After what Shamayim ‘Shu’ Harris has been through, most people would have understood if she quit.
Her son was killed by a hit and run driver just a few blocks away from her house in 2007.
Her city, Highland Park, is just under three square miles of surrounded by Detroit and filled with good people but basically few services. The beautiful library? Closed. The kids? Bussed away as the district doesn’t run schools anymore, and the high school kids now are assigned to neighboring Detroit Public Schools.
If you didn’t know, Highland Park at one time was one of Michigan’s shining jewels, up there with the best neighborhoods and near-suburbs. Henry Ford’s Model T streamed out of the iconic plant on Machester, but Ford packed up and left in the 1950s. Chrysler was there too – their world headquarters, in fact – but they hit the road, taking their jobs and tax base with them up I-75 for the Oakland County suburb of Auburn Hills in the 1980s thanks to concerns around safety and a giant gift basket of tax incentives. The state of Michigan even built them their own off-ramp when they got there.
But this is the past to Shu. We have to live in the now. To deal with the challenges her city and her neighbors face, she didn’t quit. She used her experiences to empower her.
She’s a police chaplain. A minister. A community anchor. She ran for local office and she spent years in her career as an administrator.
For her next chapter, she decided to create a village on Avalon Street.
It’s called Avalon Village, at the corner of Woodward and Avalon, where yes, kids can have a place to play and a park again.
A place, a homework house, where learning can happen.
A place for sports and fun like basketball and tennis.
A place where local folks from the community can sell their wares in a Goddess market made of shipping containers and learn business and have the chance at making a living while providing things the neighborhood needs without having to leave the city.
A gazebo where the neighborhood can gather and musicians can play.
A place where there’s farm-fresh food available, and down the line, an old gas station will be turned into a vegetarian cafe.
And a park in honor of her son.
Harris has dealt with her set of challenges, but she always had a vision that was her north star. First, she had to get the house she’s in today.
“It was fertile grounds to me, and I said that for four years. After my son, he got killed September 23, 2007, it was in January I was driving by, and I saw a dumpster sticking out on the side of the road right here in this area right here (pointing off her porch). I did a u-turn, and there was a for sale sign in the window. I called them, and I’m like, wow the house was available, okay then. I called, and they said $5500, and I said I got $3,000.
I didn’t have $3,000.
I had to get $3,000, you know how you say, and I’m like okay Shu you got to get $3,000 before closing. My girl gave me $1500, my friend from Chicago donated $1500. I think I had $468 state income tax check and then my regular work check. I sold some fish sandwiches for $5, and I got the $3,000.”
From there – her vision – detailed, and with purpose – has started to come together over the course of a few years. The journey is continuing with a Kickstarter campaign crowdfunding campaign, where she is looking to raise $241,000 to build the village. As of this writing, she’s raised about $152,000 with five days to go.
She’s had some help from some notable folks, too.
That group works with visionaries and innovators already on their way to creating a better life for their communities, but need some help in getting there.
$65,000 of that donation was applied to the current Kickstarter and the remainder is earmarked for the ongoing project at the Avalon Village.
Shu seems to attract people and there’s a reason why. She believes in people, and that they can make it.
Sustainability is how she lives. There’s a solar powered streetlight on the property, as two thirds of the streetlights were not only turned off, but removed from Highland Park because they didn’t pay their bill. She re-uses and recycles to get the most useful life out of the little she has.
But she believes the responsibility of our communities rests with each of us.
“Maybe the government and the city if they’re strapped for cash, whatever it is, that’s really not my concern. We know what happens. We know what happened, but the people still suffer. We can go and shout, I need this lot cleaned up but guess what, if the manpower is short and the funds is short to actually get it done and to hire those folks that have to do it. What else are you supposed to really do? That comes within you. It’s determined how you want to live. You want to live with a toilet and a mattress, you go ahead but we ain’t rolling like that on Avalon.”
The determination in her voice is clear, but not angry. If anything, matter-of-fact. She will do this. It’s said that it takes a village to raise a child. She’s already started the work, as you can see in the pictures above.
“You have to go ahead and you have to put that people power in it.”
It was clear after spending time with Shamayim Harris and touring all the work that’s going on, that yes, indeed, Shu can.