Crossing The Lines

Cody Rouge Community Activates Youth, Diversity to Build a Brighter Future

by: Rob St. Mary

October 19th, 2012



“We are so passionate about this place. We refuse to give in.”

– Cheryl, a member of the Warren Avenue Community Organization

WDET's newsroom believes that in order to get authentic ideas & voices, you have to go out into the community to meet people where they live. Over the past year & a half, we have convened community conversations throughout Metro Detroit as part of our Crossing The Lines initiative. As a continuation of that effort, I’ll be visiting and speaking to residents in Skillman's Good Neighborhoods, six Detroit communities where nearly 60,000 Detroit children live - roughly 30% of the city’s child population.

A view from the Cody Rouge Community

Detroit’s northern edge might be a straight line along the 8 Mile Road boarder. But, when you head west and then south, you end up in an area sharing a jagged boarder with Dearborn. While the boundary might be a broken, many of the people there share are solid determination to collaborate for a better future in the neighborhood for the residents and children of all ages.

Welcome to Cody Rouge

The epicenter of a lot of the efforts in the Cody Rouge neighborhood is Cody High School. But the hive of activity is the Don Bosco Hall on West Chicago Road west of the Southfield Freeway. This is the home of the Cody Rouge Community Action Alliance – a non-profit organization with the mission “to revitalize and sustain a healthy community where residents have access to and promote a high quality of life.”

A Small History

The community around the center and connected areas that make up the Cody Rouge neighborhood has always been working class, mostly blue collar. The nearby auto factories provided the jobs and the neighborhood became a diverse reflection of the shop floor – white, black, Arab, Asian. Many say that diversity is still there today. One testament to that is a bilingual newsletter sent by the Warren Avenue Community Association. Published several times a year it’s not only in English but Arabic.

Braiding a Community Together Block By Block

Kenyetta Campbell was raised in the neighborhood. After collage, around 1995, she says she saw a need for a human service non-profit and started to build PEEPS to make the happen. In 2007, she came on board with Skillman’s “Good Neighborhoods” program and is the executive director of the Cody Rouge Community Action Alliance.

For Campbell, the work is a race against the numbers. The neighborhood has shifted from 42,000 residents to 36,000 in 10 years. 1,700 houses are currently in foreclosure. There are 200-plus open, vacant houses around the Cody High School that are a hazard.

While the numbers represent a data driven aspect of the challenge, it’s really about getting people – neighbors of all ages – involved in the process of becoming dynamic leaders on their own block that can gather others to the cause and improve the community. Campbell says it’s about fighting against a culture that hasn’t prioritized such leadership.

“In order to make change in a child, you have to work with more than just the child,” she says. For Campbell, the whole environment is connected – schools, jobs, housing stock, neighbors. Campbell says leveraging the capacity of residents helps to make things happen.

For example, the efforts of the youth council – a division of the Action Alliance – has led to the cataloging and advocacy needed to bring down 30 houses and board up another 120. A demolition and board up blitz will happen next week. Several groups including the Detroit Rescue Mission and Free Press columnist Mitch Albom are donating goods and services to improve the area. But the catalyst was young people, many still in high school at Cody that decided to step up and make things happen.

An Officer and a Community Organizer

In her dress greens of the Junior ROTC uniform, Jhona’e commands respect. She looks wiser than her 15 years and part of that might have to do with her day-to-day.

The middle child in a family of seven, she says her days start early since her mom has to be a work by 7am. After helping to get her younger siblings on track for their day, Jhona’e says geometry continues to be her biggest challenge. Although, she’ll tell you with pride how she just gained a new stripe – moving up in Junior ROTC from a Cadet to a Corporal. And like her leadership post pinned to her dressed greens signal, Jhona’e works to model what she believes is a benefit to not only herself, but the community.

As a member of the Youth Council, she was part of the effort to help attract attention, cataloging and developing a plan to tackle the abandoned house issue around her school. At the same time, Jhona’e sees her efforts are part of a larger concept she hopes her classmates will embrace as solidly as her. “I’m trying to get them to understand they can make the community better for them when they are walking home… it’s about giving back, helping all,” she said.

Jhona’e goes one further saying the idea is to make her community “a place where you feel safe.”

Sadly, that’s probably the biggest challenge of all.

Kenyetta Campbell says Skillman targeted Cody Rouge for help after a review of statistics showed it had one of the highest rates of youth crime. She says the biggest thing the Good Neighborhoods program has done to help build mass around improvement was breaking various groups out of their “silos”.

She says before there were places that were geographically close, churches and other community groups down the street were not talking to each other but trying to do the same work. Now, Campbell says 13 area pastors are working together with congregations to make Cody Rouge a better place. Beyond the faithful, youth are invited to take part and grab the reigns. A ten member governance board has been seated with two high school students in order to their unique perspective.

“We have committees. We have a plan. We are organized,” says Campbell.

Ask Your Neighbor

Many have talked about an eastside – westside divide in Detroit. But, one place where ideas seem to flow freely is in community activism. Before Kevin Bryant started working on block club development in Cody Rouge, he had already done the same grassroots work as part of Black Family Development in Osborn, also a Skillman community, on Detroit’s Northeast side.

In his year & half in Cody Rouge, Bryant says there were already people in the neighborhood doing great things but they were not formally connected to each other, sharing and collaborating on projects. At the same time, he says it’s the small progressions that help to build mass change. So, Bryant says monthly meetings and “celebrations” of the small victories help to keep people engaged and focused on the impact of the work.

Bryant says, at times, it’s a challenge for people to realize that tools like block clubs can help. “It tickles me that they say ‘I don't want to have a block club but I want to improve safety, clean ups, recreation for youth.’ If you don't want to call it that, fine. But we want to empower them to advocate for themselves,” says Bryant.

So far, 100 residents have committed to establishing a block club in Cody Rouge. For their pledge, they get a start-up kit, meeting assistance and educational opportunities to maximize the impact.

“The aim is to help them, give them support and tech assistance. Give them things to get them going… and keep them going. Try to keep them positive,” says Bryant.

He says in the end, no matter who you are or where you live, we all want one thing - safety.

Over Half Way There

Skillman’s ten-year “Good Neighborhoods” program started in 2006. In a few short months it will be 2013.

So, how has the effort made change in Cody Rouge?

Campbell says people were doing some of the work Skillman was focused on before their grant money and capacity came to the neighborhood, but the organization helped to break down walls, or “silos”, and bring together individual strands of activism into a tightly braided whole.

She says Skillman helped to bring a mass of people with similar ideas together. Some have been outside teachers, trainers and organizers. But at the end of it, she Campbell says the neighbors have to do it themselves and learn the best aspects of organizing in order to continue to affect change after Skillman’s ten year program comes to an end. Something she says she feels is already taking root and growing.

Those ideas, with the help of Skillman’s training, outside partner organizations and social work departments at area universities, have been echoing the sounds of activist connectivity through the Don Bosco Hall community center.

The hive is buzzing. The bees are working. Working hard to improve their combs and make the future just a little bit sweeter for the kids in the community.

I would love to come learn more about your community. Please contact me at rstmary(at)wdet.org or on Twitter @RobDET if you are interested in hosting a small gathering of neighbors and/or community leaders.



It's time to have a real conversation about our behavior. City-dweller/suburbanite, race, religion… We hurt ourselves when we emphasize our differences. Crossing The Lines is WDET’s ongoing, in-depth exploration of what unites & divides us as people and as a region. The central question: how do we behave when we create these lines and does this always serve our interests? Learn more at wdet.org/crossinglines.