Manistique Community Treehouse organizer is a force of, and for, nature

This story is part of a series supported by the New Economy Initiative (NEI).

Tammy Black is a champion at multitasking. Fielding media questions while planting cornflowers in front of a new solar power station in her Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood, the mother of six explains that she is juggling community work with being there for her children during COVID-19, and hosting her 14-year-old grandson during his virtual schooling. 

Supporting her "family," however, encompasses much more than looking out for her own children. When COVID-19 hit Michigan this year, Black was able to mobilize her extensive network to assist fellow residents. During the worst of the crisis, each Saturday community residents packaged food, clothing, and gift card donations for neighbors who needed it, particularly senior citizens.

“We worked together as a team, as a community to make sure we had what we needed and that everyone's taken care of,” Black says. “We brought perennial plants so residents could do volunteer gardening, hosted community days and ice cream socials, and helped ‘getting out to vote.' ” 

A garage giveaway event was a particular highlight for the neighborhood advocate this year, where homeware donations were available for anyone who needed them, organized with the assistance of local churches.

“There were backpacks and bikes for kids,” Black says. “There were shoes, socks, everything and anything you can imagine — it was there.”

Growing dreams

The seeds Black is — often literally — planting in her community are part of her vision to grow pride in the neighborhood and develop more sustainable lifestyles. She’s all too aware of the pressures fellow residents face in their daily lives and wants to alleviate some of that strain.

“We are always looking for a way to make our community stress-free, making sure we take care of the needs of our community in terms of mental and physical well-being,” she says. “The motivation is to make it beautiful. When things are aesthetically pleasing it helps with depression, whatever stress you are feeling leaves you for a minute.”

Her goal is clearly manifested in her plans for the Manistique Community Treehouse Center, a project with the Manistique Block Club that will see the construction of a 400-foot treehouse at 225 Manistique St. The center is designed to be completely solar-powered and ADA-compliant, and it will host occupational therapy, counseling, and education. A key focus will be on youth, incorporating horticultural therapy to help connect people across barriers of age and ability. 

“The treehouse supports mental health, well-being, mentorship, and collaboration,” says Black. “If kids can learn how to collaborate at a young age we will have these awesome people coming up to take over our work. If they can see past bias, races, cultures, religion — that’s what makes us unique — that's what the treehouse is all about. Community empowerment.”

Tammy Black, her children, and her grandson, take a break from their community work and online learning to pose in front of the Creative Empowerment Garden in Jefferson Chalmers.

Sustaining, and funding, goals

The biggest challenge for Black is, as for many community initiatives in Metro Detroit, securing funding. In 2018, the treehouse proposal was one of 18 Detroit neighborhood projects to receive a portion of $1.5 million in grants from the Kresge Foundation and the project was chosen last month for grant support from the Detroit Regional Chamber and General Motors NeighborHUB program. Black was also recently recognized as a Detroit Innovation Fellow (DIF), an accolade that came with $10,000 of funding. 

The DIF program saw Black connect with like-minded grass-roots organizers, something that she says amplifies the impact of projects and is just as important as the funding available. Black teamed up with fellow DIF members to strengthen projects, such as her collaboration with Mose Primus, who coordinates a community garden on Detroit’s east side, to coordinate food distribution and connect each other with suppliers during COVID-19.

A $5 million investment in the Jefferson Charmers area from Penske Corp. resulted in help with tree felling at the construction site for a new dog park along Manistique Street and The Adamo Group donated demolition resources to clear the site, as well as at the power station space that Black is in the process of beautifying. 

“I can’t think of a better sign of humanity,” Black says of the support she’s seen her community receive. 

So much of Black’s work happens on a micro level, and local volunteers make up the bulk of the labor force for projects. A committee of five "street ambassadors," brought together by a Challenge Detroit initiative, help disseminate information and coordinate block partnerships, as well as attending city council meetings.

“We hear the community because we are the community,” she says. “We live here so we know what we need.”

Black’s ability to inspire her neighborhood was one of the reasons she was chosen for the DIF program, says Orlando Bailey from engagement network group Urban Consulate. Bailey first met Black when he was working as the chief development officer at Eastside Community Network, another organization that chose to support Black's projects. 

“One of the things we required was neighborhood support,” Bailey says. “She has that, not just in signatures but in people showing up. People are excited about what she has been able to do. She is a force.”

Halloween decorations adorn the Creative Empowerment Garden to allow neighbors to celebrate the spooky season in a safe way during COVID-19.

Witnessing an impact

Black has seen, firsthand, the ripple effect green spaces have on a community. She runs horticultural therapy workshops and the nearby Creative Empowerment Garden, also on Manistique Street, hosting classes on recycling, composting, bird watching, bee keeping, tree planting, and even dog house constructing. While youth learn skills, Black sees them connect and grow empathy for each other, particularly for vulnerable peers.

“I tell them, when they are in school, I want them to make friends with a child who is being bullied, because they need a friend, and they practice that,” says Black. “I got one call from a mother of a child who was being bullied and another student had reached out to them [after taking a workshop].” 

“When we raise children like this, we are raising the next generation of good people.”

Black wants to see the effect of neighborhood horticultural therapy multiplied across the country, with plans for franchising the community treehouse concept and setting up spaces in other U.S. cities. Each center can, she predicts, employ eight to nine people, with director, public relations officer, and secretary, as well as garden staff, and she wants to see a sustainable model that could be duplicated. 

“We’ve had interest from Memphis, Tennessee, and from Mississippi,” Black says.

A free library services visitors to the Community Empowerment Garden.

Facing challenges

Groundbreaking on the treehouse center was pushed back this year because of COVID-19 and has been rescheduled for next spring, but the impact of the pandemic hit Black on a personal level as well. One of the organizing members for the project, Jefferson-Chalmers resident Betty Mills, died during the first wave of the pandemic, devastating the team. 

“She was my right hand,” says Black.

Mills was a strong advocate for the project’s ability to help children enhance their social, economic, and life skills, and it is something Black continues to work to see come to fruition. Looking to what she hopes is a better year ahead, Black and her team are holding a Winter Solstice bonfire fundraiser on Dec. 20, where she wants visitors to “release negative energy.”

“People can come and write down what they want to release from 2020 and throw it on the fire,” she says. “We will have a board to write our hopes for the new year on.”

What does Black want to burn in the bonfire this year?

“You know what? I don’t know, I always think positive. But for the board I will write ‘holistic community empowerment for the world.’ ”

A beehive provides part of the horticultural education Tammy Black fosters at green spaces on Manistique Street.

This is part of a series supported by the New Economy Initiative (NEI), a special project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan that is working to build an inclusive regional network of support for entrepreneurs and small businesses. Social entrepreneurs featured in this series are fellows of the last cohort of NEI’s Detroit Innovation Fellowship (DIF), a talent development program that connects, promotes, and invests in people who are leading projects to transform their communities.

Read more articles by Kate Roff.

Kate Roff is a freelance writer and editor based out of Detroit. Contact her at [email protected].
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