Shari Williams is a Cohort III Detroit Revitalization Fellow and the Neighborhoods and Operations Program Manager at Detroit Future City. She is responsible for the Field Guide and the Mini Grant program, which are one of the most remarkable works DFC has done. As I learned more about her work for the Mini Grant program during the lot visit happened last week, I got really interested in why she got into the context of her field now and what she wants to do for the city of Detroit. That’s why I interviewed her this week. Through our one-hour talk, I learned that she was born as a Detroiter, has a passion for urban planning and is determined to devote her life to doing the greater good. It was such an inspiring talk for me that I’d love to share part of our conversations here.
Q: How was Detroit when you were young?
A: It was different. It wasn’t as blighted as it is now. There’s a stronger sense of community, which to me made me feel safer in my community. We had a drug dealer living across the street while my parents are police officers. I didn’t feel unsafe because I know my neighbors would watch me when I was riding the bike. It was a very interesting dynamic, but we are still the same community. I saw Detroit in a different way too. As a young person, I felt that there are certain types of people in different communities. Now I understand that that’s called “class”. As an adult speaking, education could have been better. I was the third in my high school when I graduated, but when I went to Michigan State for college, I had a bigger learning curve than other students, which is eye opening, disheartening and a little depressing. It was that moment that I realized my education wasn’t as good as everybody else’s.
Q: What brought you back?
A: I have a passion for the city. My goal in life is to help the greater good. I was in college and originally I was going to move to Atlanta because many people in Michigan State went to that area after college. My major was an interdisciplinary degree that integrates all the social sciences. Because of this major, I took urban planning as an elective. It wasn’t until I took that class that I decided to stay in Detroit. When I learned about that field, I found this field can do good for the greater good. It was like that “Aha” moment for me; I wanted to get my Master’s in urban planning and I wanted to work to do good for the greater good.
Q: What’s urban planning?
A: Everyone has a different way of describing it, but my way might be a little cocky (laugh). Urban planning is the process of making plans for cities, communities, states and even countries. There’s a lot of different dynamics in urban planning. We do a lot of work in DFC for urban planning like green infrastructure and the 139 square miles report. Those types of things help the community make informed decisions. Urban planners’ jobs are to look at what it is and what will be so that you can make plans. You can’t just stay with what it is now, because things will ultimately change. For example, projections show the population is increasing or decreasing, so what does it mean for the community? All these are part of an urban planner’s job, to educate and empower the community and think about the future. No matter what kind of city you live in, you always need a team of people to look at where we are at and where we’ll be, make smart decisions and be as sustainable as possible.
Q: After college, where did you land at first?
A: I came back to Detroit and got some banking experience. My first career after getting out of the bank was with Enterprise Rent Car. It gives me all the business knowledge and teaches me how to run a business. It’s just a company that’s really set up for its employees. I stayed there for four and a half years, during which I started my Master’s program and I ended up leaving to work at a non-profit, Focus Hope, where I spent about five years. I worked on community safety, educating the community around early childhood educations like encouraging parents to bring their children to the child care center, the Neighborhood Network which helps residents identify what they want to do with their lives and connect them to resources and the Head Start program, a community and family partnership which helps parents become leaders in the school. I also did a little contractual work with Transportation Riders United. I was on their advocacy group, and afterwards I became a Detroit Revitalization fellow and I now work here in DFC.
Q: Why did you apply for Detroit Revitalization Fellowship?
A: The fellowship had started four years prior to I applied. I have never heard about this program until I read the news articles after they have identified fellows. None of the first cohort of fellows are Detroiters. I didn’t think it’s fair that there’s this revitalization program that wasn’t completely open to many Detroiters because there are talents in Detroit. So I made this personal goal to become the fellow. It turned out that the revitalization program saw the same issue, so they made it easier to apply. Besides, my passion goes back to the greater good, leaving some kind of positive impact on the city and individuals who live here. Being at Focus Hope was place-based and my reach was only as far as the neighborhood. Working with the fellowship is going to open up opportunities for me and help me move to another neighborhood. I really want to leave an imprint, so I landed here in DFC which is more city-based.
Q: Can you share with me your work in DFC?
A: Basically, I’m the program manager here and work on different programs. I develop and deploy the Field Guide and Mini Grant program. I also work on the Buzz project, which brings barbers and mowers together to install various lot designs. It’s the winner of the Knight City Challenge project and now becomes part of the Field Guide. I was responsible of recruiting barbers and mowers to participate, engaging the community, having the community conversation around vacant lands and other logistics. Another project that I worked on is called New Urban Places. We partnered with the College for Creative Studies and I did a tool kit for the installation which helps people navigate through the city systems.
Q: What’s your understanding of the Strategic Framework and DFC’ work overall?
A: Framework is a document that was put together by a large of individuals, professionals and community residents to think about what Detroit could and should potentially look like fifty years from now. I see it as a framework that people could understand when they think about the current cloud of the city. What’s happening? What has happened? What are the projections of the future? A plan for the best future based on the situation Detroit is in in our projections. I’ve been here almost two years now and I think the work comes from DFC is amazing. We have always worked with groups and don’t lead projects that often, but when we do lead, we’re leading in a convening style, bringing people together and getting conversations start. However, I do think our work should leave a grassroots footprint, although not necessarily on the ground. When my fellowship is over, I will stay here and work for community engagement. I’ve been thinking about how community engagement could look like and haven’t figure it out yet. Overall, I feel glad and honored to work with this group of people in this office.
Q: Do you see DFC play a role in social entrepreneurship and how will you describe it?
A: In the way we currently operate our organization, no; we are a non-profit. But in the way we work with community organizations, potentially yes. There are many ways to add values and bring the social component to some for-profits. For example, we introduced the Field Guide to landscape architects who are there to make money and inform them about the importance of green infrastructure and storm water management. This is the kind of intentional efforts we did to help cultivate for-profits and make them be more aware of social problems.