It started with a simple idea. A thought that Detroit’s neighborhood residents needed a rallying point. Something that would showcase the big city pride that lives in our hearts and is evidenced across our residential blocks.
The idea that mushroomed into a citywide phenomenon that has included more than 1,400 community events in the past 10 years is ARISE Detroit! Neighborhoods Day, which magnifies the work of existing neighborhood groups.
From those humble beginnings rose a veritable movement that helped change how Detroit sees itself, giving evidence of the good works and good people who are often seemingly invisible to mainstream media.
“I tell people, ‘We don’t create these neighborhood events, but we do elevate and support them,’” says Luther Keith, the visionary behind ARISE Detroit! and Neighborhoods Day. “The residents who come out and showcase their good works and neighborhoods are the reason for our success.”
Housing the events that comprise Neighborhoods Day’s community-wide pulse of activity under one banner was the brainchild of ARISE Detroit! and former Skillman Foundation board member Jane Thomas. Thomas suggested the fledgling non-profit community organization unite local events that occur throughout the summer on one day. Neighborhoods Day was born.
Neighborhoods Day has been about demonstrating what determined, like-minded Detroiters of all demographic backgrounds can do for themselves.
“I called it that big-bang moment for ARISE Detroit! because it gave us our focus,” Keith says. “Not just volunteering but focusing on the neighborhoods. It turned out to be a brilliant idea because people from all over the city wanted to be recognized for what they do in the community.”
ARISE had previously hosted a volunteer fair as its first public event in Campus Martius in the summer of 2007. Ten years after the first Neighborhoods Day attracted an impressive 55 participating block clubs and civic organizations, it grew to encompass more than 300 citywide events this August.
But far more than trumpeting the accomplishment of ARISE Detroit’s! portfolio for effective community mobilization, Keith says Neighborhoods Day has been about demonstrating what determined, like-minded Detroiters of all demographic backgrounds can do for themselves.
“You don’t have to be from some high-powered organization. You can be from Linwood or Clairmount, or Gratiot or Chene and still be involved in ARISE Detroit!” he says.
As I listen to the familiar enthusiasm I’ve often heard in his voice since I was a 17 year old applying to Wayne State University’s former Journalism Institute for Minorities, which he also helped establish, I realize there’s something we’ve never discussed.
Which Detroit neighborhood nurtured him to help inspire a vision of true community?
I’m fascinated to learn he grew up around the corner from Shrine of the Black Madonna church, a community institution that also promoted self-empowerment and self-determination among Detroiters. He had practically breathed the air of spiritual transformation and legacy-building.
At the same time, he says it was a pleasant neighborhood where everyone knew everyone else’s name. I can’t help but think his recollections of Columbus Street on the city’s west side helped birth ARISE Detroit!, following his retirement from The Detroit News.
As if reading my mind, Keith says, “Give a kid happy childhood memories. If a person can’t say they had happy childhood memories of growing up in the neighborhood, then something’s wrong.”
Neighborhoods Day plants dozens of seeds that grow into happy childhood memories. At the same time, it reminds our elders of the great potential even in communities that have seen what the roughest times offer.
During Shrine of the Black Madonna’s first Neighborhoods Day, the church distributed free food and clothing.
“It was very worthwhile to be part of,” Shrine member Michael Jones told Keith. “Our members have been talking about getting the church more engaged in the community, and this was a way to do it.”
In the Palmer Park area, Holistic Development Community Center collaborated with Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints to hand out 400 backpacks with school supplies during a combined neighborhood cleanup.
“Neighborhoods Day brings the whole city together,” Holistic Development’s Linda Allen told the event’s founder. “It promotes unity.” Held every August, the event feels like a street fair spread throughout Detroit’s parks, alleys, commercial districts and vacant lots. Far removed from early misconceptions that it was all about voluntary cleanup efforts, there are photography and martial arts exhibitions, historical tours, mini-health expos, concerts and grills with neighbors serving hot dogs, burgers and snacks to anybody who stops by.
Neighborhoods Day is really an army of thousands of volunteers, backed by hundreds of organizations that work in all Detroit zip codes on needed community projects. Some even team up with Detroit Public Schools to get the buildings ready for the next school year.
“On Neighborhoods Day people are smiling. Wherever you go, people are feeling good,” Keith says. “That’s the most powerful testament to what Neighborhoods Day has done and will continue to do for Detroit.”
One of the effort’s biggest accomplishments, Keith says, was generating a focus on neighborhoods 10 years ago “before it was fashionable.”
“What we have done with Neighborhoods Day is create a tradition in Detroit that did not exist,” Keith says. “We said, ‘We’re going to pick a day to invite the people of Detroit and celebrate them.’”
It was a compulsion to contribute to the city he loves, not the need to begin a whole new career, that led Keith to form ARISE Detroit!. It operates from a modest suite in the east side’s Samaritan Center with a two-person staff. Still, Keith, recently named a “Michiganian of the Year” by his former employer, is thrilled about what his ongoing journey has yielded.
“I didn’t know what to imagine. I didn’t know what it would become or if it would become anything it all,” he tells me. “Remember, Eddie, I’m a journalist. I’m not a community organizer.”
So it’s still surprising to the man who’s not a community organizer that when he’s out with his wife he’s recognized and people shout, “Arise, Detroit!”
“How do you figure that, man?” he says, with a slightly disbelieving chuckle. “How do you figure that?”
Editor’s Note: Detroit has a long history of honoring and supporting its neighborhoods, and a new exhibit will show off that history to the public.
Sponsored by The DTE Energy Foundation, the exhibit will focus on the neighborhood people and programs that have partnered with ARISE Detroit! since the community mobilization nonprofit began in 2006.
There is no admission charge to view the exhibit. The museum is located at 5401 Woodward, Detroit, 48202. Phone: 313-833-7935.
For more information about Neighborhoods Day and other ARISE Detroit! events, visit www.arisedetroit.org.
To see hundreds of stories published by TheHUB’s editorial partner The Detroit Regional News Hub (Detroit Unspun) visit blog.thedetroithub.com