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The Surprise Weapon in Detroit’s Battle Against Gentrification

The Illuminate Literacy project encourages neighborhood youth to hold onto their identities and histories by expressing themselves in words.

Video still from "Illuminate Literacy Entrepreneurs in Detroit."

Inside a refurbished storefront along John R. Street in Detroit’s North End, Jamii Tata taps out a few rhythms on his djembe drum while a small group of young writers works on an exercise for the writing class he’s leading. He’s coaching them in writing so they can effectively communicate their thoughts about the changes happening in their community and confidently articulate their identity in a world that often silences people of color.

The mission of his class, Illuminate Literacy Entrepreneurs, is to nurture young literary “entrepreneurs” who will create chapbooks, record poems and songs, and host open mics — like the ones his group organizes, Illuminate Open Mic — that are open to the community.

It is community that is at the heart of his project.

It is community that is at the heart of his project, an attempt to help neighborhood residents respond to the gentrification threatening to erase them and their rich histories.

Tata moved into the John R. Row commercial building this summer. A barber shop was the only other business operating in the block-long strip of empty storefronts. For the first time in the decade that he’s been doing this work, he has his own space through an arrangement with the property owner.

The North End of Detroit is densely populated but blight-stricken. Houses are in ruins, commercial buildings are boarded up, and empty residential lots where burned-out homes stood for many years are now overgrown. The predominantly African American residential area reflects the scars of five decades of economic downturn. But the once-neglected neighborhood — within five miles of downtown and neighboring midtown Detroit — is now facing gentrification following a surge in investment in the downtown area. The North End will soon be the last stop of the new $140-million M-1 Rail project, which will connect select neighborhoods to downtown via streetcar after its opening in 2017.

Demand is up for spacious single-unit homes like the ones on these blocks.

Family homes disappear and businesses vanish overnight.

Artists have found that literary education can help people retain their history and voice amid these conditions. Gentrification of impoverished neighborhoods can create displacement of people in impoverished communities no longer able to afford the local cost of living. Oftentimes, family homes disappear and businesses vanish overnight. Programs like Illuminate provide tools to the African American and Latino communities.

“We’re all remnants,” said Kafre Sims-Bey, 17, an Illuminate student who has been with Tata for five years. “As far as preservation goes, when you want to talk about the erasure of a people, I feel like the youth are at the forefront of that.”

Tata’s Illuminate program is an example of connecting students to the power of language. Across the nation, similar organizations have been assisting urban youth to improve their writing through school and community programs as a way to help them maintain their identity under the pressures of gentrification.

“I exist, even if it’s just within the borders of Detroit,” said Sims-Bey. “A lot of people are walking around like they’re a ghost, because there is nothing around.”

Tata’s motivation to create a movement of expressive young writers comes from his childhood experience with schooling.

“Because we had a failing education system, I got a lot of my auxiliary education by being at the community center,” explained Tata, a former student of Detroit Public Schools, an education system long distressed by lack of funding, overcrowding, and eroding infrastructure. “So the [Illuminate] program is actually geared toward community spaces, be it a garden, be it a community center, be it a house, literally in my backyard, wherever people are that education naturally happens.”

Grassroots literary education organizations are operating across the United States, including the affiliated organizations of the Brave New Voices (BNV) network, operated by the San Francisco-based organization Youth Speaks. Over 100 local organizations are affiliated with BNV in cities across the United States.

“We do not produce poets for the sake of poetry or art.”

Youth Speaks began as a way to create spaces for youth to develop their voices as writers, explained Hodari Davis, the national program director for Youth Speaks and executive program director for Brave New Voices. These programs have become most successful helping young poets to be unafraid in addressing societal ills and to articulate their experiences with the rapidly changing cities in which they live.

He said recently the organization has concentrated on helping the young people “use their voices as change agents for social change.”

“We do not produce poets for the sake of poetry or art. But rather for the broader purpose of creating more spaces for young people to be heard.”

BNV hosted its 19th annual International Youth Poetry Slam Festival in Washington, D.C., last month. “Brave New Voices tends to be a reflection of the contemporary challenges in the lives of the youth who attend, mirroring the lives they live through the stories they tell,” said Davis. “The poetry this year focused a lot on police and racial violence and tension that is present in the country. Young people created intersections between this conflict, gentrification, and poverty in many new ways, intimating that these challenges go hand-in-hand with the type of profiling and discrimination young people face.”

Tata agrees that local literary programs help youth develop their voices as a means of expressing their truth to the public. Their voices can help preserve a community’s history after gentrification. And as these young people become poets, journalists, business writers, or marketing professionals, their written works can be a reflection of their communities to share across the world.

“I think it’s really important on a basic level you understand how to interpret symbols and things around you, so you can get to a point to interpret the symbols of injustice and inequality that is really present in inner-city communities, communities in which we live,” said Tata.


By Khafre Sims-Bey

For the lack thereof; a black female power ranger,
maybe she could be fuchsia, like the future, or pink as the portal I came out of.
We were taught to never love the gypsies that produced these young thugs,
seduce young thugs into 21 inches of Indian in her family,
don’t burn away all you Belle Isle bridge cards, meet me at Kern’s and we’ll warp time,
313 times to be exact

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