On the Ground: East, meet west

Three months ago, we embarked on a new experiment in neighborhood reporting by launching "On the Ground," a series where we were embedded within the Osborn neighborhood on Detroit's Northeast side, publishing stories from that community each week in Model D. We told stories about the innovation happening in Osborn in the areas of education, youth development, public art, and more. Now we are wrapping up our tenure in Osborn and heading to the West Side, where we will be on the ground in Brightmoor for the next three months.

To begin our transition, we hosted a conversation around neighborhood innovation at the Matrix Center for Human Services in Osborn, where the leadership teams of the Osborn Neighborhood Alliance and the Brightmoor Alliance had a meaningful exchange of ideas.

There was no commiseration. There was no griping. Rev. Larry Simmons, board member at the Brightmoor Alliance, may have said it best. "I won't go to meetings anymore where people talk about problems. I'm sick and tired of problem describers." This certainly wasn't one of those meetings.

The participants focused on what is working and where there has been success in their neighborhoods. They shared things that these two very different places can learn from each other.

Significant attention was paid to the common goal of promoting entrepreneurship in the neighborhoods. Rev. Larry Simmons framed the challenges of changing neighborhood culture to become more entrepreneurial:

"Our community is very highly tuned to be consumers and hourly workers. The aspiration is to get a good job. People are not interested in putting in the time required of becoming an entrepreneur. This work we're doing is generational. We might not see the results of our programs for several years. You have to keep turning the crank and priming the pump to try to ignite something in the community. For every business created, dozens of people see that and that creates a culture change."

Jeff Adams, board president of the Brightmoor Alliance, sees opportunities for entrepreneurs emerging from the challenges found in the neighborhoods. "After 10 years living in Brightmoor, you see systems that are broken. You see needs in the community and you can help identify ways that the community can fulfill those needs from within."

Rev. Simmons followed this up by saying, "You need a zealot -- a disruptor. Those are the individuals who will look at a challenge and say, 'You know what? There's something we could do here.'"

Osborn and Brightmoor both have those zealots -- people who refuse to accept the status quo. Many of them were in the room for our discussion.

While it is true that both Osborn and Brightmoor face considerable challenges, some shared and some unique, they both battle certain perceptions that are not necessarily true.

Wayne Ramocan of the Osborn Neighborhood Alliance (ONA) emphasized this through the example of neighborhood residents moving to nearby suburbs like Warren. "Some of the kids that would go to Osborn High are going to Warren Lincoln. One of our goals is to provide opportunities for people to stay in the neighborhood." Quincy Jones, executive director of ONA, followed up by saying, "We need to show what is actually here to change perception. People think, 'If I get my kid across 8 Mile, it will be better.' That's not necessarily the case."

Part of how leaders in Osborn and Brightmoor are doing this is through storytelling. The Osborn Voice and Brightmoor's quarterly newsletter are publications that have been working hard to change perceptions, particularly among residents of those communities, by highlighting the positive initiatives and innovative thinking happening in those neighborhoods.

At Model D, we are hoping to contribute to changing the perception of these two Detroit neighborhoods through "On the Ground."

Before we pass judgment on the future of neighborhoods, we need to immerse ourselves in the life of those places. Neighborhoods are more than just lots and houses. More than anything, they are the people who inhabit those spaces.

Having spent time with the wonderful, dedicated folks who are disrupting the status quo in Osborn--people like Quincy Jones and Wayne Ramocan of ONA; Wytrice Harris of the Osborn Local College Access Network; Kayana Sessoms of BuildOn; City Council candidate Scott Benson; youth mentors like Frank McGee of NSO YIP; and youth leaders like Lettie-Ann MillerMerly ChangRonisha Bannerman, and Stepha'N Quicksey -- we are hopeful that the narrative of "two Detroits" -- thriving Downtown and Midtown vs. the struggling neighborhoods -- can be changed to one of a city full of neighborhoods with options and opportunities for all residents.

Cities are more than just bustling areas, entertainment districts, and cultural centers. They are patchwork quilts of neighborhoods, made more beautiful as a whole when you examine in detail the squares that form them.

We thank everyone for welcoming us to Osborn and look forward to continuing the discussion about the future of Detroit's neighborhoods as "On the Ground" continues in Brightmoor.

Matthew Lewis is project editor for the On the Ground series. Model D's partner in the series is the Skillman Foundation. 
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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.