Community Leadership

Growing change through entrepreneurship in Brightmoor

The Brightmoor neighborhood in Detroit has become known for its growing network of community gardens and innovative ways of fighting blight — both of which have received media attention in recent years.

Some say it should get more attention for another growing achievement. It’s a place with a spirit of innovative entrepreneurship and a growing network of change making community leaders.

Takaira and Timarra
Takaira, 17, and Timarra, 12, man the Brightmoor Youth Garden mobile produce stand at the Brightmoor Farmway’s Harvest Fest.

That’s the thread that Lisa Leverette sees in Brightmoor. Leverette is the force behind the Community Connections Small Grants program, which the Foundation started in 2007 and now is also supported by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. The program dolls out monthly awards, topping out at $5,000, to grassroots programs or individuals working in the six neighborhoods to improve outcomes for children.

The initiative builds leadership in a number of ways: it gives grassroots leaders funding to take action; it gives young people more opportunities for leadership development through programming; and it builds the skills of the members of a resident panel who decide each month where to award the grants.

Since 2007, more than $2 million has been awarded through the program.

In Brightmoor, what’s unique, Leverette says, is that much of those dollars have supported efforts of neighborhood leaders to begin projects that ultimately become self-sustaining businesses with a social-impact model.

There are many examples. Two of the biggest are the Brightmoor Youth Garden and the Brightmoor Woodworkers.

Total grants in 2012-2013 Community Leadership:

40

Total grant dollars paid in 2012-2013 Community Leadership:

$7 million

Through the Brightmoor Youth Garden, led by Riet Schumack, young people learn gardening skills as well as community building and business basics. The youth decide what and how much to plant, harvest, and sell at farm stands and markets.

“The adult leaders are there to teach the young people every aspect of the work,” Leverette said. “They then allow the young people to do the work, thus giving them an investment in the work. Their leadership is encouraged; the adults actually transfer the leadership of the project to the youth.”

The Brightmoor Youth Garden was one of the first small grants made through the Community Connections program, and each grant to the Garden has funded projects that have become self-sustaining. For instance, in 2015, the Garden will open a new permanent farm stand on its site, and youth will operate
it through the growing season.

“Many of the other things these grants are funding are around giving kids a one-time experience,” Leverette said. “This is a garden not just for the sake of teaching gardening, but with an eye toward harvesting and learning entrepreneurship and sales, so kids could receive earnings and approximate a summer job experience.”

Similarly, the Brightmoor Woodworkers are learning to lead through hands-on business of woodworking. The program is run by Bart Eddy out of Detroit Community High School, and as Leverette puts it, the kids in the program are “not necessarily your usual suspects, not your star achievers. But they have a desire to work with their hands.”

That they do, creating custom-order signs for the gardens, small businesses, and block clubs across Brightmoor and running the business from order taking to design to delivery. The program has expanded and is now one of three under the umbrella of Entrepreneurship in Action, which also operates a bike making enterprise and a T-shirt enterprise. All funded through small grants.

Riet Schumack and toddler
Brightmoor Youth Garden co-founder Riet Schumack holds a toddler at Brightmoor’s Harvest Fest in October.

Two graduates who participated in the bike program in 2014 planned to apply in early 2015 for small grant funding of their own to create a bike repair education series for kids in the neighborhood.

That shows what kind of leadership can emerge when you believe in someone just a little bit, Leverette said.

“I’d estimate there are no less than 50 strong community leaders who have emerged from just the garden alone,” Leverette said. “You can’t put a dollar behind a block club captain established, behind blight gone,behind crime decreased because now people now have the resources to better their community…It is a force multiplier – when you believe in a grassroots leader, it leads them to believe in themselves.”