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On the Ground: Community change makers




Kibwe Pope is an entrepreneur turned social entrepreneur. He runs a t-shirt printing business located on Woodbridge Street in the Rivertown district of Detroit. He is also a photographer, filmmaker, and youth mentor. Kibwe taught himself all of these skills, but he's working hard to share that knowledge with kids from the Osborn neighborhood in Northeast Detroit. "I'm training kids to give them the tools to one day work for themselves," says Pope, who's Key Way to Kids Charity offers classes within the Matrix Center to kids in digital media, marketing, and entrepreneurship.

Recently, Kibwe launched a youth apprenticeship that employs kids from Osborn as t-shirt makers and lets them use his equipment. He also teaches them how to market and sell their own products.

Pope grew up in Southfield, but moved to Osborn as a teenager when his family hit hard times. At age 18, he got mixed up in street life, which led to his incarceration. After eight years in prison, he came back changed, wanting to do more to help youth avoid his mistakes.

As a returning citizen, Kibwe struggled to find work and decided to go into business for himself. Since then he has tried his hand at many businesses -- from successfully owning and operating several mobile phone franchises to launching a t-shirt printing business with partners.

"Everybody with a neck wears t-shirts. It's a multi-billion dollar industry," says Kibwe. That's why he figured it would be a good skill to teach youth living in the 48205 zip code. Currently, 15 neighborhood youth participate in the program. They get rides down to Kibwe's t-shirt printing shop in the warehouse district just east of downtown. Five of those kids are actually employed by the company, and all of them can design their own products for sale. Recently, Kibwe's kids designed and printed shirts that they sold to the Osborn Business Association.

Kibwe's printing apprenticeship was recently awarded a grant by Community Connections, a resident-driven grant program funded by the Skillman Foundation that believes local groups and leaders are essential if neighborhoods are to create safe environments where children and youth grow up successfully, and gives them money to do so.

Community Connections grants range from $500 to $5,000 and are awarded to community-based proposals coming from within each of the Skillman Foundation's Good Neighborhoods program areas. Grants are evaluated and awarded by a board comprised of community residents known as "Change Makers," who volunteer their time to deliberate over and award proposals on a monthly basis.Community Connections celebrates its seventh anniversary this month, having awarded over $2 million in small grants since its launch.

"You couldn't buy a better deliberation body," says Lisa Leverette, manager of the Community Connections program about the volunteer Change Makers. "It's kind of revolutionary, giving normal people money to do community projects. Our resident panels are excellent stewards of the grant dollars."

Community Connections was built to respond to a gap in neighborhood grantmaking, which tended to go to traditional organizations such as boys and girls clubs. Now, average residents can bring their ideas to a panel of their neighbors and pitch programs to improve the places where they live. "This program has community ownership," says Leverette. "You need to have residents at the center."

Examples of how this program has given residents community ownership abound in Osborn. A few years ago, some neighbors formed the Beland Manning Association and came to Community Connections for a modest $500 grant to help them undergo a community planning process to figure out how to transform a neglected park in the neighborhood that was being used for nefarious activity. The group used the initial grant to leverage other funds, with which they bought a riding lawnmower to maintain the park and playscape equipment. The initial grant essentially launched a block club that is strong today and continues to maintain the park.

Another grant was made to the Greenbriar Community Association, who approached the Change Makers with a proposal to run a cultural exchange program between the African American and Hmong communities in that part of Osborn. The programming brought together these two groups who, despite their proximity as neighbors, previously had little interaction with one another.

This sort of sustainable community development is what the Community Connections program is all about. In addition to improving places, Community Connections is developing leaders within the community. Says Leverette, "We're seasoning residents' minds to be interested in what's going on with families in our communities. It's a stepping stone to much larger things."

As for Kibwe Pope, he plans to use the grant to start developing leaders at a young age. "We're not reinventing the wheel. We're giving kids the keys to success."

Matthew Lewis is spending the summer reporting from the Osborn neighborhood.

Read more articles by Matthew Lewis.

Matthew Lewis is a writer and former managing editor of Model D. He's currently the communications officer for the New Economy Initiative. 
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