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This story was produced in partnership with Planet Detroit.
On Belvidere Street on Detroit’s east side, Tammara Howard’s efforts to build a community space show what is possible with limited resources. Her project, What About Us?, provides a place for the community to gather, learn from one another and share resources.
“I want to let people see that there is hope,” Howard told Planet Detroit.
Spaces like Howard’s are also an important tactic for historically under-resourced communities to adapt to a warming climate. Local nonprofit Eastside Community Network is working with Howard and others on Detroit’s east side to develop a network of climate resilience hubs — defined by the Urban Sustainability Directors Network as “community-serving facilities augmented to support residents, coordinate communication, distribute resources, and reduce carbon pollution while enhancing the quality of life.”
That could mean a safe place to charge phones or store medicine during power outages or a cooling center to protect people during heat waves. Hubs can also be a point of contact to learn about resources so that residents are better prepared to ride out a crisis.
“The community needs a safe, familiar, welcoming place to come to both on a day-to-day basis and in times of distress,” said Ricky Ackerman, director of climate equity at Eastside Community Network. “Tam has a great sense of community embedded in her, and it shows in all she does.”
But for Howard, the mission is about more than just crisis response.
“What drives me to do what I do is the love I have for the families and my community,” Howard told Planet Detroit. “I always feel like love in the community is the greatest thing so that we can all work together to build and raise our families to live in a nice, healthy, and safe environment.”
‘Leads with love’
Howard lives in the same east side neighborhood she grew up in, where she raised her own children and now receives visits from her grandchildren. She lives in the same house that her mother, who volunteered in their community for decades, was raised in.
Howard started What About Us? in 2014 but was already running the Belvidere Community Youth Block Club since 2000.
The block club launched with youth and families in mind, with Howard aiming to find ways for the community to work together. “I felt how important it was,” she said.
Howard, who has three children, launched the block club to give her kids something constructive to do with their friends; they cleaned up trash around the community, cut grass, and started gardening.
It was her involvement in her kids’ schools, where she was president of the local school community organization, that launched her community activism.
“I formed relationships with the youth and their parents,” she said. “I had a lot of time to do things with the kids. That’s how I originally started all this.”
Word got around, and a lot of families that did not live on Belvidere started asking to be a part of Howard’s active block club. That’s what prompted her to start What About Us? in 2014.
“It don’t matter where you live. You don’t have to live in Detroit. Just come. That’s what the concept is, for everybody to benefit,” she said.
What About Us? receives some financial support from Detroit Residents First Fund and Community Connections and is a partner with Eastside Community Network.
“They are helping to build our resiliency hub with the support and stuff that we need in order to help make it a great success, and we thank them for that,” Howard told Planet Detroit.
But Howard has bootstrapped much of the project using her own limited resources.
“A lot of people are already running spaces serving the role of a resilience hub even if they’re not calling it that,” Ackerman told Planet Detroit. “We’re trying to identify those spots, connect with them, and see how we can best support them.”
Sabrina Hollis, who has lived on Belvidere Street for about 20 years, recently participated in a community vision board party where the residents clipped images and words out of magazines to represent what they hope to see in their community, and shared those ideas with one another. She was able to meet a lot of different people and discuss things that will be going on in the community.
“I think it’s great to have a resiliency hub right in my neighborhood, on my block,” she said.
Along with the resiliency hub, Howard is working on a new mobile unit, which she purchased with her own money, cleared out, and plans to use to serve the community beyond Belvidere Street — especially residents who cannot leave their homes easily.
“This is an example of how committed Tam is,” Ackerman said. “She also shows up for everyone and is so supportive of other community leaders around the east side. She truly leads with love and always looks for ways to build up everyone around her.”
A place for power
Like many neighborhoods in Detroit, residents on Belvidere Street often lose power. The trailer is there for residents to use during emergencies when the power is out. Howard has a gas generator onsite to allow residents to charge their phones and medical devices and put their medicine in the refrigerator until they know what is going to happen with the power.
The last time the neighborhood lost power was in February, and since it was cold outside, What About Us? gave neighbors insulated bags to keep their refrigerated items on the back porches of their houses. They also gave residents solar-powered lights.
“When it’s a power outage, and it’s dark, people don’t like to leave their house. Nobody wants anyone to go in their house,” Howard said. “We gave out some solar lights so that at night, people could see.”
The solar lights worked so well, Howard plans to get solar lights for emergency kits to hand out to neighbors. Eastside Community Network is also working with the nonprofit organization Elevate to connect resiliency hubs to solar energy and battery storage.
Photos of activities, events, and field trips over the years cover the walls inside the trailer. At least twice, or sometimes three times a month, Howard holds some kind of event on her block, either for the kids or for the community. And she’ll often invite construction workers in for lemonade or offer refrigerator space for someone who needs it.
The organization has about 10 volunteers, and most of the events take place outside, where residents feel safer due to the covid pandemic. Inside the trailer, there is a small classroom space, kitchen, storage area, and another space where students can do homework after school. Programs regularly serve about 50 families, with larger events reaching more than 200 people.
One of the biggest events is an annual health and safety fair — this year’s event will be the 15th year it’s been held. The event will be held on Wednesday, July 26, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Hollis’ son was two years old when they first attended the fair, and he is now 15 going on 16.
Howard “has consistently ensured that every year there’s a safety fair on Belvidere between East Warren and Moffat. People that live on other blocks are welcomed as well,” Hollis said.
The fire department does demonstrations about how to make sure residents are safe in their homes, local banks provide financial literacy training, and the Secretary of State brings a mobile truck so people can get their IDs renewed. Home repair experts are on hand to advise residents on how to get a new roof or make other home repairs.
The next project What About Us? is working on is designing a playground for kids of all ages and abilities called the “Live, Learn and Love” project, funded through a Community Connections grant to design a space for young people.
The project includes a music wall with musical instruments at the bottom and the top of the fence walls for kids to make music — including pots, pans, and spoons from resale shops. Howard also plans to add picnic tables with instruments bolted down to them. The lot will soon be fenced in and will have areas for the parents to sit while the children play.
“This is really a passion for her. It comes from the heart. It’s not just something she’s doing to benefit from it,” Hollis said. “Yes, she actually really does care.”
Eastside Community Network staff see Howard’s work as a model for the resilience hubs it’s trying to develop across the east side — and a call to get more resources to community leaders.
“What Tam is able to get done with the limited resources she has had showcases the need and importance of getting more resources to neighborhood-based groups like hers,” Ackerman said.
“They know what can have the biggest impact for residents in their area, and more resources going directly to neighborhood groups can greatly expand their impact.”