Tall with an easy saunter, Kirk Mayes is an ambitious man. His gentle face belies an intensity he reserves mostly for conversations about Detroit. This ambition, though far reaching, spanning continents and history, has its roots in Brightmoor, a predominantly African-American neighborhood in northwest Detroit.
His goals for change encompass not only Detroit, but the world at large. "To the extent that African-American(s) can make their destiny happen, they can affect the lives of black people all over the world. If effective solutions happen in Detroit, it can start something to impact the planet," he says.
Mayes is Executive Director of the Brightmoor Alliance
, a coalition of close to 50 organizations dedicated to delivering diverse and coordinated social services to the Brightmoor community. Its members include charter schools, churches, community development corporations, businesses and foundations all working in the neighborhood. The Alliance was founded in 2000 as a reaction to the neighborhood’s high crime rate, blight, and poor or marginally livable housing. While different community groups had partnered together previously, there was consensus that a more formalized and concerted effort was necessary to revitalize the area.
At 36, Mayes is a finely sharpened point at the vanguard of the city’s reanimation. For Mayes, the frontline of the city’s renaissance is the neighborhood, even individual blocks. His ideas for transformative change are captured in his refrain, "Detroit can come back, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood." However, his travel from ideology to practice has not been easy.
Mayes was born in Detroit to Jamaican parents. He grew up in a home different from most his peers; discipline, education and giving back were values Mayes' mother stressed. He remembers his mother buying food, clothes and other items, literally filling up a barrel, to take back to Jamaica during their yearly visits.
After graduating college, a group of Mayes' friends asked each other a question: "What would you do if you had done everything (fun) you ever wanted to do; where would you turn your efforts?" The answer was Village Gardeners, a nonprofit they founded to raise the capacity of neighborhood block clubs, better enabling them to provide a safety net for residents.
It was an impossibly tough road for Mayes when he began Village Gardeners in 2001. The group of friends he started with soon left to launch professional careers while Mayes remained. A new father, he spent his days at a job and his nights working on Village Gardeners. At one point, practically homeless, he would pass the night in his boss’s office, leaving before dawn and returning a few hours later with the other staff to begin work. Mayes says, "You get down a road. It’s a long way back and still a long way forward but you can’t go back because you didn’t come this way for nothing."
Mayes credits this time as shaping his resolve and capacity to succeed. And succeed he did -- under Mayes’ singular guidance, Village Gardeners began gaining attention for its work, even securing contracts to deliver capacity-building services to block clubs. Recognized for his efforts, Mayes was tapped to serve as liaison for The Skillman Foundation’s Good Neighborhoods Initiative
and later asked to head the Brightmoor Alliance.
Mayes counts many successes of the Brightmoor Alliance. It has been able to reduce redundancies between its member organizations and explore previously unattended connections. He cites the Brightmoor Food Alliance as an example: by bringing all neighborhood emergency food providers together, Mayes says they removed overlapping services, closed service gaps, and liaised between the different participating organizations and charitable funders.
Though a strong proponent of localized community solutions, Mayes recognizes the imperative need for centralized coordination. He says, "It is very difficult to move a comprehensive community agenda forward without a common vision or consensus on where the community is going together. The Brightmoor Alliance operates successfully by being able to understand the community in the context of influence centers in the community."
These "influence centers" are the people: the neighborhood leaders, the block club captains, the community groups. And Mayes is the ambitious conductor who is turning them into inflection points to provide greater gains for Brightmoor, Detroit, and the world.
This story first appeared in Model D's sister pub, UIX.