On the corner of Belvidere Street on the east side of Detroit stands a homemade sign in blues and reds that reads: ‘Where Families Matter.’ The sign marks a two-story house that is community hub to Community Connections Grantee, What About Us? The organization, What About Us?, expanded in 2015 from the Belvidere Youth Community Block Club, founded in 2000, and Tammara Howard has been the leader of both visions from the beginning. Ms. Howard answers the door and leads me upstairs to the hub. She states she wishes she had funds to make it handicapped accessible. She shows me around the colorful community space, which contains a film watching area, some desks, computers with internet and printer access, a room with two long tables and twenty chairs set up with plates and holiday decor, an exercise room with yoga mats, a treadmill, and a snug kitchen area. Holiday bags of candy are laid out on the table, ready to be passed out through the neighborhood.
What About Us? is a grassroots community organization run through the dedication and drive of volunteers. The group has been in the Community Connections family for six years. Ms. Howard has consistently designed and received funding for projects that engage and support youth and family in her community. The group’s most recent grant was the Workforce Development and Equity Grant (W.E.), which helped provide an outdoor summer program for 38 youth. 24 adults pitched in to teach youth how to plant and tend a community garden and pond with fish, frogs, and snails, and also learn skills such as rope tying, how to make birdhouses, and other fun and educational activities.
Ms. Howard is devoted and passionate about her work. A lifelong Detroiter, who lives in the same childhood home her mother grew up in and she grew up in, she explains that “I love my community.” The love she feels for her community inspires her to look for ways to help and support it on a daily basis. “I want people to see that we have to work together to build community,” Ms. Howard explains. What About Us? has expanded beyond Belvidere Street, and kids come to participate in the program from all over the city, with 14 children participating during the school year and 40-50 children in the summertime. Parents and adults are also involved, and hold community meetings at the center to “Meet, talk, and learn” together to discuss issues and needs in the community. Ms. Howard ensures that the parents come in and see where their children will be working and what they will be doing, and kids come in after school to use the computers and printers to work on homework. Ms. Howard showed me a new discovery–refillable ink cartridges for the small printer, which saves money on ink. As a grant recipient, the group has created outdoor science, nature, and health projects for Detroit youth. The program is completely run by volunteer adults, who go through a screening process to participate. Ms. Howard’s goal is to keep the community hub open during set daily hours. What About Us? is in the process of applying for an Eastside Community Network grant to create expanded outdoor resources such as a fire pit, a horseshoe pit, a putting green, an exercise area, expanded vegetable gardens, a water garden, and benches on vacant land purchased by What About Us, Inc. Every year the organization holds a health and safety fair that elected officials attend so community members can voice their concerns. The group has organized neighborhood cleanups, multiple educational and recreational programs for youth, community fairs, and programs to find resources to assist struggling families. Of the vacant land on her block, Ms. Howard comments that while they can’t afford to build on it, “We can make it look pretty, where we can sit down and have a spot in the neighborhood where we can talk, and … we need to understand ways to agree, or get along.”
Ms. Howard appreciates Community Connections for being an organization that has believed in her and invested in her vision of supporting neighborhood children and families and improving her community. Without grant dollars, most other funding comes out of Ms. Howard’s own pocket in a neighborhood without economic resources to pay for supplemental programming. Ms. Howard explains, “I just feel good to know people know that you are…they know me as a person with ability. When you have other people that believe in you. You know, the first thing they ask is, ‘Well, who else knew about you?’ ‘Who else invested in what you do?’ It feels good when you have people like Community Connections that have faith and know that well, ok, Miss Howard applied and ya’ll never make it hard for me, you always help me cause you know what I’m going to do. So, that’s why I feel good to be able to say I have organizations on my side: Community Connections, Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance, Eastside Community Network, Nativity of Our Lord Church…. I like to call them off so people will know. And they know my heart and they know what I’m trying to do.”
Tammara Howard is a leader who brings the community together. She explains that she wants to “Let people know how we can continue to latch onto each other for great things. You know, that’s just like people putting their hands on each other, ok we’re building, we’re climbing. Things don’t have to stay the same. No, I don’t know everything, but I can go the next street over and collaborate with the people over there, and we keep coming together to make something happen. For the community, just for the people. What about Us? is the people.”
Most importantly, Ms. Howard emphasizes that we need to “Learn how to get along, and talk more, and plan more, because not one person can plan everything. You know, when you plan together and you build, you bring more resources in, you help each other make where we live nice. I feel that it’s really important that folks know, ok, this is a community that’s well represented.”
Ms. Howard makes it a point to know each and every child in her neighborhood. She recalls her neighbors describing her walking down the street telling kids, “I don’t have to be your Mama to love you. And then they tell me, ‘Well, Ms.Tammy, I don’t have to be your child to love you.’ So, you know, we have ways to communicate. And it works out.”
Ms. Howard is inspired by her mother, Belinda Howard Baker. Ms. Howard Baker was also a community leader in Detroit. Tammara Howard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in volunteering for What About Us? or stopping by for a visit. She welcomes anyone interested.
If you are a Community Connections grantee and you would like to tell your story, please give us a call at 313-782-4042!