Resilient Neighborhoods: This Detroit coalition hopes to supercharge efforts with community survey

As the pastor of City Covenant Church, a small church in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood, Pastor Semmeal Thomas once had difficulties marshaling resources to assist his congregation and the wider community. Then, about a decade ago, Thomas began working with an organization called the Brightmoor Alliance. The collaboration would help his church community center, Mission: City, take their efforts to serve local residents to the next level.

"We’re in a constant state of collaborating with the Brightmoor Alliance," says Thomas. "If someone needs a meal, they’ll direct them to City Covenant Church. They’ve sent us funding sources. They’ve sent us volunteers. They’ve used their platform to market the things that we’ve done." 

The Brightmoor Alliance is intentional about asking how they can best serve the neighborhood and organizations like his, according to Thomas. And the impact they’ve made is magnified by the thoughtful deliberation the alliance takes in carrying out its work. In 2012 the alliance did a needs assessment called Restore the 'Moor that helped City Covenant Church and other partners target their support efforts more effectively. 

“A lot of times, we don’t have data [about the neighborhood], and the Brightmoor Alliance brings those resources to our community,” says Thomas. 

This assessment helped Thomas broaden his awareness about the neighborhood and develop new programs in areas like financial literacy and career development. 

These days the Brightmoor Alliance and Mission: City are stronger than ever thanks to that work. And the coalition is continuing its work of partnering with the local groups and residents to improve the local neighborhood, while also undertaking a new community survey. 

Bringing Brightmoor Together

Founded in 2000 to respond to issues like high crime and vacant land, the Brightmoor Alliance is now a coalition of over 50 local organizations dedicated to serving their local community. Reverend Larry Simmons, pastor of Baber Memorial A.M.E Church is the organization’s executive director.

Now a majority Black neighborhood, Brightmoor is a place that outsiders sometimes associate with blight, high-crime, and abandoned homes. With an average household income a little over the poverty line at $36,135 (according to 2010 census estimates), residents have had to deal with both negative associations and income-related challenges. To help address these concerns, The Brightmoor Alliance acts as a facilitator and gap filler that connects the neighborhood with resources.

“Our driving ethic is ‘people are power.’ Not that they are given power, but they are power,” says Simmons. “We facilitate and acknowledge the use of that power.” 

One of the ways the alliance has helped facilitate this neighborhood power has involved forming a gardening network. Working with 31 block club partners, it identified people interested in being part of the network, and distributed materials for building raised beds as well as flower and vegetable seeds. Today the gardening group is responsible for 135 flower gardens and nearly 40 community gardens. 

 Trena Ross is one of the block club leaders who's been involved with the gardening effort. A resident of the neighborhood since 2012,  she began attending  Brightmoor Alliance community meetings soon after moving to the area. After finding out that the alliance helped set up block clubs, she decided to start one on her own block.

“The area in Brightmoor where I live had a lot of vacant land and a lot of blighted homes, so I thought it would be beneficial to unite to get things done,” says Ross. 

Her positive experiences doing this community work with the Brightmoor Alliance eventually led to her joining the organization's staff as a community organizing specialist. She's now heavily involved with the alliance's monthly food distribution program, which takes place at Gompers Elementary-Middle School and helps organizations like Mission: City feed hundreds of people each week.

Surveying Brightmoor Wisdom 

The Brightmoor Alliance isn't just resting on its accomplishments, however. It's also looking to residents to see how it can improve its work. In an effort to build on the impact that Restore the ‘Moor had on the community in 2011, the Brightmoor Alliance is now conducting a new community survey called the Brightmoor Wisdom Project

“This is the framework for our work at the Brightmoor Alliance and others who want to help the community focus its power,” Simmons says. 

The new survey effort focuses on four main areas: food, which addresses both quality and availability; shelter, which will cover both land access and peace in the community; clothing; and hope. Since April 2021, the alliance has been recruiting volunteers, consulting the community and studying Restore the ‘Moor, which they call “revisiting the vision.” The Wisdom Project’s main goals are pinpointing activities that the community identifies as key, and helping the community to “focus their power.” That's something with which the organization certainly has prior experience.

For example, a few years ago, the community recognized a lot of school-aged children were out in the neighborhood during the day, when they should be in school. Brightmoor Alliance took this information and worked with 482 Forward, a Detroit-based educational justice network, to organize and advocate on the city and state levels around the issue of chronic absence in Brightmoor. 

And during a community meeting at Leland Baptist Church, residents discussed concerns about early childhood development, saying they wanted to be more active in their childrens’ developmental growth outside of school. Brightmoor Alliance started the “six-a-day” project, which targets six things parents should do with their children daily: encourage and hug, read and talk, sing and play. 

“Someone informed me the other day that it is now being promoted overseas. In Germany, they’ve picked up on the six-a-day project and they’re reproducing our six-a-day in German,” says Simmons. “That started in Brightmoor…that’s why the Wisdom Project is so important; it grows out of our consultation and interaction with the community.” 

Volunteers working on the Brightmoor Wisdom Project have been divided into teams based around one of the survey's four areas. They gather information, or “wisdom,” in a variety of ways including social media posts, resident interviews, and public meetings. Other duties include: grant writing, hosting meetings, and inviting others to participate. Volunteers don’t have to be residents, as the alliance is open to assistance from allies of the community as well. 

At the moment, progress on the Brightmoor Wisdom Project has been delayed since early November, due in part to the sudden passing of local community leader Jonathon Clark. But surveying efforts are expected to resume again this month.

Based on the alliance’s tentative timeline,  a report based on the project is expected to be completed in April of this year. Simmons is certainly looking forward to that time, so he and other local leaders can learn more about what's on residents' minds. 

“The community has wisdom," he says. "And if leaders and policymakers would just consult the wisdom of the community, it could go a long way." 

Resilient Neighborhoods is a reporting and engagement series that examines how Detroit residents and community development organizations are working together to strengthen local neighborhoods. It's made possible with funding from the Kresge Foundation.
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Read more articles by Kyla L. Wright.