to take their city’s future into their own hands – to create livelihoods more sustainable than those that have disappeared. As Gloria continues to work on the housing end, her friends and neighbors are busy growing a local, sustainable food system (there are now over 1,600 farms and gardens in Detroit, producing over three tons of food annually, nurturing a new education paradigm, and creating social enterprises that build community and capital). 

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.

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.

“Today we need to combine learning with work, political struggle, community service, and even play.” Those words, painted across the center of a mural on the back of an empty building in Detroit’s Cass Corridor, come from the school’s namesake, 96-year-old philosopher, writer, and activist Grace Lee Boggs.

Two years ago (in the pages of YES! Magazine), Julia Putnam, who will be the Boggs Educational Center’s first principal, wrote of the new school: “We will provide a response to Grace’s observation that ‘the reason why so many young people drop out from inner-city schools is because they are voting with their feet against an educational system that sorts, tracks, tests, and rejects or certifies them like products of a factory. They are crying out for another kind of education that gives them opportunities to exercise their creative energies because it values them as whole human beings.’”

Julia and her partners want to convey to their students that they don't have to wait until they’re older to contribute to society.

“You can do it right now, at six, at eight, at 10, at 12, whatever. I think kids are way more impressive and way more cool, and way more fun to be around, when they feel of use,” she told me.

The big difference between most other schools and the Boggs Educational paradigm is that theirs is not a standards-based education model. Their objective isn’t necessarily to prepare students for the global workforce. It’s much deeper, and likely more practical.

“I wouldn't say that I'm not worried about jobs in that I don't think people need them, and need to make a living. I certainly want every student that we have in our school to be a success. But for some students that means starting a plumbing business. It doesn't mean being a lawyer or doctor or engineer. It means doing something very specific, very local,” Julia said.

Speaking at a recent panel, Boggs asked her audience, “What image do you have in your mind about Detroit? Do you see only empty lots and abandoned buildings, and trash all over the place? Or do you see the empty lots as we who live there see them – as opportunities? To grow food for the community, to become more self-reliant, to begin anew, to bring the neighbor back into the ‘hood?”

And therein lies the possible future for Detroit, a place where people are undergoing, slowly but deliberately, a revolution of values: reimagining the meanings of work, of wealth, of community. It’s cultural evolution – or, as Boggs titles it in her most recent book, the next American revolution.

• Zak Rosen wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Zak is an independent public radio producer. This story was based on his recent documentary, Work in Progress. You can listen to it here.

This article originally appeared in YES! Magazine.

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