Resilient Neighborhoods: Christine Bell of UNI shares insights on SW Detroit resiliency

This is the first in a series of Q&A interviews with Detroit nonprofit directors for our Resilient Neighborhoods series. Christine Bell is the executive Director of Urban Neighborhood Initiatives (UNI), which serves an area of Southwest Detroit bounded by Fort, Dix, and Waterman Streets. 

Model D: Tell us a little bit about UNI. What is Urban Neighborhood Initiatives, and what do you do?

Christine Bell: We are a place-based community development organization that is located in Southwest Detroit. We focus on 1.4 square miles of Southwest Detroit. There are about 17,000  residents that live here, and it's a fairly diverse neighborhood, predominantly folks that identify as Latino and Latina. We have a fairly large Appalachian population, African American population and Arab population. And about 60% of the people here report speaking a language other than English. Our areas of focus are education, youth development, land use and economic development.

Our work focuses on ensuring that all people regardless of background, income, or race live in a beautiful thriving neighborhood where they have access to all the opportunities they want and need.

Model D: What does "resiliency" mean to you?

CB: I think resilience is how people thrive in [the face of] adversity. It's about overcoming difficulties or being able to bounce back from them. Or, when we're thinking about it in the sense of climate, being able to sustain through [climate-related adversity]. All those words mean different things to different people, but when we think about resiliency, a resilient person, a resilient neighborhood, it really is to the end of thriving. How do we thrive?

Model D: What challenges does this neighborhood face?

CB: [Let's] talk about both the assets and the challenges, because I think that part of being able to talk about resiliency [also means] you must look at what exists in the neighborhood. We have really strong social support networks. We have many organizations that work here that are really deeply rooted in the community and provide a variety of opportunities. And then we have a really strong network of residents. I think about Detroit Southwest Pride and Detroiters Helping Each Other and Southwest Detroit Community CARE, the mutual aid group that came together in Southwest [during the pandemic].

There's this strong sense of community and also mutual aid and support for each other. We were deeply affected by the floods in Southwest. We have families that are living in poverty. COVID has been really difficult for our community. We have had very high positivity rates in the neighborhood all along. We've also lost a lot of people. And many of our staff, those were their family members or friends. We have major environmental concerns. When you look at the map of our neighborhood, we're nestled in [between some] pretty toxic industries. You've got scrap metal yards. And we had a trucking school open on Springwells three years ago. We have Zug Island. We have Marathon. So we have really serious environmental issues. And whenever we do planning with our neighborhood, the two issues that come up are safety and education. Those are really the two main issues for families. 

Model D: We did a previous article about how your organization worked to resolve some language-related issues related to vaccinations. Could you talk about that?

CB: It's funny. ECN (Eastside Community Network) and ourselves and JSCDC (Joy Southfield CDC) are working on resiliency neighborhood planning. So we've been talking about resiliency hubs. And so naturally, we became a resiliency hub when the pandemic started. I would say maybe two weeks in, We worked with Grace in Action. And EII, the Equitable Internet Project, came out and ran a line to extend our WiFi out into the neighborhood. We had so much traffic on it, we burned some sort of hardware out. Right before the pandemic started. or pretty closely after, we quickly partnered with Gleaners. We've been doing bi-weekly food giveaway boxes every other week for about two-and-a-half years. With Ford and Grace in Action Church, we've installed solar power charging stations, one in our park and there's a bench on the other side of the neighborhood. That was planned before, but when we were offered by Ford to put another bench in, we took them up on it pretty quickly and that was driven a lot by the pandemic. 

When you looked at a map pretty early on in the pandemic, we looked like we were doing really well. And a number of organizations like Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation, La Sed, and Congress of Communities were looking at it and saying, "something's not right here." What we came to find out very early on in the pandemic was there was only one place that you could get tested in the neighborhood and it was an urgent care and they were charging $100 a test. Our organization has been a part of the COVID313 Community Coalition and have been doing town halls in Arabic, Spanish and ASL to get information directly to residents in partnership with Detroit Public Television and many other organizations. We were having these very public town halls with the health department, so we raised [the issue] with the health dept and they started to bring testing in the neighborhood.

That started our work around testing and vaccinations. We've been partnering with Wayne Health for well over a year. They also now come here bi-weekly initially to do testing then vaccines. and we've partnered with CHASS (Community Health and Social Services) to do vaccine pop-ups. and now they do other testing. We also have been able to support families with their utility bills and rent. and we did a lot of drop- porch drop-offs and all of that while we were still maintaining all of our programming. We've been utilizing a hybrid model with our programming and have been back to face-to-face programming for a while now. 

We have launched a mental health program and provide [those] services through our mental health specialist. Our mental health specialist is a Spanish speaker and actually she grew up in the neighborhood. We [also] send out monthly newsletters to everybody in the neighborhood and that has COVID information on it and things like that. So those are some of the COVID-related things we've done. 

Model D: You mentioned resiliency hub planning. Is that the sort of work ECN is doing on the East side with climate and pandemic resiliency? 

CB: Where we are with resiliency planning is looking at what we already have [and seeing how we can build on that]. So EII is something we already have. Solar stations. Those kind of things. But I think I really want to understand how residents see resiliency and what is important to them. The internet is an example of a system that we can build on and not have to rely on Comcast, Xfinity, AT&T, and all these big providers.

But right now, we're going to go through an engagement process to understand what is important to our residents around resiliency. And I think that's going to help us understand how we come out of COVID.  

Model D: Could you talk more about the community and how it has shown resiliency in the face of the pandemic and some of the other challenges you've mentioned?

CB: Watching our staff [at the start of the pandemic], we had to close down and within 24 hours our staff had adjusted programming so it could be virtual. I think that demonstrates the resiliency that people that live here always have to have. I think they showed the resiliency in a way that's probably a microcosm of what it looks like through the neighborhood. Organizations didn't shut down. I said to myself back then, "If we don't show up now, when do we show up?"

It felt like it wasn't a question and I wasn't the only organizational leader that thought that. I think about the other organizations, because many of those also have [staff] that live in the neighborhood. I think about [our staff member] Mariela Brook Trejo and those with other organizations who really pushed hard to make sure there was testing and that vaccinations and that things were translated in the language that people could understand.

I think kids have shown back up at school and parents have sent their kids to school. I think all of that shows resilience. Not that there isn't a lot to worry about around young people and how they're doing. 

Model D: Hearing you talk about the adaptability of your staff makes me think of another story I wrote for the series about Southwest Detroit businesses responding to the pandemic. I'm curious, what are your thoughts on how local businesses have been responding to local challenges?

CB: I think there's adaptability. All of the things that make a good "Rudy" story exist here. I think about E&L [grocery store] and things that they've done to promote the vaccine. They've done gift cards for vaccine events. They've provided really amazing support. But I also really want to listen to residents [about what they're going through]. I asked my staff last week, "How do you feel about COVID?" And many of them are sick of it and still scared because of how many people got it in January. But nevertheless there's this continuing to push on. and work and figure out how to continue life. 

I think there is more that we are going to see about how COVID affects families. I think there is a difference in our neighborhood in that we had undocumented people who couldn't access any of those resources. And we've seen the struggle that that has created for families. And there's still people who don't want to leave their house and are not ready to leave. We often raise up the resiliency of kids and people that live in neighborhoods that have demographics like ours.

I think we also are fans of these sorts of "Rudy" stories. But we're thinking a lot about resilience, race, and equity. What is the intersection of those things? What do you need to undo so you can really move to thriving—where it's not a constant set of things that you need to be resilient from? 

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.

Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.