by Georgi-Ann Bargamian
Kim Sherobbi’s Birwood Street home doesn’t look like a community space from the outside. But step into her house on Detroit’s northwest side, and you find yourself in a place that’s more meeting center than private residence.
A table of pamphlets greets visitors at the entry. The dining room area is an open meeting space with chairs arranged around the perimeter and her living room is half furnished to make room for potluck dinners for visitors.
Welcome to Birwood House, Sherobbi’s home and non-profit neighborhood community house since 2016. Sherobbi says her work to nurture a caring community is an extension of her mother’s work in the same house as Birwood Block Club secretary in the 1960s.
“My mother bought this house in 1958 and our neighbors were predominantly white back then,” Sherobbi recalls. “It took 10 years to change to a mostly black neighborhood, and I grew up in this community with people who were nurturing and set the foundation. I want to see how we bring back values and community where people come first.”
The retired Detroit Public Schools teacher remembers her street as being safe and full of adults who watched out for one another and their children. But Sherobbi says that culture has changed because “trust is a big issue.”
“Drugs, economic instability and movement of people” stop many from letting strangers into their home, and Sherobbi knows that her choice to do so is “somewhat a risk.”
But Sherobbi thinks it’s a risk worth taking if Birwood House can become a place “where people matter and make a difference and come first.”
Sherobbi walks her neighborhood to talk to renters and homeowners, teens, and children and teachers at Noble Elementary-Middle School about Birwood House’s space for “education, access and exposure to resources and conversations.”
So far, Sherobbi has hosted intergenerational projects and discussions, community meetings, and youth and adult science, math and technology classes.
“I want to create a space for critical, compassionate conversations about things people are concerned about but won’t talk about – race, the economy, water, schools, the things weighing on people’s minds,” says Sherobbi. “When people talk and share, that’s when people change.”
About a 10-minute drive from Birwood House is Zienethe Adewole’s home on Dailey Street, also known as Zayvion’s Playhouse, a non-profit Adewole established in 2015 “to make things better in a safe way for kids.”
A regular group of 15 to 20 mostly adolescent boys drop in, stay for dinner, and “camp out all over the house.”
“They know they can always come over,” says Adewole, a State of Michigan Children’s Protective Services worker who goes by Zina. “It’s a revolving door. They find me to be a dependable adult in their life.”
Adewole was inspired to establish Zayvion’s Playhouse during a 2013 trip to Uddevalla, Sweden where she visited an old factory building that had been renovated into a community center for children to explore arts, music, dance and group recreation.
The Saginaw native moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina with her family when she was 10. In 2013, she decided to move back to Michigan and establish a youth center in the spirit of the one she saw in Sweden.
“I always wanted to have a safe space for kids,” Adewole remembers. “With all the cheap houses, I thought, ‘Why not Detroit?’”
Young people are drawn to Zayvion’s Playhouse by the environment Adewole has created. There’s a pool table in the living room, a gaming console in her son’s bedroom, communal meals around her dining room table, and futon couches for frequent sleepovers. Her basement has a larger recreation space. Kids do their homework, make visions boards, and talk about their future goals.
Adewole says she has seen changes in the boys who have been coming to Zayvion’s Playhouse for almost four years.
“They have become more respectful of each other as peers and adults. Their academics have improved, and if their grades are not the best, their attendance has improved. More of them are aspiring to go to college and having them think that can be a reality for them is important.
“I’ve always believed if I can catch the kids young, they will be outstanding parents and great citizens,” Adewole adds. “I want them to know they’re better than their environment.”
The Power of ‘Collective Efficacy’ in Neighborhoods
Birwood House and Zayvion’s Playhouse are examples of citizen-driven work to create a closer-knit community and positively impact residents whatever their social and economic circumstances.
According to the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, it’s work worth doing.
Begun in 1994, the eight-year-long study shows that the future success of youth is heavily influenced by the neighborhood where they are raised. The study’s data has generated hundreds of papers and articles, including 15 papers published in 2017.
According to a MacArthur Foundation summary of the project’s initial takeaways published 10 years after its kickoff, high neighborhood “collective efficacy” has a powerful positive impact on neighborhood youth, measured by “the willingness of people to work together to make things happen” and how much “residents trust each other, share common values, and are willing to intervene on behalf of the common good – for example, in supervising children and protecting public order.”
‘Creating a Different World,’ One Neighborhood at a Time
The power of placed-based neighborhood support has fueled the work of Brilliant Detroit CEO and co-founder Cindy Eggleton since 2015 when she and co-founders Jim and Carolyn Bellinson decided to find a way to put family services in targeted neighborhoods with a high child population.
Working at the intersection of Detroit’s black, brown and Arab communities, Eggleton oversees a community house in Warrendale-Cody Rouge, Central North End, and Southwest Detroit’s Chadsey Condon neighborhoods. This year, five more community houses will join those three if funding is found.
Brilliant Detroit’s model relies on individuals or organizations donating a neighborhood home within walking distance of those being served, and neighbors helping renovate the space.
“The families in the neighborhoods inform what happens in those houses and how it’s done,” Eggleton adds. “The neighborhoods are entirely different and have their own personality.”
Sometimes that personality is split.
Brilliant Detroit’s Chadsey Condon community house is in a neighborhood of Latinos, African-Americans and Arabs, but African-Americans and Arabs have not been participating in its programs in large numbers. Eggleton wants to know why and is sending a team into the neighborhood “to build relationships and get their perspective and listen. Our goal is always to reflect the neighborhood fully.”
Brilliant Detroit’s Warrendale-Cody Rouge community house is also in a neighborhood of African-Americans and a “significant” Arab population. But Eggleton says the Arab community’s relationship with Warrendale-Cody Rouge “has been different,” with both ethnic communities participating in that house’s programs.
“My guess is they’re accustomed to living nearby and they aren’t isolated,” says Eggleston. “Other people cluster and feel isolated. I’m not positive what it is. That’s something we have to investigate.”
Brilliant Detroit has identified 30 to 50 potential community houses in “high need” Detroit neighborhoods. Dearborn is another city on its radar due the interest of a Brilliant Detroit intern from Dearborn who wants to help open a house in her community.
“We’re working to get this right and stay true to who we are,” says Eggleton.
As for the phenomenon of individuals converting their homes into neighborhood community centers, Eggleton welcomes the initiative and hopes it expands to complement the work of Brilliant Detroit and other likeminded organizations.
“To me, that’s the basis for us creating a different world. Getting people at the table – that is what really begins to change things. There is a desire for people to come together in some way.”