Sam Woods: My Very Detroit Story
Dwayne Jenkins, my mentor in college, once told me if you find something that really upsets you on a personal level, you can channel that frustration into a passion for making a difference. My personal experience with lead poisoning did this to me.
In the summer of 1999, my family bought a home in Detroit’s Boston Edison neighborhood. When I was seven, I was diagnosed with lead poisoning from our home. This is an issue that persists today. Of the 10 ZIP codes in Michigan where more than 10% of children tested positive for lead poisoning in 2018; eight are in Detroit according to a MetroTimes analysis.
I was poisoned from my home, the place where I was supposed to be safe. I found out that this was due to poor quality housing in Detroit, which was vastly different from housing in the rest of the state. I knew I wanted to do something about this housing disparity. When I enrolled at Central Michigan University, I majored in political science taking courses in local policy and government.
Years later, as an intern at Quicken Loans, I had my chance. I was able to connect with and secure an internship on the Housing Stability team at the Rocket Community Fund. As the philanthropic arm of the Rock Family of Companies, the Rocket Community Fund’s mission is to support inclusive, thriving, and resilient communities by making data-driven investments in housing, employment, and public life.
Working on Housing Stability at the Rocket Community Fund has allowed me to address housing disparities through programs we run like helping Detroit residents with the Homeowners Property Tax Exemption. My teammates and I partner with nonprofit organizations across Detroit to get residents who qualify their property tax exemption. They not only grant these nonprofits funds so they can continue to do great work regarding property tax counseling. The Housing team also hosts workshops in partnership with these nonprofits to help residents fill out the application for free.
I saw that the team was attacking this issue head on while listening to community organizations, residents, and the city of Detroit. I knew that if I wanted to grow into a professional who knew how to make in impact in housing that working on the housing stability team would be a great place to start. Then the pandemic hit, exposing some of the deepest forms of inequity in America.
The harsh reality is that Black Americans are dying at twice the rate of white Americans. The City of Detroit—the largest majority Black city in America—has implemented an array of relief resources to serve the pressing needs of its residents during this time. Yet most of these resources are available via the internet.
This is perhaps one of the biggest barriers to equity and economic mobility: the digital divide. As of 2020, Detroit was the least connected city in the United States. 30 percent of Detroit residents do not have access to the internet, which is an essential service to access many critical resources. In a world where connectivity can only safely be accomplished online, limited access to the internet is just one example of how their equity cannot be, without access.
Together with the Housing Stability team, I reinvented a program I’d been hired to run, the Resident Connection Hub, to support Detroiters during the pandemic. Originally designed as a call center to support residents with housing resources, we reimagined the platform as a COVID-19 resource center to support Detroit residents.
We have sourced and trained over 150 volunteers—team members from the Rock Family of Companies—to make calls to over 4,000 residents informing them of resources offered by the City of Detroit. This includes food assistance, medical care, COVID-19 testing, tax foreclosure prevention, utilities support, and more.
The economic, racial, and political disparities in our systems that lead to me getting lead poisoning are the same systems that are keeping Detroiters suffering amidst the pandemic today. Through Resident Connection Hub, I am working to combat those disparities one phone call at a time.