Creative New Jersey: Notes from Detroit

February 15, 2016

The Alley Project

Sometimes it’s good to get out and see the world, to “fill the well” of your own creativity and imagination, either to be inspired by something new or to affirm strategies, beliefs or plans you already have. I had the opportunity to visit Detroit two weeks ago for a conference and found both inspiration and affirmation in the diverse world of work that requires a thoughtful, long-term approach to community engagement.

Kacy O'Brien
Kacy O’Brien

Thanks to Sharnita Johnson, a Detroit native and Dodge’s arts program director, I had the opportunity to meet four people working in four different fields, all of whom were deeply engaged with their communities and had found ways to work together to make change happen. These organizations are doing work that is similar to great work being done in New Jersey, but with the specific strategies and nuances that speak to their location and challenges.

Community Connections

Lisa Leverette, quick to laugh and with a twinkle in her eye that suggests she’s seen it all, is the program director of Community Connections, a “grassroots giving” resident-driven approach to funding.  Community Connections is in its 10th year of funding “innovative, youth-focused, grassroots projects to impact community change,” with more than 750 projects funded, some over multiple years.

What struck me about the work that Lisa Leverette and her team are doing is that they go deep into their communities to find the service leaders – people who are doing great services to their communities often without the support of formal physical or economic structures – and help them to strategically grow their ideas through brainstorming, planning, applying for grants and completion of their projects. It’s a soup-to-nuts support system at Community Connections.

The Alley Project is one example of a project Community Connections helped to support, which brought together community residents, local youth and Young Nation – a young artists collective with a focus on graffiti art – to transform unused lots and neighborhood garage doors and reduce illegal tagging on residents’ homes. This short video gives a great overview that shows the breadth of their work:

PlaceMarket: The Alley Project from Little Things Labs on Vimeo.

Detroit Collaborative Design Center

It’s a small, small world: Hammonton native Dan Pitera now calls Detroit and the Detroit Collaborative Design Center home. As Executive Director, Dan views his role as that of social and political activist through his talents as an architect and designer. Over a cup of tea in a neighborhood coffee, tea and spice emporium (Germack Café for anyone who visits), I learned about the collaborations of the Process Leaders – a group of organizations that helped facilitate a part of the community engagement process of the Detroit Future City initiative, including its focus on research and priorities for economic growth, civic engagement, land use and other areas as Detroit reinvents itself.

Collaboration is the name of the game at the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, which also worked on The Alley Project alongside Community Connections. The Design Center has a range of planning and design projects it’s done over the years, along with fully realized initiatives such as the Fire Break project, aimed at raising awareness about blighted and dangerous properties from fire, and Livernois Storefront, a pop-up community hub that provides space for local businesses to showcase their wares and doubles as a community gathering place.

Community Development Advocates of Detroit

Sarida Scott, executive director of the Community Development Advocates of Detroit, works with community development groups across Detroit to catalyze change and transformation in neighborhoods.

The Community Development Advocates have developed tools, process guides and research to help their members, a strategic framework for working with and in communities on revitalization, and recommendations for industry reform. The partnerships and collaborations they’ve helped to foster across their membership has strengthened the work of Detroit’s community development corporations at a time when local anchor organizations and neighborhood capacity building are becoming more and more essential to the process of community revitalization.

Recently, Community Development Advocates of Detroit have embraced the power of technology by creating an interactive map and directory for all community organizations working together to make a better Detroit, called d[COM]munity.

Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice

Guy O. Williams, president and CEO of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, looks to educate and influence policies that address environmental justice, as well as workforce development. The Detroiters are “dedicated to providing all Detroit residents with the tools they need to play an increasingly meaningful role in the decision-making process regarding environmental concerns in their own neighborhoods,” and does this through collaboration and community partnerships, such as the Detroit Climate Action Collaborative to help the municipality to identify short and long-term goals on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the Detroit Youth Summit and the Detroit Environmental Agenda.

Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice has also partnered with organizations like Write A House, working alongside the organization to provide construction apprenticeships as it restores vacant, boarded-up homes to be awarded to writers.

Williams’ collaborative spirit was on display when I met with him and Scott, who both were able to discuss new initiatives they are undertaking and where their collaboration will strengthen each other’s efforts. The trust Scott and Williams had built previously in their respective roles as process leaders on the Detroit Future City initiative, alongside Dan Pitera, ignited immediately even though they hadn’t had time to connect recently.

It was a good reminder to me that stepping outside of the office, outside of the usual routine can lead to an abundance of opportunities, including the chance to understand inspiring people doing important work the world over.  So if you ever find yourself in Detroit, you might want to check out the work of these four organizations for a little inspiration and affirmation.


Kacy O’Brien is the Program Manager at Creative New Jersey, a statewide initiative dedicated to fostering creativity, innovation, and sustainability by empowering cross-sector partnerships in commerce, education, philanthropy, government, and culture, in order to ensure dynamic communities and a thriving economy.