The Springdale-Woodmere Block Club is one example of the countless grassroots groups that have organized and are working with neighbors to keep their neighborhoods from being lost to decay.
The block club serves an area located at the western end of Southwest Detroit, roughly from Fort to Dix, Woodmere to Waterman. Since the forming 6 years ago, participation has grown from a handful of neighbors to 60 very active neighbors. The group’s scope has expanded from addressing safety concerns to “a little bit of everything”.
This includes activism, fighting blight and other activities can fall under the group’s two-fold mission: first, “to connect residents to resources” and second, to work with other resident groups and community organizations when their missions align and to engage in productive dialogue when they do not. As block club Vice President Ann Byrne emphasizes, an important part of Springdale’s mission also includes reminding residents that they are resources unto themselves.
Michigan Community Resources’ Janai Gilmore spoke with Ann about the group’s approach to getting neighbors involved and keeping them engaged in improving the community.
What organizing strategies have you used to get neighbors involved?
We have lots of little pockets of neighbors that have been functioning as their own little block clubs, kind of a last stand holding the fort down. As we meet those people we let them know there are more people in the neighborhood doing that kind of thing and we can do it better when we work together. A lot of times when you get to one of those neighbors then you get all five. Ultimately the good old fashioned talking to your neighbors and inviting them is something that actually works.
We do recruitment at larger events. The Southwest Safety Alliance puts on a safety fair every year and we host a table at that. Our District 6 Councilwoman, some State Representatives, the District 6 Manager through the Department of Neighborhoods, and other community organizations will put on fairs around different issues. As a general rule, because we are present and open to those groups, we are always invited to have a table. And at that point we get the neighbors who have a specific interest who we might not get in the door with otherwise.
What have you found to be the most effective strategies for keeping neighbors engaged?
Retaining people has to do with making sure they can find their place. I think sometimes guests are frustrated when we start a meeting. We go around the room and say who we are and where we are from, but that allows neighbors to feel that they belong. It has the side effect of letting guests realize the whole area that we cover and that we are a diverse group. That also creates ownership of the block club.
We employ our whole community because we realize the value of all of our neighbors. The neighbor who sits at home may be “differently-abled”, but can keep an eye on the block and keep you informed when there’s something going on by her house when you’re at work.
Those same neighbors may come out to your community clean up and serve the lunch, and when you add hospitality to clean ups, your neighbors- and even neighbors who didn’t volunteer themselves- feel better about the process.
The other thing is to let neighbors know their value. When you first start a group, you may well get the older homeowner as opposed to renters or lots of other groups. Depending on the neighborhood, that can be a specific age group or sometimes a specific ethnicity which doesn’t necessarily reflect the diversity of the whole neighborhood. By partnering with other groups, we have different youth groups that come in because they are doing a project, such as global youth action day. They will come to us and ask for assistance. While they are there we tell them “this is your block club and your ideas matter and if you have a problem in the neighborhood, we can work together toward a solution.”
What is the most important success factor for building a successful block club?
The biggest thing is that you have to understand that neighborhoods are like family and we all have our “Uncle So- and- So” who we sometimes don’t want to admit that we have. That can be a problem or a community member. And those are really small obstacles to improving your neighborhood. So, value everybody.
You have to take all comers. But then you have to have the skill set to deal with that; it can be done. Everyone has a gift and value. If you start your grassroots organizing with that premise, when someone seems to be challenging that, wisdom you strive to find what their gift is. Then you will have a successful organization.
What motivates you to be involved?
A whole lot of people are trying to find solutions for Detroit. And that’s a good thing. The system became so broken that Detroiters stopped believing that they were a part of the solution. It’s very rewarding to elevate your neighbor to the point that they are fixing their own problem because that’s a gift. That is priceless; now you have a neighbor who couldn’t even vision a complete solution to the problem who is now visioning what should be there.
Detroiters have been going from one well kept pocket of Detroit to another well kept pocket of Detroit, driving by the blight in between. There may have been lack of funding, there may have been lack of organization, or there may have been political corruption. Whatever the obstacle was, it did not prevent those people from walking by or driving by and thinking “Wow! I wish that this was here instead.”
We’re at a very wonderful time in Detroit where some people are beginning to listen to long-kept dreams of residents. And we’re also at a point where funders are beginning to come directly to residents or demanding that they be part of the engagement component in a more real way. You can’t help but stay fired up when the means to make change that you’ve known needed to be made for a long time are coming to you, especially when you are simply empowering your neighbor to lead that change.