Detroit, Education, UAW — October 24, 2016 at 8:42 am

Detroit entrepreneurs: Young imaginations hold the key to solutions


There is something to be said about youth who manage to escape harsh realities imposed upon them by inhumane systems, by imagining a way forward, a more beloved community. The children who go without water, who don’t have enough to eat, who move between homes or schools many times before they leave their adolescence, yet somehow find enough humanity in their souls to keep creating.

I can recall the day I made a working lamp for my bedroom out of a dish liquid bottle. I was in elementary school. I couldn’t begin to recount the formula I used to create my concoction, but I do recall that at that time in my development, I had no knowledge of the impossible. I believed that whatever I wanted to do could be done. Whatever I wanted to create could be created. My imagination was powerful. It was the one space where I could escape any curveball life threw at me. And life did throw its share of curveballs my way.

Growing up in poverty in my early years, although very tough, afforded me an opportunity to see beyond what was present before me. By middle school I had handmade napkin holders, key chains, dollhouses with popsicle sticks and lots of other cool items, that I would actually use at home. I was lucky enough to have teachers who nurtured a space that allowed me and the other learners in my classes to innovate. A space that allowed us to discover our talents and imagine our solutions. I have been an artist for as long as I can think back, so I didn’t always appreciate the academic portion of school. I’ve always valued the skills I learned in my woodshop, home economics and newspaper classes. They helped me to build character and taught me life skills that I still use today. It’s unfortunate that this creative energy is not a priority in every academic institution. It has been proven that the cookie cutter testing model has failed so many of our children. So, no matter what we feel about an institution, children exist inside of them and our focus must be on them.

A couple of years ago, I was invited to visit the Brightmoor Maker Space at Detroit Community High School by teacher Bart Eddy. When I arrived I was immediately nostalgic. I witnessed Black children building rain barrels, making wooden signs for neighbors in their community, rehabbing and turning trikes into fruit and vegetable delivery tricycles, and designing and printing their own t-shirts. The young people showed so much pride in what they were doing and were very knowledgeable about the importance of their new skillsets.

I was so impressed that I invited the students to showcase their work at the New Work New Culture Conference I co-organized in Detroit with the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership and other community partners in 2014. The students designed a custom trike as well as t-shirts for the conference, and taught young people and adults who visited their station some of their skills. It was wonderful to watch their interactions.

In early 2015, I received a call from Bart telling me that the young people felt compelled to do something about the water crises in Detroit and Flint. They had been donated some industrial trikes by the UAW and wanted to use them to help support people without water. Bart invited me to speak to the students about the water crises and I accepted. I spent a half-day with the students and instructors, and by the time I left that day, they were well on their way to designing a water filtration trike. Brightmoor Makerspace agreed to donate the first trike beyond their prototype to We the People of Detroit, an organization that has done tremendous work supporting the efforts of residents in Detroit, Flint and other cities across the globe that are struggling with a water crisis. They recently produced the book, Mapping the Water Crisis: The Dismantling of African American Neighborhoods in Detroit, through the We the People of Detroit Research Collective.

I was ecstatic about the possibilities of the water filtration trike when I left the Brightmoor Maker space that day, but had no idea what the trike would become.

A few months ago, I received an email update from Bart and I could sense the joy in his print.

“The great thing about this project is that it has been a truly collective and imaginative effort on the part of students and instructors to connect with a real community need with global implications i.e. Climate Change. It also addresses the more immediate needs of residential water shut offs in Detroit and the lead water crisis in Flint . . . There is much more that can be said, but I will leave that for a further letter.”

The intergenerational team who calls themselves the Water Cyclers have since completed their prototype and are currently working on their first production model for donation to We the People of Detroit.

Photo credit: Brightmoor Makerspace, used with permission

Through this project, the students of DCH have been able to collaborate with The Stamps School of Art Design at University of Michigan, Ross School of Business, community activists and many others who have invested in helping them to see their vision forward.

A bit about the Renewable Energy Industrial Trike:

  • Battery-operated electronic assist

    Photo by Tawana Petty
  • Solar-charged
  • Dual water purification with battery powered pump
  • Can be connected to rain barrel water collection systems

Through the innovation of this trike, the students are not only attempting to address the issue of clean water, but they are attempting to tackle the issue of immobility that ironically plagues the “motor city” by creating a trike that can travel up to 30 miles per hour.

Of course, this is just the beginning for this dynamic team, but be on the look out for more from these brilliant young minds, as they teach us that no idea is too large when you have a big enough imagination and a village that supports you.