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Work, Reimagined: Detroit Gets Creative




(Editor’s Note: This post by Zak Rosen first appeared on Yes Magazine.)


By Zak Rosen

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, Michigan. 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 3 tons of food annually, nurturing a new education paradigm, and creating social enterprises that build community and capital).

Detroit entrepreneurs are learning to rely on each other, finding the seeds of a new economy in resources discarded by corporate America.

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 7 years ago, Brother Ray Stadmeyer, a Capuchin monk, realized something had to change. He was working at a soup kitchen on the eastside 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 eastside 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, 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,” 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.”

(To read the rest of this article, please go to Yes Magazine.)

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