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HEART OF THE CITY: Community leader promotes compassion and activism

Cheryl Lewis

By Steven Malik Shelton
Special to The Michigan Citizen

The Black community and family have historically provided protection as well as physical and spiritual nourishment for Black people in America. Throughout the ordeal of slavery and the economic fluctuations and social upheaval of modern times, it has proven itself as an institution of Black life.

Today, pundits give a dire assessment of this most enduring of all institutions. They point to the lack of cooperation between spouses and the widening generation gap. Yet some, although conceding that the task is a difficult one, are optimistic about the vibrancy of Black community life.

One such person is Cheryl Lewis. We meet at a community center on the city’s West side, while children play basketball in an adjacent gym and a woman prepares food for a community event. Lewis is the community capacity building specialist at Re-building Communities, Inc, and her job is to empower the young. Her interest in activism began at nine years old, when she was inspired by the example of former presidential candidate, Shirley Chisholm.

“I wanted to find out how a Black woman could run for president,” she recalls. “My mother told me, of course, to go look it up. And me being nine years old, I didn’t know how to research yet. But in studying it occurred to me that there are excellent possibilities available for anyone that has a vision and puts forth enough effort.”

This philosophy helped her form Project LEAD, which is a training program geared to developing youngsters and providing them with the leadership skills to make a positive impact in their communities. She also works with older members in the community to facilitate constructive engagement. Lewis has been working to create youth and adult block clubs in the community.

I mention my concern about what I perceive as a lack of community involvement today, in contrast to 15 or 20 years ago. It seems people don’t come out as much as they used to. They don’t participate in the lives of one another’s children, and they don’t visit one another’s homes as much as in the past.

“Not long ago, it was considered a necessity to have a close knit community,” sayss Lewis. “We were forced to live in a particular area and we had to deal with certain elements. As Black people began to make more money and to move out of Black neighborhoods, we purchased more toys, which caused us to be more distracted form the concerns of our communities. Eventually many of us got to the point where we felt that we didn’t need each other and that we didn’t have to take care of one another. We forget about the importance of community.”

As she speaks, I’m reminded of the story of a ship captain, who losing his way on the ocean and running out of drinking water, is told to cast down his bucket where he is. For the captain had unknowingly sailed his vessel into a body of fresh water and his entire ship was surrounded by usable, life saving substance. Could the Black communities in the neglected, impoverished areas of Detroit also be the source of rejuvenation and empowerment if we would only pool our resources, work together and ‘cast down our buckets were we are’?

“I personally believe in the sacredness of the ordinary,” says Lewis. “I believe by just waking up in the morning, we have the potential to win. We should not allow ourselves to become discouraged by the horror stories and by media sensationalism. We should remember that there are more children getting A’s and B’s than are picking up a gun and shooting someone. We have problems but we need to remember the beautiful things we have as a people; the ability to smile at one another, to work together and to hug and kiss our children.”

It’s getting late and we have to go. We rise from the table and make our way out of the building. We talk about the importance of community and the sacredness of families. And we promise each other that we will cast down our buckets were we are.

For more information about Project LEAD contact Cheryl Lewis at 313-571-2800 x 1171.

Steven Malik Shelton is a journalist and human rights advocate. He can be reached at:


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