Living for Change :: A Way Out of No Way

Living in a city like Detroit isn’t easy. You are constantly being challenged to “make a way out of no way,” as Jimmy Boggs used to put it. And when you do, the results can be inspiring.
Grace Lee Boggs

That is how I feel about “In Our Own Backyard,” a new program to provide unemployed and underemployed Detroiters with 21st century job market survival skills, prepare them to start their own businesses, and also make a difference in their communities. It has been created by Linda Campbell, Building Movement; Lisa Oliver-King, Our Kitchen Table; Gwen Winston, The Wisdom Institute; and Lottie Spady, Free-D Media.

Over the last three years the four African American community activists have been collaborating on a variety of successful community projects, joint planning and project design, fund-raising, leadership development and advocacy. In the course of this collaboration they have come to know and trust one another. They have also spent endless hours talking about how Detroiters can no longer depend on factory or corporate jobs for our income and how the time has come for us to create enterprises that will enable us to take care of ourselves and also sustain our communities.

They started by looking at their own skills, which are in four key areas or tracks, relevant to the creative economy of the 21st century: Web and Graphic Design, Healthy Home Renovation and Restoration, Retail/ Resale Management, and Designer Arts & Crafts Production.

They then developed a process by which these skills could be passed on to others in a way that also increased participants' sense of civic engagement and commitment to neighborhood revitalization. They decided to call these participants “Urban Fellows.”

Their goal is to produce a transformational leadership development model that others can use because it is so transparent.

The process involves three classes, combining low tech and high tech, to develop not only skills but a sense of purpose and a sense of self that includes your neighbor.

For example, Urban Fellows on the Web and Graphic design learn the skills that empower communities to make their own media and advocate for themselves by creating websites and community newsletters that tell social justice stories, increase public awareness, help young people tackle different issues.

The nineteen people who came to the first class were given an assignment to go into their own communities and identify housing developments, urban gardening, retail stores. tech centers. At the second session, a month later, these findings were placed on a large map. After the three sessions the group will go on a retreat where they will talk about coops.

“In Our Own Backyard” is a program that can best be described as “womanist,” the word that Alice Walker came up with some years ago to distinguish the holistic approach of black women from the “feminism” of Women's Lib. As Lottie Spady explained at the first session:

“Everyone comes to the table to learn with and from each other. We analyze community strengths and weakness through asset mapping and, most importantly, by performing a root cause analysis of why these disparities exist in the first place. Once we see the sameness or similarities of our struggles, once we can relate to and identify with one another's pain, we no longer can distinguish between the seams of your block, my block, west side, east side, Highland Park, Hamtramck, my problems, their problems

“There are no more relieved sighs when we hear of the daily tragedy, glad that it wasn't me or my house, my family, because it is ours. As long as it exists, it is ours. From this foundation we begin our collective visioning.

“We decide as a group the best plan of action to address community concerns through a cooperative entrepreneurial model designed to reflect the interests of the participants. By tapping into the already present gifts, passions and interests of the participants we begin to create relevant economic opportunities that exist beyond factory closings, corporate downsizing and globalization.”

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