Red, White, and Blue

by Najah Scruse

Blood rains down
more than humanity
these days; coating
the leaves in a darker shade,
dragging agony
across the summer sun.
You’re not the first to
bite the bullet
and definitely not
the last.

Many faces
but society only see one,
and turns a blind eye
away from the rest of you.
Burying you
into mother earth
not realizing she will
wrap you in her cocoon,
bringing you back
to get your refill on lead.

We should all be eating
gun powder for dinner
so when the shots ring out,
we’ll breathe in death
and exhale life with vengeance.
I refuse to beg for my life
while under oppression
so do as you will.
Smith & Wesson
have autographed plenty
of hearts, mine will
beat no difference.

Hide behind your fear
while the barrel
seeks my mouth
just to blast my
voice back to the beginning.

Back to lynching’s,
back to whips with
leather exterior,
and chains that link ancestry,
back to breeding more,
just to breed out,
just to rape and breed illegitimacy,
back to cotton picking
and the big house
and not realizing
no matter the location
of death you’re still dead,
back to two by fours
nailed together with
the exception of your god
and replaced with
the burning of your hatred,
back to picnics with main
events featuring castration,
back to displaying
Venus and raping
her planet until it’s expected,
back to killing
children even the infants,
back to where it all started
just to come back to reality
and realize it never ended.

ameriKKKa has always been thirsty for blood.

Editorial: The Art of New Work

“It is important to understand that we are creating this liberated space so we can release our individual creativity toward a collective goal.”

                                                                           —– Baba Wayne Curtis


What does it take to create a new city?  What makes up a city? What kind of work will we do? How do we develop ways to expand our humanity as we develop new ways of living?

Whether you think of a city as government bodies, or as the people who live in it, rarely do we think about a city’s role in developing our social, spiritual lives along with our political consciousness and economic well being.  Increasingly we are coming to understand that artistic endeavors and cultural husbandry are part of the work necessary to create a more human future. Necessary work is more than producing goods and services. It includes attention to beauty and to cultural life that is vital to heal our society and our souls.

This Winter/Spring 2018 issue of Riverwise focuses on projects that could be considered ‘New Work’— efforts being made by people to usher us into a new epoch of economic production at the community level.

Projects like the windmills at CANArts Handworks, whose basic materials originate from found objects, discarded technology and the mind of Carlos Nielbock. His bold vision of ‘upcycling’ as a way to revitalize local economies through our commitment to skilled trades, especially metalwork, is exposing new possibilities of human development and energy self sufficiency.

Or Detroit’s Incite Focus (next issue), where young minds are learning the tools now commonly attributed to the upcoming ‘third digital revolution’. There is a worldwide network of Fabrication Labs emerging, replete with 3D printers and laser cutters. Blair Evans is at the forefront of that movement. Many tech-pundits hope FabLabs will provide a modern path for local communities to produce what we need in our own cooperative workshops.

For most of our history, resources essential to life have been in the control of big business, making profits for the few at the expense of the many.  But there are alternatives. There are, in fact, roadmaps demonstrating community-led production and management of resources commonly left to big business. A powerful partnership between Ryter Cooperative Industries and the Soulardarity collective has Highland Park residents leading the energy democracy movement in this region. Their commitment to solar energy and the ownership of energy policy is creating new opportunities for people to have greater control over their lives and the resources that exist all around us.

As we address the emerging possibilities for community production, we find that the real power is in the potential for cooperative efforts over utilities and infrastructure normally considered too big and too complicated for community control. Traditional municipal operations have taught us that energy resources must be produced and distributed by large, private utilities. Household energy consumers rarely envision turning that relationship on its head and making energy generation a part of a community-based economy. How would it look if the people produced and distributed electricity on a more accessible ‘grid’, while leading the region toward green energy projects at the same time?

The residents of Highland Park are giving us a preview of just that. They’re finding out that production and access to energy is what we determine it to be.

So, as we envision and apply new ideas to birth a new society, where does art and creativity fit in with all these projects that are opening up new pathways to community-owned production? Where do work and art intersect?

Carlos Nielbock reminds us that for much of human history, work and art were inseparable. The iron and copper smelting and forging works of 14th century kingdoms of the Sudan and the Guinea coast of west Africa combined use and beauty. There was no separation between work and art.  What we look at as purely artistic activities today often served as tools for storytelling, protection, food cultivation, or food storage. Work was not compartmentalized by the ‘job’ as they are in modern society.

How do the fantastical sculptures and cosmic portraits of mail carrier Milton Bennett  fit into the larger social fabric? He is forced to separate and then reconcile two distinct approaches to life. But as you’ll see in this issue (page 22?), he does just that.

Why is it important to celebrate the creative output of artists who have raised the consciousness of devotees worldwide? Del Pryor provided us with an opportunity (page 7) to address this question while congregants gathered in her ‘pop-up’ temple with a common purpose: to praise the artistry and positive forces emanating from the saxophone of John Coltrane.

Art also can contain our history. This spring in a garden setting, one of the foremost graphic designers in the Black revolutionary movement, Emory Douglas will inspire the year-old Emory Douglas Family Youth Arts Program (page 19) as they continue to forge liberated space in which to release our individual creativity with a collective goal.

And the ¡MIRA! coloring book (page 16?), similarly creates a forum uplifting participants. Both the community artists who provided the design and direction and the youth (and adults?) artists who draw and color engage through art addressing social, economic, racial and gender injustice.

These varied approaches allow us to look at artistic endeavors as part of the work of evolving society. The creative, imaginary mind is vital to our mission to create political and economic policy that transforms how we live and make a living. We can together imagine and create a society that doesn’t bow down to billionaires.

There are groups and individuals in Detroit neighborhoods who, overlooked and exploited by this capitalistic system, are reimagining daily life.

In Puerto Rico, right now, the same thing is happening. In the midst of a massive effort to just survive, a movement towards a new society is developing at an even greater pace. Out of rubble and ruin new ideas and relationships emerge built on common needs, not competition.

It’s our commitment at Riverwise to provide a platform  so that these grassroots and visionary movements can be nurtured, shared and protected as they carry us toward a better future.                                                   


Temple of John Coltrane

At Cass & Willis

The recently produced documentary on the life of John Coltrane, Chasing Trane, illustrates how deeply the musician is beloved around the world, and the various ways in which devotees engage in preserving his legacy as a profoundly spiritual human being and artist.  Detroit’s well-known cultural events coordinator and community leader, Njia Kai, is one such life-long devotee who, this fall, during the weekend of the Dlectricity Festival, presented The Temple of John Coltrane, a mixed media art installation.  Kai’s principal collaborators in the design and implementation of the exhibit were Dell Pryor and Sharon Pryor, owners of Dell Pryor Gallery and Tulani Boutique respectively.  The exhibit offered an appreciative audience the opportunity to sit among images and memorabilia of Coltrane’s work, while listening to his exquisitely beautiful, soaring compositions. It was a moment of stillness for contemplating the lessons of this ancestor’s life:  the human capacity to endure and overcome personal failures, hardships and misfortune, to experience at some point the blessings of love and oneness with the Creator. For the two days of the Temple of John Coltrane installation, the corner of Cass and Willis became a lodestone, emanating energies of healing, vision and peace.   Editor’s note.

The Temple of John Coltrane
Multi-Media Art Exhibit
Dell Pryor Gallery
September 22, 23, 2017
Curators: Njia Kai, Dell Pryor and Sharon Pryor
Interview conducted by Dr. Gloria Aneb House and Eric Campbell
November 12, 2017 at the Dell Pryor Gallery/Tulani Rose Boutique

Aneb: How did the idea come about and how did the three of you come together to make it happen?

Njia: It’s really through John Coltrane’s music that I entered the world of jazz as a young person, and I have previously produced John Coltrane celebrations on September 23rd (Coltrane’s birthday).   Last year, I thought I was going to submit a Coltrane project for the DLectricity Festival. It would have celebrated his 90th birthday and I thought the timing was just grand! However, because of the M-1 Rail construction, DLectricity [an outdoor art festival in midtown Detroit featuring light-based installations from around the world] was delayed till this year.

At the time we were looking to produce a video that would be the mainstay of our exhibit; but I was so busy that we just were not able to pull together a suitable project. Once I knew we were not going to be an official part of DLectricity, and we didn’t have time to produce a video, we had to adjust the concept. Instead of a video, we focused on giving people an experience of John Coltrane — his artistry, his genius, his master use of sound and instruments — to reveal the spiritual awakenings that came into his life, especially during his last ten years.

I’ve been here over the years [the Dell Pryor Gallery] for a couple of artistic events based around films, music, art, and artists, and so I approached Del and Sharon with this idea.  They said if I had something I wanted to do, they would be interested, and then, very timidly, you know, because this was my coming out party in a lot of ways after a lot of years of not self-producing….

Aneb: Njia Kai, Curator….

Njia: Yeah, exactly. Like, Dell gave me that and suggested that I own it.  And so when I approached them with the idea, they were really generously supportive, for allowing it and then being a part of it, not just saying, OK, do something with that space. They both put themselves into it.

Aneb: Let’s describe the installation as it emerged– how the ideas evolved, how the three of you worked together; and let’s describe the elements of the installation so that everyone can imagine it.

Njia: Well, I brought a concept to Dell and Sharon.  I had my little sketch to describe what we were thinking about and we had a conversation about it. What was interesting and very fulfilling was that Del, who has more experience in more areas than I was aware of, brought us ideas about how to refine the original concept, how to emphasize the art of it and how to look at the fine-points of it, so that those things would be emphasized, but not overdone.

And then Sharon:  If you have ever visited her space [Tulani Rose Boutique], you know her capacity to appoint things and to arrange them just so, is special. She brought that.  So there were furnishings and other pieces that were contributed towards the whole. Specifically, we decided that this was to be an installation instead of a video projection, and we looked at how we could celebrate both the spiritual nature of John Coltrane as well as his 91st birthday.

The room was just a perfect size — an intimate rectangle with a white wall at one end that we filled up with the projections, and that worked out beautifully.  In front of that wall, we created an altar. I thought I would have a church altar, or pulpit, with John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” placed there as the holy scripture, and then a stand with the saxophone to infer that Coltrane was delivering the message; and then we wanted to put some flowers there, both to give the semblance of the church experience that I grew up in, where there were always flowers on the pulpit, and also to celebrate his birthday.

Well, it happened that Carl DJ Invisible Hollier came through and saw what we were trying to do. I was trying to find stanchions. He said, I have stanchions and I also have a platform, and the platform is red. And the platform was just so perfect, to lift up [the altar] and it gave the saxophone the correct height on its stand. This was a community process.  I needed a saxophone, so I called Edward Gooch, who is a local jazz musician and bandleader and also an instructor at Wayne State. One of his students agreed to let us use his old saxophone, so we had the saxophone.

And then there’s a brother, Rob Brown, of Creative Audio Solutions.  I work with him a lot in the events that I do. So Rob agreed to partner. And all these are volunteer community partnerships– these are not financial agreements.  Rob came in, he brought a projector, he brought the speakers, he brought the microphone and the lighting that added to the magic and helped make this part of the DLectricity weekend, really setting the tone for us, outdoors and in.

I got in touch with Craig Huckaby, whom I knew to be a record collector and I knew he was into jazz, and sure enough, Craig was on his way to a record collector’s convention in New York and he left us nine of his precious Coltrane albums.  And then we had another brother, Rod Murphy, a gentleman I met when we had Camp Detroit [cultural arts mentorship program for children founded and directed by Njia and her husband, Yao Kaza]. His son and daughter were in our program. He’s also a record collector. Well, he had moved into CDs, so we went and made copies of the CD covers, which were replicas of the original album covers.

My daughter, Ola, helped me do the research so that we could type up little paragraphs about each of the albums. Then we found those plastic covers for the albums.  A lot of these were foldout albums with historic information. Matt Hentoff and Leroy Jones, whom you might know as Amiri Baraka, had done a lot of those liner notes, and there were historic photos.  We wanted people to be able to see and touch them.

Aneb: Then there were the pews….

Njia: …. which kind of put the accent mark on the installation, to create the temple, or the church feeling. As soon as they came in the room, people would say, this looks like a church. A young man and his company, Sit On It Detroit, provided the pews.  They have built and placed benches at bus stops throughout the City.

Aneb: There was a wonderful atmosphere of the sacred as soon as you stepped in. I entered from this door and it was aahhh! I wanted to ask you about the icon. I remember about two decades ago, there was a group out on the West Coast that actually established a church of St. John Coltrane. And I remember seeing similar icons from them. Is that where you got the icon that was on the main wall?

Njia: Yes, as a matter of fact, St. John Coltrane Church is still in existence in San Francisco. They recently had to move and people thought it was going to be their end, but they are continuing to thrive. When I was doing research, I came upon their church and went through their website and a lot of the stories around them and I just thought, OK, these are my people. I experienced John Coltrane as a spiritual experience — both the music and the thought that is there, the feeling, the implied universality. That whole cosmic…

Aneb: … and that whole idea of rebirth and regeneration.

Njia:  You know, this year everybody’s got a fifty-year something around civil rights or the Black movement, and it was fifty years ago, in 1967, that John Coltrane passed. He passed a week before — literally seven days  — before the Rebellion started here in Detroit.

So much of his music is reaching its fiftieth or sixtieth year this year. And his wife Alice Coltrane grew up here in Detroit and I happen to have attended the church where she grew up and knew her and her family when I was younger. So it’s just been in my life, there’s been this involvement and the music has meant so much to me.

Sharon: I was extremely excited when Njia approached us about the idea of having the Temple of John Coltrane because I am a John Coltrane devotee as well. I also think it’s absolutely essential that Black culture is honored and activated in public spaces. And I like the idea of people being able to enter this space and it did feel and present itself as a sacred space. I think it was extremely successful and we thank Njia for allowing us to be a part of it.

Dell: From start to finish, when she first told me about the idea, I thought this was a great opportunity.

Njia:  People say that women don’t work together, or don’t work together well, or have issues producing things together.  That did not happen within our several months of getting this together. Everybody’s contribution made this thing rise.

Del had sponsored a Coltrane event here at the gallery and boutique about two years ago. She had some of Detroit’s rising young jazz lions to participate.  It was a magnificent night. To hear these young men, not only replicate Coltrane’s music, but own it themselves and bring it back up as their own. It was quite exciting and certainly, I’m sure, was part of what lay in my head as a seed for returning here for this.

Dell:  Whenever I see the musicians — to this day — they say, Mrs. Pryor, when are you going to do another Coltrane? They said they had never gotten together, never played together, and something happened that night that had never happened before. They said they had a spiritual awakening during that concert. They said if you ever do it again, a Coltrane event, please let us know. And of course, when Njia proposed this project, I was just so happy.

Njia:  Let me also mention that on the two evenings of our event, De’Sean Jones, who is a young Detroit prodigy when it comes to the saxophone, opened the experience, playing some John Coltrane pieces that were just fantastic. For him to capture that, alone on the sax, these difficult solos, it was just amazing. The next day Baba Adeboye Adegbenro [Detroit-based visual artist, musician and teacher] came and played, and spoke of his introduction to Coltrane.  Then Joan Belgrave [celebrated Detroit jazz vocalist, widow of famous trumpet player, Marcus Belgrave] came and sang. Glen Pelton, a young Detroit guitarist, came also, and shared some blues with us.

Dell: Another thing I was excited about was that we’ve gotten into integrating several arts — music performance, the visual arts, and film.  We’d never done that before. This also made it exciting. Njia did a great job with that — and then extending the experience beyond the doors to the outside. Everyone was enjoying it as much out on the sidewalk as inside. It was just amazing.

Aneb: You extended it outdoors?

Njia: It just happened that we had ordered more pews than we had space for inside once we started putting everything in.  So we put them outside. And then the weather — who knew? September 22nd, 23rd, we could have had any weather, and it turned out to be two beautiful nights. We just kept the doors open, put the speakers outdoors, and mounted the giant projection of photos and videos– a lot of live vintage concert video of Coltrane.

Dell: And they weren’t just pews for sitting on.  The pews were also works of art, beautifully painted by a Detroit artist. The pews stayed out the following day and everybody checked out the artist. So seeing all of these art forms come together — that really excited me. Usually it doesn’t work that way.  I see more happening now, but it was something I guess I was inspired by when I was in New York once, and noted that when they have an opening with a particular artist, all the artists come together. That was something I wanted to see more of.

Aneb: Will you do a Coltrane event again next year? Will it be another installation, or another way of celebrating John Coltrane?

Njia: One of the best things about planning something is the doing of it, and the very best thing about it is when others come and actually enjoy it. We had that. There was real community here. There were young people– some had a smidgen of information about who he was. Some had more, but there was everybody. The full community of persons here showed up, and it was really exciting to see that we could create a space that attracted and impacted people. With the artistry, the mastery, the spiritual nature of it all, it became a sacred space because of the way that people used it. People came in, told their stories, interacted with each other, and quietly studied the written texts.  It was just such an excellent feeling.

We are all agreed that we want to do it again. We have some other ideas and we had a lot of input about other elements that could be included and other ways of celebrating Coltrane.  So we have September 23rd potential for next year.

Eric: Can you tell us a little more about the overall imagery? How did you choose the images that were projected?

Njia: Let me say this as to what was in my head around African American history and culture.  I just think it’s important that everybody have a John Coltrane experience. The story of his life is significant. His background — how he grew up in North Carolina during that period of time and what his father, grandfather and grandmother were into, and the kind of experience he had in the service, and then the experiences he had when he came out; and how he could reach the pinnacle of being in the Miles Davis Quintet, and then fall from grace into a drug habit, and then cold turkey himself out of it, out of his own determination; and then spend the next ten years, which turned out to be the last ten years of his life, in a pure genius state of creation.  To me, that’s a heck of a story that should not be lost. And then the music is timeless. When we started to break the installation down on Saturday evening, I was like, wow, I have spent the last two days, 7 p.m. till midnight, listening to John Coltrane music and watching John Coltrane and I never got tired, and I was inspired and my engines were running, and the same was true for a lot of other folk.

Aneb: We were completely uplifted by the music and spirit of reverence that you created in the temple space.  I’m really fascinated by the icons, Njia. Did the folks out in San Francisco tell you who created them?

Njia: I had not made direct contact. Once we were able to get this going, time was of the essence, so we found much of the information we shared in the public domain on the Internet. We projected a lot of concerts from the 50s and 60s, as well as interviews, and we captured photos from different persons and from the Internet. Del included photographs of musicians from her own collection in the Gallery.

Sharon’s space is so lovely that people going past saw the lights, and not knowing what was happening, were just attracted by the beauty of her space, which looked like an art installation. So they came into her boutique and thought of it as the gallery because she appoints it so beautifully.  The lighting was just so gorgeous that it drew people in.

I’m actually going to San Francisco in May. A local artist is going to have a production out there.   I’m going with her and I’ll go early so that I can make my way to the church and become acquainted with my people and have a jazzy Sunday experience with their presentation. I’m just so grateful for the opportunity.

Aneb: Njia, it’s clear how much you appreciate that so many individuals in the community contributed to making this installation a beautiful thing, and that you did not rely on getting a grant from this or that place to carry out the project.

Njia: We are our own resource. There was nothing that was needed that didn’t exist within our community and extended community. Everything that was in here, everything that happened in here, came from a community of persons who responded to a call and donated themselves to make it happen. We spent some monies obviously, but we did not get the grant we could have gotten had we had time to put ourselves together. It was there for us, we just didn’t have the time to submit something worthy of receiving funding. Then there was the generosity of support here. Del and Sharon donated the space and hosted us and then each of the following persons contributed out of their own willingness to see it happen.

Dell: It was a privilege for us.

Njia:  I keep trying to emphasize that all of the resources, all of the expertise that we need, more than likely exists within the folks that we’re connected to. There’s nothing to stop us but our own limiting thoughts and whatever work we’re not willing to do.

Dell: It’s amazing how Coltrane has impacted people — not only here but throughout the world. When I went to see the Coltrane documentary [Chasing Trane], and saw how he impacted all the people in Japan, you have to stop and wonder. This isn’t just a local thing.  This is a worldwide thing.

Temple of John Coltrane Contributors (not mentioned in the text):
Taqee Vervon, graphic design and social media; NV Rentals, music stands;
Lamya Shareef, hostess; Yao Kaza and Ola Vernon, crew; Annmarie Borucki,
Toya Hankins, Jova Lynne Johnson, Neveric Noel, Paul Lee, Midtown Detroit, Inc.


Self-Empowerment through Solar Energy

Grassroots Partnership Creates Synergy With Streetlights

by Eric Thomas Campbell

In the city of Highland Park and several enclaves in Detroit, solar power is lighting streets that were previously dark. These lights are a result of sustained efforts by new community partnerships seeking long term solutions to growing energy demands. In the process, they are developing ways for new forms of self sustaining energy creation, hoping to leave in the past the inhumane process of denying people light and heat because they cannot pay ever higher electric bills.

Ryter Cooperative Industries (RCI) provides technological support and direct services  to increase energy efficiency for small businesses and organizations. This involves everything from energy auditing to technical training to vetting solar lighting hardware for community partners.

But beyond those practical applications  lies a deeper, more intentional objective about a solar fueled energy future. According to RCI Founder and CEO, Ali Dirul, RCI engages residents who have been at the mercy of energy monopolies by  increasing community ownership of the skills and materials required to create energy. RCI seeks opportunities to help marginalized citizens manage their own sources of energy. Its an effort that has saved folks money, introduced them to green energy, and brought engaged community activists together to build and maintain local energy infrastructure.

“As long as people have their very basic needs met or satisfied, we can live relatively happy lives— when we have food, water, shelter, and now in the age that we’re in, energy falls under that,” Dirul told Riverwise. “Having electrical energy is one of those things that is no longer a luxury. It’s one of those things that are necessities because a lot of people actually rely on this to live, whether they’re on respirators or ventilators or they can’t stand heat that is too high or they need air conditioning— these are things that are just a part of society now.”

Installed at D-Town Farm in Detroit’s Rouge Park, RCI’s inaugural public project was the Dirul Power Station. It is known as Detroit’s first off-grid energy station designed for urban agriculture. The station was implemented to enhance energy production on the farm, and to coexist with other clean energy projects like the windmill pump in the water retention pond.

RCI has developed and presented other public projects for site-specific purposes— the solar powered lawn mower for Highland Park, a solar phone-charging station presented at Detroit’s African World Festival. But the project that has gone the furthest toward building community and social capital is the Highland Park solar lighting project, implemented in partnership with the non-profit coalition, Soulardarity.

Soulardarity recently emerged out of the years-long financial crisis in Highland Park which culminated in a 2011 repossession by DTE of the majority of the public street lights. Highland Park went dark.

At that time, Soulardarity founder Jackson Koeppel, was a recent Detroit transplant an environmental activist. He teamed up with Highland Park activists and crowdfunded the first effort to use solar energy to bring light back to the city. , The first light they installed still shines at 150 Victor, in view of the old Henry Ford plant. Those initial efforts led to Soulardarity’s bulk purchasing program in 2016, allowing people to purchase solar street lights and solar porch lights at discount prices.

RCI has acted as the middle man between Soulardarity members and solar light manufacturers during the process, vetting products, purchasing solar light hardware, and training people to install and maintain the lights. According to Soulardarity program leader Maria Thomas, residents in Highland Park and the North End have since purchased and installed 50 lights mounted on porches and garages to illuminate the areas around their homes. The Detroit enclaves of Jefferson East and Islandview also have member organizations that are planning solar light initiatives. But as the efforts spreads geographically, Thomas says the goal is to stay true to Soulardarity’s original intentions.

“Our focus has been on the lighting because we’re based in Highland Park, our primary mission is to serve Highland Park, and to assist Highland Park in relieving the burden that was created when the lights were repossessed,” explained Thomas.

Soulardarity has emerged with a dedicated collective formed around the issue of ‘energy democracy’ and the idea that those most negatively impacted by the fossil-fuel economy are the best prepared to lead us out of it. They are currently advancing a proposal to Highland Park officials and residents to increase their economic and social investment in solar energy by purchasing in 1,000 solar streetlights. It’s a plan that would save the city of Highland Park money and create longer-term opportunities for companies like RCI and other green energy start-ups.

RCI is looking to start manufacturing their own solar lighting parts and Soulardarity is hoping to increase their capacity by scaling up to solar-powered generators large enough to power residential properties.

“I believe that it would solve a lot of problems,” Thomas says. “Not only would it decrease people’s bills to DTE and eliminate a lot of the reasons for shutoffs, it would also create jobs– living wage jobs. And it would fulfill the need for a niche industry in Detroit or Highland Park.”

Thomas emphasizes the opportunity to train and hire people in the Highland Park community if city officials decide to pursue an ‘off the grid’ solar light energy strategy. Thomas says these are skills that, as other markets move toward solar energy, would be transferable and highly sought-after. Most importantly, it would project the small municipality into a leader position in the green energy movement.  “These are skills that are not going away,” stresses Thomas. “Solar is growing, its not going to shrink.”

Dirul says that the relationship between Soulardarity and RCI grew naturally because the of the complementary skill sets they possess. Both organizations wanted to make an immediate impact and both wanted people to recognize their energy resources.

“We’re very supportive of the mission and the underlying message that Soulardarity stands for, which is energy democracy and having community owned utilities,” says Dirul. “The people that are affected by something should have some say or control over it, at least enough to say, maybe we don’t want these lights from this company, or we want these other lights. We’re the ones who have to live here.”

Soulardarity has made proposals to Highland Park City officials to light the entire city in this manner. The move would be a major shift in the way we understand our relationship to utilities and our role in the clean energy economy, according to Dirul. He reminds us that municipalities have the liberty to decide to put its own power plant in the city and have that run, or decide to adopt community-based power generation on a decentralized grid. The increased leverage ultimately comes from the increased participation and awareness of the citizens.

“Now, everybody who has a (solar) light on their home can say, at least to a small degree, I’m an energy producer,” Dirul observes. “It kind of gets them in the game. They can say, wow, I do have solar panels on my lights, on my house, and I’m looking to have more. I can actually increase this and get more lights or show somebody what it is I have and they can go out and get some for themselves. It gives them a sense of pride like, wow, I’m now part of this green, clean energy movement now where prior to that, they were at the whim of the utilities. It’s a different feeling that a person gets.”

Although companies like DTE are still considered ‘public utilities’, the public increasingly has no say as to how the company is operated. Furthermore, they hold a monopoly in the energy sector and lawmakers have done little to address that. Highland Park residents, on the other hand, are creating leverage for consumers by resisting the traditional monopoly created in larger markets.

“We’re finding that many people may not know about solar and the capabilities of solar in lower-income communities,” continues Thomas. “But once we introduce them to it, … a lot of them want to reduce their carbon footprint, because so many families are impacted by the pollutants that are part of the residual part of the environment.”

Once known as the city that became dark because it could not meet its light bills, Highland Park residents, Soulardarity and RCI are promising a much more democratic, sustainable future.


The CANArts Inventions: Upcycling Meets Energy Needs

by Larry Gabriel

Satellite dishes look like flowers as they spin in the gentle wind. The metal blossoms whirl hypnotically above the privacy fence, indicating a wonderland to passersby on Gratiot Avenue. But the whimsical hardware visible from behind the fencing is indicative of a much more functional proposal.

These ‘low-altitude wind turbines’ displayed throughout Carlos Nielbock’s CAN Arts Handworks compound turn incessantly– only a stone’s throw from Eastern Market and his pending Wind Turbine Project. Nielbock’s project showcases the potential of windmills to harness energy, the wisdom of upcycling readily available materials, and the importance of creating work that empowers communities.

Nielbock’s wind turbine will power a charging station for the electronic devices of visitors to Eastern Market and pump rainwater to irrigate a garden on the Market grounds. Nielbock says that the turbine will be the first application of a Detroit-built and designed, alternative energy device for the community.

Nielbock learned his metalsmith skills from a Catholic monk in Germany. He has plied his trade at the Fox and Fisher theaters as well as in upscale homes of the Detroit area. He has completed major refurbishments in centuries-old churches replete with stained-glass windows and gold-plated crosses. He has studied West African metalworking techniques from centuries past. He believes his metalsmith skills taught by master craftsman around the city are a key to the realization of a sustainable economy.


“My windmills [have been] spinning for eight years, through all the seasons, through all the storms, through all the power outages,” he says. “My windmills are performing, which gives me the greatest satisfaction. But I want to go even beyond this, because this is not about personal satisfaction. This thing turned out to be so good and beyond expectations. It will really present a platform for innovation. To look at new concepts of education and new concepts of creating things that are necessary and be the ones who are manufacturing and reaping the benefits of that as a community. The Detroit-built windmill, that employs Detroiters, with the know-how to harness the winds, with the stuff we have all around us already in abundance. “

The windmill is an old way of generating power for things that are key to Detroit’s future — high tech, green infrastructure, job skills and, perhaps most important in the short run, upcycling.

The first law of upcycling, Nielbock declares, is, “work with what you have available, period. Recognize the resources that are all around you. The other thing is, have the skilled trades to utilize them for your goals, products and projects.”

As a totem for the possibilities of his ideas, it’s hard to imagine a better location than Eastern Market. The Detroit landmark was established in the 1850s when Detroit was a much smaller place and technology was concentrated on the riverfront in service to the Great Lakes shipping trade. Over 150 years later, the market is still vital. Neilbock’s windmill will be seen by tens of thousands of people as they pass through on market days.

But Nielbock points out that exposure to a wider audience is just one step toward transforming the current monopoly on valuable resources, both material and intellectual.  He wants to create a product that is needed in new and upcoming markets– a product that could be the catalyst to spark a new economy all by itself.

“The opportunity is here, to create an industry, right where the market is, with the industry that’s already here — the automotive industry — with the land that’s already freely available,” Nielbock continues. “Why not collectively make our mind up that we will produce the new devices of alternative energy by means of upcycling? We already have the highest innovation tools of the industry already at our fingertips. It’s that much cheaper, it’s that much more environmentally friendly, it’s that much easier to operate and so on.”

That’s what Nielbock does with his satellite dishes, wheel hubs, and light pole  fixtures the city is so busy replacing these days. Unfortunately the city is mostly selling these items as scrap to be melted down and recycled into new products, creating a huge energy footprint.

Nielbock insists that it would be better to reuse them as they are, saving the energy expended in the recycling process, and appreciating the resources, skills and labor that went into creating them in the first place.

“Detroit was like the Paris of America, and there were only the finest things in the landscape, and the top-of-the-line innovations,” says Nielbock.  “If you would establish the true value of these light poles, and how much they’re worth, the true value, whatever, $80,000, $40,000 per light, times 88,000 throughout the whole city, in your neighborhood, however many hundreds or thousands are there … and make sure that the work to restore those lamps is done by the people who live where the light poles are, problem solved.”

Previous generations already paid for the street light poles, he insists. Why not reuse them instead of throwing them away for scrap?  Light poles, which this artisan has been collecting, serve as the tower that holds up the spinning rotor on the low-altitude turbines he wants to see used in Detroit. This is far more cost efficient than the typical industrial wind turbine, which is over 300 feet high. Each pole must be fabricated new and every installation includes a substructure that costs just as much. Nielbock’s low-altitude turbines, some as short as 20 feet high, make the idea of a cool-looking, artistic windmill in your yard much more feasible and attractive.

Even more enticing is the new type of work Neilbock’s windmill project would bring to community participants. Nielbock says that refitting light fixtures would employ 200 people right away. Most important to Nielbock and the upcycling model, the project would reinvigorate the commitment to the skilled trades required for this type of architectural, ornamental metal work.

“That’s the thing– we want to be on top of the market. The way to do that, again, is upcycling,” Nielbock insists. “By utilizing already existing technologies and already existing lines of production. That’s why the hubs, the gears, and the rotational wheels from the automotive industry are at the heart of my wind turbine. That’s how this is such an evolutionary thing.  This is a platform for development.”

Nielbock experienced upcycling while growing up in post-World War II Germany. He is the child of a white German mother and an African American World War II soldier. Born in 1949, Nielbock witnessed the city of Berlin pull itself together after the carpet-bombing of the city that helped bring the war to an end.

“The model of that is Germany, the country where I’m from, that reinvented itself,” he says of reusing materials. “The people not only had to rethink their entire philosophies and everything they’d learned up until that point, and give that up and declare those as null and void to start off on a new slate. When you’re looking at the pile of rubble, and there’s not one brick on top of the other, and there is not a man around that is able to do the work and only the old women, the old men and the children are there to clean the bricks and pile them up by the side of the road.”

Germany recovered from the war and became an economic juggernaut, starting materials upcycled from the rubble. That lesson sticks with Nielbock, who came to the United States to search for his father in Detroit when he was 25 years old. “I was a white man until 1984,” he quips.

In Detroit, Nielbock found his black family and a new home to ply his Old World trade.  “Those skilled trades cannot be obsolete, it cannot be that this has no value, no merit,” he says. “You can apply those skilled trades to modern requirements. That gives you the ability to create things that are your concepts and realize them by means of blacksmithing, forging, wood-carving, you name it, brickwork, masonry, like the mastery that built this Paris of North America that I saw all around.”

The wind turbine also fits neatly into the idea of green infrastructure. Detroit was the wonder of the industrial world a century ago, using the assembly line to put the world on wheels, introducing standardization and uniformity of products. It also spread pollution wherever it went with its dependencies on oil and coal to fuel automation.

Now is the time for the cleanup. Not only does the wind turbine upcycle products that are already in our environment, it doesn’t generate more pollution. Nielbock argues that the wind turbine may be used with both high technology and the down-to-earth practice of urban agriculture.

As farming becomes more prevalent across Detroit, upcycling the land and managing water become more important. While rain barrels dot the city for watering gardens, larger parcels will require farmers to move larger quantities of water. Wind turbines might become a key way to interface the city’s management of storm water drainage with farmers who need to irrigate crops. Nielbock is even working on increasing the turbine’s ability to generate electricity. His current focus is on increasing his windmill’s capacity to generate electricity by incorporating generators from hybrid cars.

“When I learned about hybrid technology, how the new cars, having two generators that propel you through the landscape, that are working in sync with a regular combustion motor, but altogether generate much more power, enough to power a six-story building, that made me think right away and I got one of those transaxles from the junkyard, took it apart, and now I’m at the point to merge that with my windmills.  More upcycling, more tapping into already existing production lines; not increasing the carbon footprint; getting away from recycling and melting stuff down.”

Detroit has had its own meltdown these past few decades. Is it possible that the Motor City could come back as the city of wind turbines, with the insight and direction that only community ownership can produce?

The Knight Arts Challenge is willing to see where the idea could go. The program has granted the Eastern Market Wind Turbine project $50,000. Nielbock has to raise another $50,000 in matching funds. So far, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation is willing to contribute $25,000. CAN Arts raising the rest of the cash through a crowdfunding appeal at


¡MIRA! A Radical Kids Coloring Book

by Members of the ¡Mira! Collective

¡MIRA!, a collective of women-identified artists based in Southwest Detroit, is distributing radical coloring books to teachers around the city and internationally, this Winter and Spring. Guided by a collective visioning process, !MIRA! put the book together during a series of art and political education workshops held at the Campbell branch of the Detroit Public Library over the course of last year.

After early formations to support migrant justice and bring attention to violence against Southwest Detroit women in 2012, ¡MIRA! (which means ‘look!’ in Spanish) began to coalesce in 2013 amid the crisis of Emergency Management to resist the financial takeover of the city. Our art reflects the struggle against water shutoffs, gentrification, and the foreclosure of Detroit’s many other worlds.

We pressed shirts with the message, “From Gaza to Hart Plaza, There’s No Water in La Casa,” to highlight the international struggle for water rights from Detroit to Palestine. Our art has shown up in spaces like the Homrich 9 direct-action to stop water shutoffs, and other public events where it was important to voice anti-capitalist affirmations of our existence and spaces of life.

We invited community members to draw and submit hopeful and defiant images of change and rebellion to inspire a younger generation. Following an event featuring Baba Charles Simmons’s oral history of the Rebellion, youth and elders from around the city sketched images from his talk, and also contributed other drawings. What resulted was an 80- page coloring book that celebrates an array of Detroit’s struggles, communities, and radical imaginations.

Many artists’ collectives develop their skills as individuals and use the collective body to distribute their art. ¡MIRA! uses the collective to generate and weave ideas together, sharing skills and common visions around which we create together. Horizontal practices of dialogue around ideas and art allow collectivism to be central to our work.

We intentionally designated !MIRA! as a woman-identifying space that includes queer, trans, and other non-binary identities because often in the street art scene and elsewhere, we felt a dominance of cis-male hetero energy that has, in subtle or obvious ways, silenced people. For similar reasons, we also make it a part of our practice to welcome children and feed one another, removing two major barriers to women’s and parents’ ability to share spaces at the end of a long day.

The other major aspect of our work as a collective is that we are not for hire. Though all of us are involved in other aspects of movement work, we assert the belief that we are not service workers for the movement. It’s a hard stance to take because we’re always being asked to produce art for the movement. However, we want to create art — not on commission for a march or campaign — but to cultivate and realize our own radical imagination.

In the age of Trump, we have to intensify efforts that lift up images that hype Black, Brown, Queer, Left, Crip, Hijabee, and Native Folk living amazing and magical lives in order to decolonize, demilitarize, and decriminalize our bodies, communities, and Earth. What are we when we are thriving? What are we when we are radiant and whole? What does radical love look like? In this coloring book and our ongoing work, we celebrate real people and ancestors waging fierce grassroots organizing struggles here in the city.

The ¡MIRA! Radical Kids Coloring Book is available now on a sliding scale, $10-$20, at Educators and teachers are eligible for a free ‘copyleft’ edition, with generous support by AFSCME Local 1640. All funds collected return to the collective to fund more radical Detroit art!

Expressions of An Emerging Community

Arts Program Builds Culture of Resistance and Family


by Eric Thomas Campbell

As a discipline, art is usually associated with material forms of creative output—painting, drawing, or sculpting. But engaging in the very human reflex to express ourselves is also a way to insure that we develop our social and political environment. It takes vision and imagination to look beyond the world we live in, acknowledge its contradictions and injustices, and manifest a new direction. Artistic expression also functions as a form of resistance and healing. It can convey, all at once, the suffering caused by injustices and the determination to overcome them.

Aware of the impact that art can make in the political realm, the Emory Douglas Family Youth Arts Program began this past summer on the lower eastside as an extension of Feedom Freedom’s once-a-month ‘Arts In the Garden’ program. In that unrestricted setting, exercising the imagination wasn’t limited to what showed up on the canvas. Painting classes in the garden of Feedom Freedom and the nearby Hope Community Church were held in conjunction with projects related to local food production and food security. Making paint from egg whites stemmed from the idea that community control begins with producing our own tools.

A committed group of activists, local businesses, students, and the parents that frequently stayed behind to participate alongside them, has emerged out of this very grassroots effort, strengthening the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood in the process.

This is the greater opportunity that emerges from attention to culture, arts and community says Feedom Freedom and Emory Douglas Family Youth Arts Program co-founder, Wayne Curtis. He has found that just coming together with one common goal, in this case to paint or draw, is an act of resistance and a foundation on which to build a stronger community.

“We’re building and legitimizing this culture that creates the roles and the responsibility and the creativity all in the one bag,” Curtis told Riverwise. “Culture to me is, what do you do in order to exist in a particular environment? This particular environment is capitalism. So what do we do to transform this system and survive at the same time? So this creates a culture of resistance and sustainability, and transformation. That’s what we’re initiating.”

Curtis has led the Emory Douglas Family Youth Arts Program with an informal artistic background that stems from his school days when he used drawing and painting as an escape from a hostile world. He attended Ferris State University before enlisting for duty in Vietnam, where he was introduced to the Black Panther Party Newspaper by a friend back in Detroit who would send him copies regularly. In addition to keeping him informed on vital issues back home, the paper introduced Curtis and other Black enlistees to Black liberation politics.

“It was an emotional connection for Black troops, and an education about the movement back home,” says Curtis.

Returning home in 1970, Curtis joined the Detroit Chapter of the Black Panthers and became more familiar with the revolutionary art of Emory Douglas. Douglas’ images adorned the pages of the weekly publication, inspiring countless readers with his graphic representations of political resistance in Black communities. He famously depicted the incessant brutality of law enforcement in urban ghettos by drawing police officers as ‘pigs’– the characterization attained a permanent place in the Black Power vocabulary.

The legacy of the Panther movement has emerged in many present day community-building efforts in Detroit. As Curtis’ own work evolved to the point of being in demand in Detroit art circles, his time was increasingly devoted to community development through the arts. Developing Feedom Freedom’s ‘Art in the Garden’  offered him the time and the space to develop a youth program while paying homage to Douglas, promoting a style of art that transforms and uplifts.

The Emory Douglas Family Youth Arts Program is not the Black Panther Party, according to Curtis, but many of the basic tenets are the same— specifically, organizing people around our needs and recognizing that we are not dependent on a corporate/political system that does not sustain or support us. Forward progress depends on self-empowerment and creating our own political policies.

“Like the free breakfast program, that was a political policy that we, the people, initiated and, because of that, it got the corporate structure on point because, they said, well, here are the people with hardly no resources, and they’re feeding 400 children every day, at one site,” says Curtis. “The ideology was basically the same, but one of things that changes is that there’s more participation from the neighborhood itself. People donate food and we hope to continue that– but also to heighten, not just the participation, but the awareness of the need to understand what collaboration and collectivism is all about. We do have the power to resolve problems that we have— with all of the resources and information right in our backyard.”

Participants in the Emory Douglas Family Youth Arts Program range from ages five to fifteen, along with parents who, while waiting for the class to end, inevitably find a paint brush and paper of their own. The classes have taken place in the Feedom Freedom garden or the Hope Community Church during the cooler season. The program has garnered support from longtime supporters, but also new support from local businesses and restaurants, such as Harmonie Gardens and Rose’s Fine Dining, who have donated food and supplies to keep participants immersed.

Being able to show their work publically, students have benefited greatly in the area of self-confidence, according to one of the Emory Douglas Arts Program’s staunchest supporters, activist Daryl Jordan. Last year Jordan, a senior organizer at the Eastern Michigan Environmental Action Council (EMEAC), walked the neighborhood with Curtis, passing out leaflets door-to-door and recruiting participants for the summer session. He says that the importance of Emory Douglas’ work and other work like it goes beyond political agitation; it communicates ideas in new ways, thus reaching a wider audience.

“There are a whole lot of Panthers that have legacies and reputations that we lift up, either in our popular education, or our counterculture remembrances, but talking about Emory Douglas, we began to put some things in place,” Jordan states. “The role that he played was that he took art and began to use it to help people understand issues and problems in the community that were pretty deep, pretty complex. But art became a way to relate to it in a different kind of way, so almost everybody could understand what he was talking about.”

Curtis adds to that sentiment, saying that Douglas’ work with the Panthers and his very graphic style, imaginative yet intentional, had the effect of bringing folks together. As the message reached its intended audience, people were able to coalesce around similar experiences.

“Because of his ability, he created symbols, symbols of education. The symbol was worth a trillion words. When he talked about the ‘pigs’–people knew exactly– they correlated this image of the pig with police brutality, the brutality of the system. Not just the police were pigs, but the whole industrial complex were pigs, because they were greedy, they didn’t care about life. And so the people related to that. The drawings helped organize people.”

In Detroit, current efforts to cease local governments policies incorporating school closures, mortgage and tax home foreclosures and water shut-offs have often utilized graphic elements to embellish messages of hope and resistance. One of the most recognized is the “Free The Water” tag that was placed prominently on the Highland Park water tower by Detroit artists William Luka and Antonio Cosme in 2015.

The [relevant] placement and content of their message was meant to inform and organize viewers around a life-and-death issue– that of water accessibility. Its effectiveness was in reminding onlookers that water, a readily available resource, is being denied to Detroit residents and the consequences are dire for the affected communities.

In both public and charter school curriculums, diminished resources have mutated once-thriving art departments into after-school extension programs. For many families, the promise of providing the means to a well-rounded education, including development of our creative being as a social tool, is at stake.

Art programs that exist outside of the traditional school setting, many with strong community ties, tend to ignore the social and political aspects of self-expression that have been a integral part of social justice movements in any era. Jordan says that this fusion of the arts and community awareness at the core of the Emory Douglas Family Youth Arts Program is an opportunity to examine how education, in any discipline, may include aspects of social responsibility that focus on community issues first.

“My take is that Baba (Wayne) offered the young people a different kind of way to express themselves, by showing them that they can use art as a creative way to say the kinds of things that they want to say or to draw a vision or a picture of the world, the community, whatever it is, the way you see it,” Jordan states. ” In some ways you’re beginning to let these young folks know that once you’ve got the skills you can use these things to tell people things you want them to know, or to share bits and pieces of yourself. Its on you to figure out what you want to do with it, but now you have the skill and you can do almost anything you want to. You can make your own T-shirts and say anything you want it to say. Those kinds of things become powerful in a community where education has been shortchanged.”

For more information on the Emory Douglas Family Youth Arts program, call 313-288-2334 or email


Sidebar: Emory Douglas Visits in April To Support Arts Program That Bears His Name

Emory Douglas will be in Detroit to support the Emory Douglas Family Youth Arts fundraiser on April 18 at the Cinema Detroit Theater, where students from the Emory Douglas Family Youth Arts Program will showcase their artwork alongside the work of Emory Douglas himself.

The night will feature a showing of “The Black Panthers: Vanguards of the Revolution”, a 2015 full-length documentary exploring the role the Black Panthers played in 1960s and 70s American culture and the group’s contribution to the continuing development of the movement for Black liberation.

Emory Douglas was the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party from 1967 until the 1980s, during which time he managed the art direction, design and illustration for the Black Panther Party newspaper.

The Detroit Chapter of Black Lives Matter will help welcome Douglas to Detroit and is helping to coordinate the April 18 fundraiser. BLM senior organizer John Sloan told Riverwise the legacy of the Panthers and their attention to strengthening relationships through community-based activity is what Emory Douglas Family Youth Arts Program has emulated and successfully built on. It should be widely supported.

“It’s the way in which they (Black Panthers) engaged with the community, using the arts to foster family togetherness and build community relationships,” Sloan says. “We don’t want to lose sight of raising money for a group that has done so much on a bootstrap budget.”

The Detroit Independent Freedom School has also contributed support to facilitate Emory Douglas’ visit to Detroit. For more information, call or email             


Artist’s Statement: Milton Bennet

Artist’s Statement

by Milton Bennet

The world we live in is surely a Garden of Eden, but it is also highly techno, automatized, artificial and very wasteful.   Any artist with a vision for transforming the world’s waste will have an abundance of supplies. People discard things that can be reused and recycled.

I’m one of the artists who benefit from the world’s waste. I’m like Sanford and Son, King of the Debris. My soul and sanity demand that I create art. A curse? Not quite.  For in the act of creating, I’m healing myself and imbuing the art with healing energies, hopefully compelling the viewer to question the very truth of art and what’s useful and what’s not.  Also I’m possibly inspiring the viewer to be creative. To inspire someone is worth more than gold.

Some of my favorite artists are Lam, Dali, Man Ray, Tinguely, Duchamp, Mata, and De Chirico.  I love art that questions me. I love solving mysteries.

True art is magical. It opens the windows of the soul and brings peace to the turbulent mind, and it all begins with the individual.

Art teaches us to see. I tend to look with x-ray eyes at everything and determine its purpose to me. I like to rub surfaces with pencils or crayons. Perforated surfaces I spray through with paint. I remove decorative embellishments from furniture and create anew. Handles, knobs and the backs of decorative chairs are some of my favorite items. I’ve also used things like milk crates, cigarette lighter holders, and produce crates.

It’s hard for me to discard things until they are totally depleted. Not a hoarder! An artist.    


TimeBanking:  A Beautiful Solution to Burnout and Isolation

by Alice Bagley

Coordinator of Unity in Our Community TimeBank

Whenever I am invited to talk about the work I do with Unity in Our Community TimeBank, I start this way: “TimeBanking is a way for people to exchange services using hours, rather than money, as the unit of exchange.” But maybe I should start with, “TimeBanking is a Syrian immigrant teaching her neighbors how to make falafel,” or “TimeBanking is a young person shoveling snow for a senior,” or “TimeBanking is a first generation college student getting into their school of choice thanks to ACT test prep.”

TimeBanking is a way to value the contributions of all the people working with us on projects, community building, and movements, while also radically changing the way we assess the value of each other’s contributions. When you provide a service for another TimeBank member for an hour, you log that time and then get exactly an hour back in the form of another service. These services can be anything, as long as they can be measured in time.

There are five core TimeBanking principles: assets, redefining work, social networks, reciprocity, and respect. Though each TimeBank is part of an international movement of time-based exchanges, each will be different in the way it organizes itself and works towards these ideals.  

Too often people are looking to “help” or “save” Detroit neighborhoods, without concentrating on the assets that we already have here, which are our people. The most popular events organized by Unity in Our Community TimeBank are our cooking classes. These routinely draw folks from other TimeBanks in the suburbs, and are sponsored in part by Welcoming Michigan, an organization that seeks to make communities more welcoming to immigrants. These cooking classes not only focus on learning to make a dish, but also the immigration or migration story of the chef’s family, and how food reflects that.

Our community is full of skilled trades people, lawyers, writers, farmers, caretakers, mechanics and folks with countless other skills. When we concentrate on what we have, rather than what we lack, we can better work together and accomplish more.

The money economy has a funny way of valuing and defining work. We consider it to be work when someone serves food to strangers in a restaurant, but not when they serve food to their friends and neighbors. We consider it work when someone in a robe with a gavel helps to solve a dispute, but not when a trusted community member mediates a conflict. TimeBanking asks us to define work as anything that we do for another that takes time, and to value it all equally.

Because our TimeBank is hosted by Bridging Communities, a nonprofit dedicated to helping elders age within their communities, many of the hours logged in our TimeBank relate to elder care. These hours are often for things like friendly phone calls, accompanying folks to doctors’ appointments, or dropping by for a visit. We are learning now that isolation brings about serious mental and physical health problems, but our money economy still doesn’t recognize and value visits or social support as work. Through the TimeBank, we can redefine work to include creating community, visiting our elders, and anything else that we can measure in time.

A few years ago, I had another TimeBank member knit a scarf/hood for me. For her, this was enjoyable and she expressed feeling “bad” that it took so much time and therefore so many hours from my account. To me this custom-knitted item was of great value, and I was so grateful to have an item of clothing I could easily wear with my bike helmet in the cold weather. TimeBanking helps us to see the value of not just the work of others, but also ourselves.

The exchanges in a TimeBank ultimately rely on our trust of the social networks that underlie it. Joining Unity in Our Community TimeBank is open to anyone with a connection to the Southwest Detroit community.  All that we ask is that you do an in-person orientation to start so that we get to know you and you can ask any questions about the TimeBank. It is then up to the members themselves to build relationships, references, and trust through exchanges. No background check, certification, or license can replace the proof of showing up for community.

While many TimeBank exchanges are arranged through listings on our website, they often start with an in-person meeting at one of our social events. We have monthly game nights for families, a monthly happy hour, and many other events that allow people to enjoy themselves and get to know each other. This way when you see on the TimeBank website that “Hala would like to learn to sew,” you can remember that you met her at the coffee hour event a few weeks ago.

Social networks and trust are also built through work. Southwest Detroit is a diverse and changing community, with a large immigrant population.  When one of our Yemeni members had their garage burned down by arsonists, damaging a large portion of their house in the process, members of all backgrounds came together to help clean up the rubble so they weren’t hit with a blight fine. Through the process, new relationships were built. Nothing helps you get to know someone better than carrying a large load together. We have crews of youth of many backgrounds shoveling snow for elders this winter. It’s harder to fear young people of a different faith once they’ve lovingly swept the snow from your porch steps.

One of the most radical aspects of TimeBanking is the principle of reciprocity. Too often we divide folks in society into being either givers or takers. We assume that those who are very old, young, sick, or disabled have nothing to offer us, and that folks with a lot of money or other resources will never need anything. As such, we don’t ask anything of those “takers,” leaving their important wisdom and skills untapped. We also tend not to offer help to those who are the “givers,” which leads to burnout and health problems among generous members of our community.

One of our members had for years been organizing and hosting our monthly game night —  a wonderful community-building event that members can bring their children to. When she and her husband bought a new house and an adjacent  building, the yard between the two properties needed a lot of work. Suddenly someone who had only been a “giver” in our TimeBank had a need that the TimeBank could easily fill. The TimeBank held a work day at her house, and now in the summer the monthly game nights are held in her new, beautified yard.

While reciprocity is incredibly important, it has to be paired with respect for all our members. When we talk about respect, we mean deep respect — respecting that where people are right now is enough and exactly where they are supposed to be. Recognizing that people will contribute to our community in many different ways,  and that all those contributions are valued. The money economy trains us well to value and respect certain types of work more than others, and therefore certain people more than others.

Many activists and folks doing community work do a lot of work for “free” and also others to do the same. Even when we organizers want to compensate people for their time, we all know that revolutionary work is not going to be properly funded. By using the TimeBank to record the time people spend contributing to community, we are letting them know in a symbolic and concrete way that the work they do is valued and important.

To learn more about, and join, Unity in Our Community TimeBank,  go to or call 313-451-0135.   For information on other Michigan TimeBanks or to get support starting your own, check out the Michigan Alliance of TimeBanks at or call 248-424-7455

Southwest Detroit:  The Latinx Safe Haven

by Christiana Castillo

Whenever I am in Southwest Detroit, my mind fills with the history my family has here. This is where my great grandparents migrated, this is where they built their own memories and spaces, this is where they felt safe. My great grandparents were among thousands of Mexicans who fled Mexico due to the Cristiada, a persecution of Christians, specifically Catholics, during the early 1920s.  For their religious practices, the lives of my great grandparents were being threatened in Mexico. They were married secretly in Jalisco, Mexico by a Catholic priest. They then sought a place of their own, free of persecution.

For them, this place was Southwest Detroit.  In the 1920s, many jobs were available in Detroit. Word traveled through other immigrants that Detroit was not as racist to Mexicans as other cities in the United States. To many immigrants, Detroit was a place filled with opportunity.  So, in Southwest Detroit, the Mexican and Mexican American community was able to create a safe place, filled with their culture and traditions, free of fear.

Mexicans migrated from the states of Jalisco, Chihuahua, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, Durango, and Michoacán and Mexican Americans migrated from southern states to Detroit.  They craved to follow the American dream, and have the opportunity to make more money. My great-grandfather was able to obtain a job working on the railroads in Detroit, as did many who migrated to Detroit. The work was hard, and the pay was minimal, but he was able to make a living for himself and his wife, Dolores.  Mexican immigrants shared their experiences about the different places they fled, and word traveled that they were treated with less discrimination in the Midwest than in any other place. My grandfather helped pave the way for other Mexican immigrants, many of whom found work in the automobile companies, the sugar beet industry, steel mills, and other factories.⁴

On the corner of Fisher Freeway and Vernor in Southwest Detroit, there is a large empty plot of land. There is a dead end at the end of the street, incredibly close to a freeway entrance. To most people, this strip of land and the dead end street are probably inconvenient, perhaps a source of confusion.  This vacant lot used to be the property of Maria Dolores Fonseca and her husband, Telesforo Hernandez, my great grandparents. Shortly after they fled from Mexico, they were able to acquire two houses on Beecher Street, which is now the Fisher Freeway Service Drive. Here, they built their lives. Their friends and neighbors owned the other three homes on the street.  Their homes were small, but filled with family, friends, and other immigrants.

Telesforo Hernandez dug basements beneath their homes to create living space for immigrants who were still saving money for their own places after fleeing from Mexico. Their homes were sanctuaries. In Detroit, the Hernandez family did not have to worry about being killed for their religious practices. They made money, and were able to help their friends and family members who were still in Mexico.

Beecher street was a place that allowed for the celebration of religion and tradition. Here Mexican Catholics did not have to hide their beliefs, but showed them with pride. My great grandparents had two daughters, Elva and Thelma, and a son, Hector. They had a garden filled with shrines to Jesus Christ and the Virgin de Guadalupe.  My sister and I used to climb over their statues and water the flowers beneath their ceramic feet when we were young. We grew up learning to take care of the Earth, and believing that if we prayed to God, Jesus, the Virgin de Guadalupe or any of the various Catholic saints, we would live blessed lives. My grandmother and grandparents loved their religion, and celebrated it everywhere they could: backyards with shrines and flowers, rosaries hanging off rear view mirrors, prayer cards and saints pinned on the interior roofs of their cars, busts of Popes, prayer candles, and posters of the Virgin de Guadalupe placed throughout their homes. When I drive, I have a sparkling blue rosary hanging off my rear view mirror that was passed down to me from my grandmother, and I was given the prayer cards from her car and pin them proudly in my car now.

My grandmother, Elva, moved into the home directly next to my great grandparents’ home, and raised her six daughters by herself. Due to the strong work ethic taught to her by her parents, she was able to send all of her daughters to Catholic private schools, and was proud of the way she was able to honor her heritage and religion in this way. However, all of my aunts were not as enthusiastic about attending Catholic school because of the nuns’ strictness. My mother enjoyed going to Holy Redeemer school, and to follow in her mother’s footsteps, sent both my sister and me to Catholic schools.  All of my aunts have done the same for their children.

My grandmother’s home and backyard are sacred spaces to me. After moving next door to her parents to help take care of them, my grandmother was able to acquire an empty lot of land next to her home, where she planted flowers, peppers, cilantro, tomatoes, and other staples. When I was young, I helped her harvest and take care of her garden.  She was the person who taught me to always water plants close to their roots, so they can grow and spread. We would make homemade salsa and tortillas in her kitchen. Right behind her garden was a meat packing plant. Strange scents of meat and fresh vegetables used to fill the air. You could always hear the humming of bees and the sounds of cars zooming on the freeway. In my grandmother’s backyard, I learned how to carry on Mexican traditions. If a bee ever stung me, I filled the sting with dirt, which is what my great-grandparents claimed they did back in Mexico.  To me, my grandmother’s garden was an urban paradise. An ice cream man with bells jingling in his hands would come down her street offering Mexican popsicles. If we did not want ice cream, my grandmother was always willing to walk with us to La Gloria bakery for Mexican treats.

I know that the intersection of Fisher Freeway and Vernor does not seem sacred to most Detroiters. The land is desolate, marked by patchy grass, litter, and a billboard. The meat packing plant is now a pickle canning plant. My grandmother and the other owners of the homes on the Beecher Street block sold their property to the The River Tunnel Partnership, a Canadian company that operates out of of Mississauga, Ontario. The company intended to expand the Michigan Central Railway Tunnel that had not been used for many years. This company was then bought out by The Continental Rail Gateway, and nothing has been done with the land.  Though my family does not live on Beecher Street, my extended family still lives throughout Southwest.

I grew up hearing the sounds of church bells at St. Anne’s Church in Southwest Detroit. Out of all the churches I have ever gone to, it is the church that feels most sacred to me.  Almost every Christmas Eve, my family would attend mass for the Christmas novena. After that we would pick up Mexican sweets at La Gloria bakery. This is a tradition that my family has till this day.  St. Anne’s was built by the French, however, it is now a hub and community space for Latinx Catholics. My great uncle served as radio host for the St. Anne’s radio show. My aunts and mother grew up giving tours of St. Anne’s Church. The Church stands on St. Anne Street between Howard Street and W. Lafayette Blvd. Here they offer bilingual (Spanish and English) mass services.  Most Holy Trinity Church on Porter Street in Southwest has also welcomed Mexicans since they first started migrating to Detroit. In the early 1920s, the Mexican and Puerto Rican community in Southwest instituted Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church. In the 1930s and 1940s, many religious groups were created in the community such as: Los Caballeros de Cristo (Knights of Christ), Las Guadalupanas, Las Hijas de Mexico (The Daughters of Mexico), and Los Cursillistas, a Christian Movement organization.

Southwest Detroit is a place of resistance. Mexican music and folkloric dance opportunities are plentiful. Mariachi bands can be found practicing in parking lots in the evenings. Young children practice folkloric dances to perform for religious and cultural holidays. The supermercados that exist, like E&L,  Honey Bee, and La Colmena, allow for the foods and traditions of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans to be easily accessible.  As the Latinx/Hispanic population has grown in Southwest, so has the number of Latinx-owned stores. There are now over 1,000 small businesses owned by Latinxs, including bakeries, bars, and restaurants. Many of the small businesses extend outside the Mexicantown area.

Southwest Detroit is still a place a refuge. Freedom House exists here, a safe space for asylum seekers behind St. Anne’s Church.  There is a sizeable Yemeni and Syrian population in Southwest currently. People of different backgrounds are still looking to Southwest as a place of safety. Southwest is even more diverse now. It is still predominantly Latinx, but there is an African American community, the hipsters, and many people from Middle Eastern countries now seeking refuge there.

Throughout Southwest Detroit there are community and personal gardens. Native American Health Services exists in Southwest, and so does their gardening program, Sacred Roots, which focuses on planting native plants, herbs, and vegetables. Jardin de los Santos exists as a community garden and hub for others in the Southwest community to get their own gardens started. At the entrance of the garden is a large painting with The Virgin De Guadalupe.

Pride for “mother” countries are alive in southwest, through shrines, places of worship, gardens, music, gatherings, and the people. Resiliency is carried throughout. It is a home for immigrants, a haven for all, and an always ever-growing melting pot that exists because of that. The space of Southwest Detroit is rich in cultural history, and it is expanding due to amounts of people besides Latinx that find refuge.

“They tried to bury us, but they forgot we are seeds” – Mexican Proverb