How This One Woman Is Turning Her City Into a Solar-Powered Ecovillage
By Zenobia Jeffries
Shamayim Harris ran three times for city council in her hometown of Highland Park, Michigan. Each time the voters rejected her. "They didn't want me," she said, with a smile. But that didn't stop her from fulfilling her plans to give Highland Park residents new opportunities, starting with her own block on Avalon Street.
Shu's son Chinyelu helps the construction team with the Homework House and volunteers as security at Avalon Village events.Zenobia Jeffries
The city of Highland Park is in the middle of the much larger city of Detroit and could easily be mistaken for another of its neglected neighborhoods. Highland Park has been without a library for 14 years. Its high school was permanently closed by the state last year, leaving just one school, a K–8 program, within its borders. In 2011, utility company DTE Energy removed all the street lights; local and national headlines read some variation of Highland Park goes dark: City removes lights to pay bills. The city has struggled financially for over a decade and was one of several financially challenged local units of government in Michigan where Gov. Rick Snyder took control of operational and fiscal duties away from local elected officials and gave it to appointed "emergency managers."
These were the conditions Harris, widely known as "Mama Shu," considered when tossing her hat in the political ring. Her desire, she said, wasn't simply to be in office or hold any political titles. It was simply to "make things better" for the residents of Highland Park. "I'm looking at the conditions and wondering what can I do, intimately understanding what's going on?" she said.
Her tone is reflective. But Shu, a business owner and ordained minister, is not resentful. The vision she had for the city over a decade ago is finally coming to fruition with Avalon Village, an ecologically sustainable project being built in four phases, beginning with a study center for local children. "We want what any community wants," said Shu. "All these other cities have all these wonderful things. Why can't we?"
With that spirit, and with the help of contributors from around the world, in May she raised more than $240,000 days on Kickstarter. Prior to that campaign, the project received a $100,000 donation from the Big Sun Foundation, a nonprofit founded by members of the Grammy award-winning band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.
That seed money went to Moon Ministries, a nonprofit organization. Then Shu used it to purchase more than 10 properties on her block, including vacant lots and salvageable abandoned homes, and to start renovating Homework House, which she describes as a place where children will be able to get meals and help with schoolwork.
A totally redesigned 2,400-square-foot two-family home, Homework House will have a computer center and a lab for specialized help in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, as well as a recording studio and a commercial kitchen. In the yards outside, children will have three recreational courts to play basketball, tennis and volleyball.
Moon Ministries is handling all the funds associated with the project for now, but Shu says she's submitted the paperwork to make Avalon Village itself a 501(c)3 nonprofit. Once that's approved, the resulting group will handle the costs of running the village over time.
The greening of Avalon Street began in 2014, with the installation of a solar street light in front of Shu's home. The rest of the block will soon have more solar lights. Homework House will have geothermal heating and cooling, as well as a metal roof designed to save on cooling costs. The project received an $18,000 in-kind donation from Luma Resources, a company that manufactures shingle-style solar panels for rooftops.
Meanwhile, local contracting firm Ako Building Corporation volunteered to help with construction and design.
The support for Avalon Village continues to roll in with big names like Ellen Degeneres, who on her show in September surprised Shu with a $100,000 prefab energy-efficient home from Cocoon 9. Shu points to the area where it'll go as if it's already there, adding that the space will be used for Avalon Village's offices.
But before the big names and money started to come in, Shu depended on her friends and family and her weekly check from the charter school where she worked as an office administrator. It was this combination of funds that helped her to purchase her home for $3,000 in 2009.
"I didn't have $3,000," she said, "but I put it together."
A former neighbor who asked that her last name not be used, Ashaki said her mother still lives on Avalon Street. She explains that her sister used to live in the lower unit of what is now Homework House. "It got really bad over the years," she said. "It's good what she's doing."
Ashaki and another neighbor, named Tyrone, who's lived in the same house on Avalon for 50 years, remember the days when Highland Park was a vibrant community. "It was called the City of Trees," said Tyrone. "You don't see many trees now." But he said that Shu is bringing life back to the block. "They keep the grass cut," he said. "It's looking good."
A Difficult Journey
Mama Shu's two-story brick home sits on the corner of Avalon Street and Woodward Avenue. It's been a welcome center of sorts to Highland Park and Detroit residents for the seven years that she's lived there—one of seven occupied homes amid blighted houses and vacant lots. The street's bright colors, green grass and activity today are all things she said she used to envision when driving past on her way to work. The houses appeared dilapidated, and mattresses, tires, toilets, bricks and other discarded items filled the vacant lots. Her now warm and inviting home was boarded up and occupied by squatters.
"They kept it clean, though," she said, laughing. The wood floors were still in good condition, but all the plumbing had been torn out. After she moved in, in 2009, callers kept coming by, expecting to find someone else there. She recalls performing a cleansing ceremony—with incense, oils and sage—on the third night.
That time was the end of a long transition for Shu and her family. To see her infectious smile today and hear her laughter, one wouldn't suspect the trauma she's endured: In 2007, at only "two years, one month, and six days" old, her younger son, Jakobi Ra, was killed by a neighbor speeding down the street.
Shu and her then-husband were at work, and her boys—Jakobi and his older brother, Chinyelu, who was 10 at the time—were outside playing under their neighbors' supervision. She tears up when talking about what happened. "They were walking across the street when my neighbor … turned the corner and blew the stop sign and … the impact just snatched Jakobi out of Chin's hand."
Shu recalls thinking that she wouldn't make it. "My girlfriends and I would say things like, 'I'd die if something happened to one of my children.'" But when she woke up the next day, after her son had passed, she said, "Damn, I didn't die." And today, she said, Jakobi is still with her. The Jakobi Ra Park, named in 2011 after Shu's son, was the first venue of what eventually would become Avalon Village. And at the September ribbon-cutting ceremony for the project—held on the same day her son was killed nine years ago—a headstone was unveiled in his memory.
It's his spirit, she said, and the energy and help of her family, friends, and all the project's volunteers that help her to keep going.
Here are the four phases of the project:
Reposted with permission from our media associate YES! Magazine.
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1. Stay Informed<p>A first order of business in pet evacuation planning is to understand and be ready for the possible threats in your area. Visit <a href="https://www.ready.gov/be-informed" target="_blank">Ready.gov</a> to learn more about preparing for potential disasters such as floods, hurricanes, and wildfires. Then pay attention to related updates by tuning <a href="http://www.weather.gov/nwr/" target="_blank">NOAA Weather Radio</a> to your local emergency station or using the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/mobile-app" target="_blank">FEMA app</a> to get National Weather Service alerts.</p>
2. Ensure Your Pet is Easily Identifiable<p><span>Household pets, including indoor cats, should wear collars with ID tags that have your mobile phone number. </span><a href="https://www.avma.org/microchipping-animals-faq" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Microchipping</a><span> your pets will also improve your chances of reunion should you become separated. Be sure to add an emergency contact for friends or relatives outside your immediate area.</span></p><p>Additionally, use <a href="https://secure.aspca.org/take-action/order-your-pet-safety-pack" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">'animals inside' door/window stickers</a> to show rescue workers how many pets live there. (If you evacuate with your pets, quickly write "Evacuated" on the sticker so first responders don't waste time searching for them.)</p>
3. Make a Pet Evacuation Plan<p> "No family disaster plan is complete without including your pets and all of your animals," says veterinarian Heather Case in <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9NRJkFKAm4" target="_blank">a video</a> produced by the American Veterinary Medical Association.</p><p>It's important to determine where to take your pet in the event of an emergency.</p><p>Red Cross shelters and many other emergency shelters allow only service animals. Ask your vet, local animal shelters, and emergency management officials for information on local and regional animal sheltering options.</p><p>For those with access to the rare shelter that allows pets, CDC offers <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/emergencies/pets-in-evacuation-centers.html" target="_blank">tips on what to expect</a> there, including potential health risks and hygiene best practices.</p><p>Beyond that, talk with family or friends outside the evacuation area about potentially hosting you and/or your pet if you're comfortable doing so. Search for pet-friendly hotel or boarding options along key evacuation routes.</p><p>If you have exotic pets or a mix of large and small animals, you may need to identify multiple locations to shelter them.</p><p>For other household pets like hamsters, snakes, and fish, the SPCA recommends that if they normally live in a cage, they should be transported in that cage. If the enclosure is too big to transport, however, transfer them to a smaller container temporarily. (More on that <a href="https://www.spcai.org/take-action/emergency-preparedness/evacuation-how-to-be-pet-prepared" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">here</a>.)</p><p>For any pet, a key step is to establish who in your household will be the point person for gathering up pets and bringing their supplies. Keep in mind that you may not be home when disaster strikes, so come up with a Plan B. For example, you might form a buddy system with neighbors with pets, or coordinate with a trusted pet sitter.</p>
4. Prepare a Pet Evacuation Kit<p>Like the emergency preparedness kit you'd prepare for humans, assemble basic survival items for your pets in a sturdy, easy-to-grab container. Items should include:</p><ul><li>Water, food, and medicine to last a week or two;</li><li>Water, food bowls, and a can opener if packing wet food;</li><li>Litter supplies for cats (a shoebox lined with a plastic bag and litter may work);</li><li>Leashes, harnesses, or vehicle restraints if applicable;</li><li>A <a href="https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/emergencycare/pet-first-aid-supplies-checklist" target="_blank">pet first aid kit</a>;</li><li>A sturdy carrier or crate for each cat or dog. In addition to easing transport, these may serve as your pet's most familiar or safe space in an unfamiliar environment;</li><li>A favorite toy and/or blanket;</li><li>If your pet is prone to anxiety or stress, the American Kennel Club suggests adding <a href="https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/home-living/create-emergency-evacuation-plan-dog/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stress-relieving items</a> like an anxiety vest or calming sprays.</li></ul><p>In the not-unlikely event that you and your pet have to shelter in different places, your kit should also include:</p><ul><li>Detailed information including contact information for you, your vet, and other emergency contacts;</li><li>A list with phone numbers and addresses of potential destinations, including pet-friendly hotels and emergency boarding facilities near your planned evacuation routes, plus friends or relatives in other areas who might be willing to host you or your pet;</li><li>Medical information including vaccine records and a current rabies vaccination tag;</li><li>Feeding notes including portions and sizes in case you need to leave your pet in someone else's care;</li><li>A photo of you and your pet for identification purposes.</li></ul>
5. Be Ready to Evacuate at Any Time<p>It's always wise to be prepared, but stay especially vigilant in high-risk periods during fire or hurricane season. Practice evacuating at different times of day. Make sure your grab-and-go kit is up to date and in a convenient location, and keep leashes and carriers by the exit door. You might even stow a thick pillowcase under your bed for middle-of-the-night, dash-out emergencies when you don't have time to coax an anxious pet into a carrier. If forecasters warn of potential wildfire, a hurricane, or other dangerous conditions, bring outdoor pets inside so you can keep a close eye on them.</p><p>As with any emergency, the key is to be prepared. As the American Kennel Club points out, "If you panic, it will agitate your dog. Therefore, <a href="https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/home-living/create-emergency-evacuation-plan-dog/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pet disaster preparedness</a> will not only reduce your anxiety but will help reduce your pet's anxiety too."</p>
Evacuating Horses and Other Farm Animals<p>The same basic principles apply for evacuating horses and most other livestock. Provide each with some form of identification. Ensure that adequate food, water, and medicine are available. And develop a clear plan on where to go and how to get there.</p><p>Sheltering and transporting farm animals requires careful coordination, from identifying potential shelter space at fairgrounds, racetracks, or pastures, to ensuring enough space is available in vehicles and trailers – not to mention handlers and drivers on hand to support the effort.</p><p>For most farm animals, the Red Cross advises that you consider precautionary evacuation when a threat seems imminent but evacuation orders haven't yet been announced. The American Veterinary Medical Association has <a href="https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/emergencycare/large-animals-and-livestock-disasters" target="_blank">more information</a>.</p>
Bottom Line: If You Need to Evacuate, So Do Your Pets<p>As the Humane Society warns, pets left behind in a disaster can easily be injured, lost, or killed. Plan ahead to make sure you can safely evacuate your entire household – furry members included.</p>
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