Around Brightmoor, they called him “J Bone.”
Jason Williams, the friendly, playful youngest son of long-time Detroit neighborhood activist Ora Williams, was known for his love of this community, the only one he ever called home. Since his shocking, accidental death last year at age 34, J Bone’s mother and several peers he considered family have begun recovering by planting new seeds of devotion to Brightmoor.
Ora Williams recently announced plans to buy two vacant lots that will be christened “The Bone Yard” and serve as a gathering place for local young adults and children to mingle, play dominoes and enjoy camaraderie.
The secretary of Brightmoor Community Alliance, Williams says her vision for the new park not only memorializes her son’s spirit, but also supports recruitment of future resident activists.
In Detroit and other major Michigan cities, many battle-tested veteran block leaders who’ve been watchdogs against crime, blight and safety hazards have stood guard for decades. Now, they face an increasingly common question about future vigilance in their subdivisions: Who will carry the baton?
Williams says her son and his friends were preparing to take the lead in their neighborhood near Fenkell and Grand River Avenues.
“He was born here in Brightmoor and he always wanted to stay in Brightmoor,” she recalls. “He always helped the seniors on the block. Jason was the type who could talk to a person on the street or to the president of a corporation.”
Having watched his mom interact with the community his entire life, Williams says it wasn’t by accident Jason took such keen interest in residents and visitors alike, appearing front and center at neighborhood meetings. J Bone wouldn’t hesitate to approach an unfamiliar face.
“You can bet your bottom dollar that Jason was going to find out, ‘What are you here for?’” his mother says.
In their leisure time it wasn’t uncommon to find her son with a group playing friendly games of dominoes – “bones” – on Patton Street, where Williams plans to install a swing set and open the private lots for safe social gatherings. Dante Baker, 36, supports Williams’ vision and still works on behalf of residents, in the Samaritan spirit of his deceased friend.
Baker left Detroit in 2006 to live in Alabama and Arizona, returning to his Patton Street neighborhood about a year ago.
He didn’t like what he saw.
“I said, ‘It’s time for somebody to make a change,’” Baker remembers. “Then I said, ‘Somebody? It might as well be me.’”
With Williams’ guidance, Baker has taken initial steps to form the We Are 1 block club, regularly mowing lawns, boarding abandoned houses and helping to lead a volunteer team of about eight people.
“I have a 14-year-old son and I’m trying to teach the younger generation that you still have a chance. You still have a chance in doing negative or positive,” adds Baker.
While apathy is part of the challenge in getting young adults and children civically engaged, Williams says local agencies can be dismissive toward those who don’t fit the stereotypical profile of active, responsible neighbors.
“They’re not looking at them as viable citizens who can contribute,” says Williams. “That’s one of the things that always bothered me, dismissing people because of their appearance.”
Another obstacle to preparing young neighborhood leaders can be the generation gap itself, adds Jamie Schriner-Hooper, executive director of the Lansing-based Community Economic Development Association of Michigan.
“You just have to foster a strong sense of community and invite younger people to the table,” she says. “The ‘This is the way we’ve always done it’ approach is not necessarily the way to go.”
New energy in the form of 20-something and 30-something residents shouldn’t be overlooked, as demonstrated by revitalization efforts in REO Town just south of downtown in Michigan’s capitol, Schriner-Hooper adds.
But Phyllis Edwards, executive director of Bridging Communities, says neighborhood activism is a lesson that should begin during childhood. Bridging Communities is a grassroots organization serving eight zip codes in and around Detroit’s Chadsey High School district.
“I am an advocate for intergenerational engagement,” says Edwards. “I’m not reinventing the wheel; I’m just doing what my grandmother was doing for me.”
A Memphis native, Edwards remembers making rounds with her grandmother to deliver food or share words of prayer with others in the neighborhood.
If anyone had a visitor from out of town, all the other residents knew who the stranger “belonged to,” says Edwards.
“It made the community a lot more harmonious and a lot safer,” Edwards added.
A Detroiter since 1969, Edwards and her staff build on intergenerational sharing through programs like “Movies on the Green,” where young people learn event planning and socialize while enjoying films on projectors outside the organization’s 6900 McGraw Street office.
An even stronger intergenerational component is the Unity in the Community Time Bank, which represents 1,075 participants. The bank is an honor system that lets members, often teens, run errands or shovel snow for seniors, in exchange for receiving, for example, school tutoring or clothing alterations. Everything from legal service to cooking classes can be accessed by time bank members of all ages, Edwards says, adding that 12,253 hours have been “exchanged” since 2010.
Tanda Rawls-Owens, neighborhood police officer in Detroit’s 8th Precinct, says law enforcement and overall community wellness benefit from residential involvement, young and old. Rawls-Owens coordinates Bridging the Gap, a program to unite families, elders and youth with police at friendly, public outings.
Says Rawls-Owens, “This is something that has to be taught: We have to take ownership of our communities.”
Photos by Paul Engstrom