Thursday, June 5, 2008

A lot to catch up on...

The major projects right now:

Gardening with the kids
One of the neighbors on our street has offered up her enormous yard for a community garden. I met with some of the kids and we started to dig up a sizable plot and decided it would be named the "All Saints Kids Garden." So far, with the extreme assistance and generosity of the Greening of Detroit's Garden Resource program, we have planted:
  • Green leaf lettuce
  • Red leaf lettuce
  • Kale
  • Collard Greens
  • Green cabbage
  • Red Cabbage
  • Cayenne Peppers
  • JalapeƱo peppers
  • Watermelon
  • Sweet yellow peppers
  • Golden cherry tomatoes
  • Stripped German tomatoes
  • Pink Beauty tomatoes
  • Green Zebra tomatoes
  • Amish paste tomatoes
  • Italian parsley
  • Genovese basil
  • Zinnias
  • Marigolds
  • Calendula
We have been talking about the things we can make with what we grow (salsa, in particular), and having bbqs at the garden. The kids get really excited about it, and its been a lot of fun for me to escape the office for a few hours and dig in the dirt.

Lafayette Park
Our grand opening celebration for Lafayette Park in June 21! Part of getting ready for this is to organize clean-up, graffiti removal and flower planting before the big day. I have been working with this really excellent group called Detroit Synergy and they are helping provide some marketing and people power for what I have decided to call Love our Parks Day. Next steps include getting the neighbors excited and involved, getting the kids to help out, and figuring out how in the world I am going to organize the replanting of two entire parks.

Nuisance and Blight
I spent an afternoon last week driving around with one of the teen boys that comes to the center (I told him he had to be my bodyguard) to take pictures and document illegal dumping in alleys, dangerous vacant buildings, and other nuisance properties. I have spent the last couple of days writing letters to HUD, Detroit Buildings and Safety Engineering Dept and the Nuisance Abatement Task Force. In an ideal world, the HUD homes will be sold and moved into ASAP, BSED will tear down the dangerous and unsalvageable homes, and the Nuisance Abatement Task Force will take homeowners to court until they clean up their properties and make them livable again.

However, in the real world, what seems to be happening is HUD ignores us, the Task Force is too backed up, and the houses sit there until they are burned down. And then we hassle BSED until they demolish them. On the upside, however, one of those three houses on Cahalan that we had residents sign a petition about has been taken down in the last week, so that's definitely a positive for Cahalan street.

I think my day is pretty much spent now... I will definitely post some pictures of the garden soon!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Website Updates

So I spent a good week working on updating our website and the information on there about the park development.

Check out the Parks and Greenspace Development section and all my fancy pdf.s of the park projects.


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Cahalan Street

I realized its been almost a month since I posted anything about what's been going on, and the things I've been doing. Sometimes it feels like there is so much to say that I don't know where to start... and sometimes I feel like I am just moving along, going with the flow, filing the papers and going to the meetings and being the intern. But this morning I am here in the "office" (aka the choir loft of the old church in which we have built our neighborhood center) alone... I can hear the Head Start kids downstairs, singing their clean-up song, and occasionally the phone rings... but for the most part is is quiet. And sunny. It is a nice day today.

Saturday we planted trees on Cahalan street, about three blocks up from the center. The kids call Cahalan the "arson street" and there are at least 6 or 7 houses that have been set on fire and have just been sitting there for years...

But apparently the biggest offenders of this type of arson have either fire-bombed each other out of the neighborhood or have gone to jail... so the community is more or less jumping at the opportunity to revitalize and rebuild the neighborhood right now. So in coalition with a few other organizations, we are taking a sort of four-pronged approach to fixing up this street:
1) Bridging Communities, Inc. is developing "grandfamilies housing" which is tax-credit housing for senior citizens and/or grandparents raising children on the corner of Cahalan street and Mullane street, and broke ground on this development on Saturday after the tree planting
2) We are developing a park/playground across the street from BCI's development and will eventually turn ownership of the park over to them
3) Greening of Detroit organized the tree planting on Saturday, to plant trees that will grow very nicely with big canopies to create that street that feels like you are walking through a tunnel. This is meant to make people feel like their street is special and beautiful and encourage walking and biking.
4) With residents, petitions, and the Nuisance Abatement Task Force we are working to get those burned out homes torn down asap.

So the tree planting was actually a lot of fun and went really, really well. We sort of roped some of the kids who come to the center into helping out, and there is really no way we could have accomplished the task so well without them. I was so proud of all of them for being out there at 8:30 on a Saturday, and did not hear a single complaint from any of them.

And the whole process of planting trees, I think, was incredibly therapeutic for the kids, the neighborhood residents, as us at the center, as well. The way Ashley, the project director at Greening explains it, is that you get a certain feeling after you attend a community meeting... if you attend at all, you sit and listen to everyone air their complaints and express their frustrations with the city, other neighbors, everything. But after planting a flower or a tree with your neighbor, you get a different feeling. The involvement feels good, beautiful, productive. While we were planting we had several neighbors come outside and chat with us (on a relatively cold and dreary day) or pick up a shovel and help. Two homeowners did not even speak the same language as the volunteers they were helping, but of course the trees were planted anyway.

Anyway, I feel good about Saturday. And I feel good about Cahalan street. And part of me is overwhelmed by how much work and how much planning is going into just one street out of the thousands in Detroit that are equally burned and equally stripped of hope. But if I can allow myself to just live in this one happy accomplishment... then I feel like my mission is well on its way...

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A bit of a lull...

I guess there is not a whole lot to report this week at NCI. We've been trying to scrounge up some funding for our universally accessible park at the Weiss playlot. The Ronald McDonald House Charities is giving $31,000 for this beautiful rock climb feature that is easily accessible for kids of all levels and abilities. And we have some more coming from Skillman, Kresge, Greening of Detroit and the Community Foundation. All in all, we need to come up with about $85,000 more to actually make this happen. What gets difficult is that a lot of foundations and organizations like to see who else has pledged money so we need to get money to get more money. But it does look good for us that Ronald McDonald is supporting us, as well as the Community Foundation.

So yeah, that's what I am doing today... grant applications and more grant applications. I have to say it is exciting to work somewhere that actually has money coming in. At my last practicum, so much of my energy was spent soliciting people for money... private donations for political work. It is much more fun to write out to these big foundations everything that NCI has accomplished in the last 10 years and the tangible effects we have seen in the neighborhood. Not to mention that many, many, many organizations and foundations are seriously interested in investing in Detroit, especially Southwest Detroit. Its just nice not to be completely bogged down with all those "How in the world are we going to fund this??" questions.


Friday, March 7, 2008

The Helping Profession

So last night I was talking with a friend... someone entirely new to the idea that social work is more than just welfare case management and individual counseling. And he kept telling me he thought it was so amazing that I want to "help people." And it got me thinking about that whole concept... of helping people. I remember in one of my first real social work classes in college, with my favorite professor of all time, she asked us why we wanted to be social workers. But we were not allowed to say "I want to help people." And I don't at all remember what I said... probably something entirely different from what I think now. But I think back on this whole helping people thing... and I honestly just really don't like the way it sounds.

I think in my mind... social work and and "helping people" is not an option. It is not something that I have a choice about... it is my duty as a member of this human race. And I don't even necessarily think that what I am doing can best be described as helping people. *I think of it more as redesigning the structure of society so that people are allowed to succeed.* That's a good sentence... I like that.

And so this is where social workers hit that fundamental divide between the micro- and the macro- practice. I myself have been struggling with this divide since I began my work as a domestic violence counselor, through my grassroots political organizing, up to my hobnobbing with city officials to buy land and develop it. How do I, as a social worker, prioritize the "helping?" One the one hand, we have social workers who deal with immediate problems and crises and assist clients with making it through. I may have a woman sitting in front of me literally dying of poverty and violence. And on the other hand, we have social workers who are confronting the system as a whole and trying to make it more just, reasonable, and effective for success.

So I think the reason that I have ended up doing what I do and getting worked up about the things I do, is that I believe helping people function within an already diseased society is not creative of long-term social change. And seriously... are we all at the point where we can agree that social problems are not entirely caused by individual default? So really... how much are we empowering people just by teaching them to jump through the hoops of a society that devalues them anyway?

But, like I said before... at what point do I turn my back from people in immediate crisis? How is that being socially responsible or doing my part as a citizen of earth? Do I just leave that up to those "other" micropractice social workers?

Someday I will be able to end my blogs without a series of really intense questions... maybe someday I will actually have some answers...

Thursday, February 28, 2008


Today I went to a parent meeting at Harms Elementary School to talk about the adult education programs we do at NCI. Usually that kind of thing is absolutely Christine's bag, but she was busy writing a grant today and asked me to go for her. Besides we must be the only two white girls in south Detroit and everyone thinks we're the same person anyway.

At any rate, the gathering was so much fun. I watched four powerpoint presentations by fifth graders about Black history, and saw all the students of the month and met with many, many parents who wanted to know all about our English classes and computer classes and GED classes. And I was just so taken aback by the serious involvement of the parents. I can't explain how many times the discussion arises that public schools are failing because of the lack of parent involvement. And I am absolutely sure that is true and parental involvement in education is a huge factor in the youth development. However, after my experience at this rundown, poorest of the poor school in southwest Detroit, I don't think the argument can be made that parents aren't as involved as we expect them to be.

It takes a tremendous amount of work and humility to attend a meeting where the principal of your child's school does not speak your language. And none of the people there to tell you about all the services available to enrich your life (including the option of English classes!) can speak your language. And the police officers in your neighborhood cannot communicate with you and it all boils down to confusion and frantic hand gestures to try and explain crime and pain and abandonment. And really, if a school administrator or a police chief does not have the time or ability to learn a new language, how can we expect that from a single mother with four children who works two jobs and tries to attend GED classes?

Am I getting to preachy about this? Its an issue I struggle with every day for sure. Of course it would be better for my comfort level if everyone spoke English. And yes, I know, this is an English-speaking country and we can't expect to cater to every one here in America. But I'm the one that feels like a jerk when I walk into an auditorium and can't say more than "Hello" and "How are you" and "Your daughter is beautiful" to the people I am supposed to be reaching out to. Because I do not own this neighborhood or this city or this country, and these parents are honestly trying the best they can to succeed and provide for their children and help them to learn the things they themselves could not.

So, I am slowly and painfully working on my conversational Spanish. And trying really hard not to make a fool of myself!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Ruins

Last night on my way home from work I drove past the factory building where the first Fords were made... the birthplace of the modern assembly line. It is in Highland Park, perhaps one of the most harshly depressing areas of Detroit... to me, anyway. Here is one of the most important landmarks in modern American history and it is completely dark, covered in graffitti, and the windows are smashed out. And it was not surpising at all.

How did Detroit get to this point? How does any big post-industrial city get to this point? Does America really look down on Detroit that much? Or does America just ignore us? Really, everyone knows Detroit for its cars... downtown was bogged with traffic for weeks around the auto show. But here, in Highland Park, the "ghetto," the world's first automibles were produced and a revolution began, and it is literally covered in trash and spray paint.

Driving down Vernor Highway or through Gratiot and 8 Mile or up Woodward through Highland Park, there is an overwhelming feeling of emptiness that does not exist where I work in Southwest Detroit. There are certainly people everywhere, but the neighborhoods feel empty and alone and isolated. Not at all unlike Washington Avenue in St. Louis. And I know that is to me, as an outsider, as someone who has had the opportunities to live in thriving communities full of businesses and schools and tax dollars. But I just can't help but wonder why this happened... or how? The people that live in these communities are not fundamentally different from people in Southwest or Royal Oak or even Birmingham. But society has treated them differently and has different expectations and values of their worth... and is it really so simple as the color of their skin?

And now are you ready for the fundamental question of the social worker?

Here it is:
Will building a playground really do anything at all? (aka Does what I do as a social worker even matter?)

Yes I will increase the quality of life, and redirect youth crime and boredom and encourage residents to invest in their homes. But really? Will we just continue to be a forgotten city, a washed-up former powerhouse?

Can Detroit really be saved?