Djenaba Niemi often takes her children—ages 7 and 11—to Detroit’s Zone 8, a west-side neighborhood known for its history of gangs, violence and drugs. There, as they watch their mother invest in the lives of others, they are learning a lesson in neighborhood restoration.
“I can’t just lock my kids up and hope they’re safe,” said Niemi, a public relations and communications student at University of Michigan-Dearborn. “But I can help give them proper guidance, and I can help with programs that give us back some control of our neighborhoods.”
For much of the past year, that has meant volunteering with Feed the People. The organization hosts monthly dinners, clothing drives and back-to-school programs for neighborhood residents.
Niemi says the events do more than supply others with basic needs; they are a way to engage with the community, to begin a grassroots movement among the people who call Zone 8 home.
“Our community members want to get involved, but sometimes they don’t know how. No one is reaching out to them and asking what change they’d like to see,” she said.
So Feed the People asked. And listened. And continued to show up to work in the neighborhood. Eventually, residents opened up, talking about urban gardens, arts education and a chess club for youth, among other ideas.
Feed the People’s work is part of a larger initiative called Restoring the Neighbor Back to the Hood. Niemi first got involved after reviewing a book penned by the movement’s founder, Yusef Shakur.
That’s when the community organizing bug hit.
“When I help with events I am a community organizer on that day,” she said. “But the other days—I am the community; I’m a part of the community. That’s why this is important.”
Niemi sees the work they’re doing in Zone 8 as a prototype for work that can spread throughout the city. Ideas for long-term impact grow and evolve with each neighborhood’s unique identity.
Engaging the neighbors, then, is key to success.
“In reality, no one person can save a neighborhood. Feeding people once a month won’t change anything long term,” she said. “We need the community’s help and involvement to start restoring our neighborhoods.”
The people in Zone 8 have noticed a difference, as has the Detroit City Council. Niemi and other volunteers recently received the Spirit of Detroit award from the council for their work on behalf of Feed the People. The award recognized the organization’s commitment to improving the quality of life for Detroit residents.
Niemi hopes the recognition by the council will help launch bigger programs in 2014. The organization recently received the donation of a two-family flat in the neighborhood to continue and extend their work.
“I can’t change the world overnight, but I want to make a dent,” she said. “I want to do something that matters.”