It Was a Blighted City Block. But This Woman Is Turning It Into a Solar-Powered Ecovillage

Detroit-area resident Shamayim Harris bought several properties and is now converting them into sustainable community spaces for education, wellness, and economic development.
Homework House

Shu’s son Chinyelu helps the construction team with the Homework House and volunteers as security at Avalon Village events. Photo by Zenobia Jeffries.

Shamayim Harris ran three times for city council in her hometown of Highland Park, Michigan. Each time the voters rejected her. “They didn’t want me,” she says, with a smile. But that didn’t stop her from fulfilling her plans to give Highland Park residents new opportunities, starting with her own block on Avalon Street.

The city of Highland Park is in the middle of the much larger city of Detroit, and could easily be mistaken for another of its neglected neighborhoods. Highland Park has been without a library for 14 years. Its high school was permanently closed by the state last year, leaving just one school, a K–8 program, within its borders. In 2011, utility company DTE Energy removed all the street lights; local and national headlines read some variation of “Highland Park goes dark: City removes lights to pay bills.” The city has struggled financially for over a decade, and was one of several financially challenged local units of government in Michigan where Gov. Rick Snyder took control of operational and fiscal duties away from local elected officials and gave it to appointed “emergency managers.”

These were the conditions Harris, widely known as “Mama Shu,” considered when tossing her hat in the political ring. Her desire, she says, wasn’t simply to be in office or hold any political titles. It was simply to “make things better” for the residents of Highland Park. “I’m looking at the conditions and wondering what can I do, intimately understanding what’s going on?” she says.

Her tone is reflective. But Shu, a business owner and ordained minister, is not resentful. The vision she had for the city over a decade ago is finally coming to fruition with Avalon Village, an ecologically sustainable project being built in four phases, beginning with a study center for local children. “We want what any community wants,” says Shu. “All these other cities have all these wonderful things. Why can’t we?”

With that spirit, and with the help of contributors from around the world, in May she raised over $240,000 days on Kickstarter. Prior to that campaign, the project received a $100,000 donation from the Big Sun Foundation, a nonprofit founded by members of the Grammy award-winning band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.

That seed money went to Moon Ministries, a nonprofit organization. Then Shu used it to purchase more than 10 properties on her block, including vacant lots and salvageable abandoned homes, and to start renovating Homework House, which she describes as a place where children will be able to get meals and help with schoolwork.

A totally redesigned 2,400-square-foot two-family home, Homework House will have a computer center and a lab for specialized help in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, as well as a recording studio and a commercial kitchen. In the yards outside, children will have three recreational courts to play basketball, tennis, and volleyball.

Moon Ministries is handling all the funds associated with the project for now, but Shu says she’s submitted the paperwork to make Avalon Village itself a 501(c)3 nonprofit. Once that’s approved, the resulting group will handle the costs of running the village over time.

The greening of Avalon Street began in 2014, with the installation of a solar street light in front of Shu’s home. The rest of the block will soon have more solar lights. Homework House will have geothermal heating and cooling, as well as a metal roof designed to save on cooling costs. The project received an $18,000 in-kind donation from Luma Resources, a company that manufactures shingle-style solar panels for rooftops.

Meanwhile, local contracting firm Ako Building Corporation volunteered to help with construction and design. 

The support for Avalon Village continues to roll in with big names like Ellen Degeneres, who on her show in September surprised Shu with a $100,000 prefab energy-efficient home from Cocoon 9. Shu points to the area where it’ll go as if it’s already there, adding that the space will be used for Avalon Village’s offices.

But before the big names and money started to come in, Shu depended on her friends and family and her weekly check from the charter school where she worked as an office administrator. It was this combination of funds that helped her to purchase her home for $3,000 in 2009.

“I didn’t have $3,000,” she says, “but I put it together.”

A former neighbor who asked that her last name not be used, Ashaki says her mother still lives on Avalon Street. She explains that her sister used to live in the lower unit of what is now Homework House. “It got really bad over the years,” she said. “It’s good what she’s doing.”

Ashaki and another neighbor, named Tyrone, who’s lived in the same house on Avalon for 50 years, remember the days when Highland Park was a vibrant community. “It was called the City of Trees,” says Tyrone. “You don’t see many trees now.” But he says that Shu is bringing life back to the block. “They keep the grass cut,” he says. “It’s looking good.”

A difficult journey

Mama Shu’s two-story brick home sits on the corner of Avalon Street and Woodward Avenue. It’s been a welcome center of sorts to Highland Park and Detroit residents for the seven years that she’s lived there—one of seven occupied homes amid blighted houses and vacant lots. The street’s bright colors, green grass, and activity today are all things she says she used to envision when driving past on her way to work. The houses appeared dilapidated, and mattresses, tires, toilets, bricks, and other discarded items filled the vacant lots. Her now warm and inviting home was boarded up and occupied by squatters.

“They kept it clean, though,” she says, laughing. The wood floors were still in good condition, but all the plumbing had been torn out. After she moved in, in 2009, callers kept coming by, expecting to find someone else there. She recalls performing a cleansing ceremony—with incense, oils, and sage—on the third night.

That time was the end of a long transition for Shu and her family. To see her infectious smile today and hear her laughter, one wouldn’t suspect the trauma she’s endured: In 2007, at only “two years, one month, and six days” old, her younger son, Jakobi Ra, was killed by a neighbor speeding down the street.

Shu and her then-husband were at work, and her boys—Jakobi and his older brother, Chinyelu, who was 10 at the time—were outside playing under their neighbors’ supervision. She tears up when talking about what happened. “They were walking across the street when my neighbor … turned the corner and blew the stop sign and … the impact just snatched Jakobi out of Chin’s hand.”

Shu recalls thinking that she wouldn’t make it. “My girlfriends and I would say things like, ‘I’d die if something happened to one of my children.’” But when she woke up the next day, after her son had passed, she said, “Damn, I didn’t die.” And today, she says, Jakobi is still with her. The Jakobi Ra Park, named in 2011 after Shu’s son, was the first venue of what eventually would become Avalon Village. And at the September ribbon-cutting ceremony for the project—held on the same day her son was killed nine years ago—a headstone was unveiled in his memory.

It’s his spirit, she says, and the energy and help of her family, friends, and all the project’s volunteers that help her to keep going.