Why I bought a house in Detroit for $500

This week on Idealists in Action, we’re exploring the concept of Home.

Photo by Mike Williams (via Buzzfeed)

Drew Philip boarding up the windows of his house in Detroit.
(photo by Mike Williams, via Buzzfeed)

Drew Philip was 23 years old when he bought his home in Detroit for $500 at a live county auction.

This powerful essay, originally published on Buzzfeed, chronicles how the author rebuilds his house—and makes himself a home—out an abandoned building filled with plastic bags, rotting carpet, and broken car parts.

Although Detroit has been talked about a lot lately—both as an almost post-apocalyptic cityscape of decay, and as a new hotspot for young, poor, (usually) white artists—the author describes the community he’s discovered there in terms of its kindness:

It’s been happening quietly and for some time, between transplants and natives, black and white and Latino, city and country—tiny acts of kindness repeated thousands of times over, little gardens and lots of space, long meetings and mowing grass that isn’t yours. It’s baling hay.

It’s the Detroit that’s saving itself. The Detroit that’s building something brand-new out of the cinders of consumerism and racism and escape. I’ve attended a four-person funeral for a stillborn baby that could have been saved but for poverty. I’ve nearly been shot by the police during a stop-and-frisk. I’ve seen three structure fires within a block of my house. But I’ve also walked out of my house to see hundreds of tiny snowmen built by neighborhood children. I’ve seen tears in the eyes of a grown man releasing a baby raccoon into a city park that he had saved from being beaten to death by teenagers.

Some scrappy teachers just opened a school in a formerly abandoned building behind my house. I stretched a ladder through the missing window of the abandoned house next door and nailed it to the kitchen floor to reach the peak of my own roof.

Read the full essay here.

Have you ever taken on a tough project that’s brought you a better sense of home? Tell us about it in the comments.



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This Year, Shake The World With A New Dream

Today’s inspiration: activist, author, and philosopher Grace Lee Boggs.


The fierce and graceful Grace Lee Boggs.
(photo courtesy boggsblog.org)

Civil rights activist Grace Lee Boggs is still at it. At 99 years old, she continues to be an impassioned voice for blighted urban communities, empowering them to rise up.

How? By “putting the neighbor back in the ‘hood.”

In this video, Grace is with her neighbors in her hometown of Detroit. What I love about this footage is how unassuming Grace is. She’s a legend — and the subject of the upcoming documentary American Revolutionary — yet here she is, wearing a sweatshirt and having a low-key chat about bettering the community. This is grassroots activism at its core.

I could listen to her talk all day. She says:

“Whatever your walk of life, race, or class, you have the right and duty to shake this world with a new dream. Because the world is waiting for a new dream.”

It’s 2015. What’s your new dream?

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The secret to surviving a financial apocalypse? Community trust

Jason Lee is no stranger to the ups and downs of financial instability. In Detroit—a city left financially and physically vacant following the 2008 economic downturn—it’s impossible for Lee to be anything but.

“I became director right before the economy changed, so I got to experience it all first-hand,” says Lee, who runs the Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program (DAPCEP).  “It wasn’t easy. People sometimes forget that nonprofits are businesses, too.”

Nonetheless, DAPCEP—a local mainstay offering free pre-college science and mathematics programs to minority youth—has seemed to rise above the bankrupt-triggering recession. From summer computer camps getting prospective college students up to speed on cutting-edge technology to basic pre-engineering classes for Kindergarteners and their parents, DAPCEP’s breadth of classes rope in a wide reach of support.

DAPCEP students having

Students learning about molecules in DAPCEP classroom

Its secret? Community trust.

Now at 37 years old, DAPCEP has successfully led students from the first day of elementary school to the first day of college. Growing from a small idea to a family name over the decades, the program has now reached a point where its community is returning the effort.

From public schools and local universities regularly encouraging parents to enroll their kids in DAPCEP to second-generation DAPCEP graduates donating money and time to keep the program on its feet, Lee says he’s has seen an uptick in local support since the city hit financial bottom.

“A lot of credit goes to schools and universities when it comes to encouraging people to get involved in the program,” says Lee. “They see students interested in becoming doctors or scientists in the classroom and can send them directly to us.”

Local and national grants, issued through a variety of foundations, have also kept DAPCEP above water over the years.

But this support didn’t come without work. The program’s pre-recession roots in the community certainly added to its neighbors’ backing.

DAPCEP offered its first classes 37 years ago with a small population of 245 middle school and high school-aged students (now, Lee says, they’ve had up to 10,000 at a time) with the simple goal of breaking outdated career stereotypes. At the time, it was uncommon to see students of African-American, Hispanic, or Native-American heritage choose a career path in science, engineering and other technical fields. DAPCEP wanted to change that.

Now, based on a 2010 survey, 94 percent of all students enrolled in DAPCEP plan to attend college and pursue a technical degree. Additionally, more than 90 percent of Detroit Public School entries in the 2011 Metropolitan Detroit Science Fair originated in DAPCEP classrooms.

Soon, DAPCEP college graduates will likely return to the city to add to its regrowth. Lee himself went through a similar program as a child in Massachusetts, a move that, after leading him through graduate school to an engineering job at Ford Motors, inspired him to take the reins at DAPCEP.

The community has clearly recognized the impact.

For the first time in the program’s history, DAPCEP will be charging for its younger age bracket classes this summer. The price? $100, a steep jump from a long-time free program. But instead of grimacing at the change in policy, applicants’ parents appear eager to pitch in to DAPCEP’s grant-funded pot.

“Many parents were amazed that DAPCEP has survived so long without having to charge,” says Lee.

With the community-based support giving the program the boost to continue growing, Lee has fielded many requests from people across the country wanting insight on the program’s successful model. While he’s hesitant to expand DAPCEP itself to other metropolitan areas, Lee fully supports other programs starting up their own similar platform, as he’s seen such success in Detroit.

“We’ve been around long enough to engage a population that’s had parents and grandparents in DAPCEP,” says Lee. “And now we have their children telling them ‘Mommy, I want to be a scientist!’ on their own. It’s come full circle.”


Interested in learning more about the importance of community trust in sustaining a nonprofit? Talk to Jason Lee at jdlee@dapcep.org.

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Idea File: Pitch your idea at a "Sunday Soup" potluck

Today’s idea funding model

The idea

Food + creativity = community. That’s the concept behind Sunday Soup, a micro-granting model that brings together those with a taste for innovative ideas and the people who want to help fund them.

Here’s how it works: a local group organizes an affordable meal. People pitch their ideas for a creative project during the course of the gathering, with attendees voting on who to give the proceeds of the meal to. Think Kickstarter, but offline and with good grub.

So far, the network has collectively granted almost $60,000 to initiatives around the world such as an art project that transforms abandoned signs in Albuquerque, NM; a documentary featuring children’s thoughts on the political situation in Egypt; bike taxis in Toledo, OH; and more.


Photo of Detroit SOUP event by Vanessa Miller.

Why we’re adding it to the Idea File

  • Cheap and easy. While it’s the meal that brings people together, the idea is that it should be low-cost, like soup.
  • Circumvents bureaucracy. The people who decide which idea will benefit your community are the ones you pass in the street everyday – not foundation officers whom you might never meet.
  • Increases supporters. Don’t lose, schmooze. Even if your project doesn’t win the cash, it’s a great opportunity to make contacts – maybe even an employer or new flame. And, Amy adds, getting your project funded from a Soup event also gives you a leg up when applying for funding elsewhere.
  • Awesomeness awareness. There are probably a gazillion good ideas waiting to be discovered where you live; why not get them all out in the open?
  • Adaptable in many contexts. The model is flexible and Sunday Soup encourages you to adapt it, taking regional and cultural quirks into account.

How you can replicate it

First, see if one already exists where you live. If not, and the 63 groups from the U.S. to South Korea to Ukraine have whet your appetite, check out Sunday Soup’s tips for getting started.

We also reached out to the folks at Detroit SOUP, who’ve helped other SOUPS in Michigan and across the U.S. get up and running, to hear their tips on how to make your group a success.

Here’s what Lead Coordinator Amy Kaherl had to say:

  1. Don’t restrict the types of projects. Allow everyone from business entrepreneurs to artists to activists to pitch their ideas to keep the discussions and voting process interesting. Here are the Detroit project proposal guidelines.
  2. Know what’s affordable and what’s not. Detroit SOUP, for example, charges $5 per plate so as to include as many community members as possible.
  3. Ask for help. Local restaurants, gardens, farms, and friends might be happy to donate food.
  4. Proposals first, dinner second. People are more likely to converse and exchange ideas when there is a point of connection.
  5. Stay informed and curious. Listen to the community’s needs, and cultivate an environment where people are encouraged to ask questions.

“Don’t be afraid to fail either with the dinner or with the projects,” Amy finally says. “When things break down, we all learn from one another about what to do and not to do.”


If you’re inspired to bring Sunday Soup to your community, feel free to email Amy for more advice: detroit.soup@gmail.com.

Do you know of other projects that are fun and potentially replicable? If you’d like us to consider posting it as part of this series, leave a comment below or email celeste [at] idealist [dot] org.

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Idea File: Three creative ways to address homelessness

Georgetown University and Ogilvy recently released a study about which causes Americans care about the most. Not surprisingly, unemployment/low wages are number one. But homelessness isn’t too far behind.

The other day while browsing my favorite entrepreneurship-focused site, Springwise, I came across three innovations that seemed like they could be replicated beyond their pilot cities and have a positive impact elsewhere:


In the U.S. alone, as many as 3.5 million people make benches and streets their home in a given year.

1. Homeless-led city tours

Sock Mob’s Unseen Tours of London employs homeless guides to show you the nooks and crannies you might not ordinarily explore. Along with British history, the guides interweave their own stories and experiences from the area – surely making the tour less yawn-worthy. At the end, you can go to a pub or cafe and chat more.

Most of the profits go to the guides, and eventually Sock Mob hopes to turn all of the leadership over to them, too.

A thought: Consider letting the guides choose where to go at the end of the tour, as they may be recovering from substance dependence issues.

2. Green gym + job generator = healthier Detroit?

Recognizing that good health is just as important as a good meal, Cass Community Social Services in Detroit erected a gym in an old warehouse where homeless people can work out. The equipment ranges from treadmills to boxing bags – not to mention stationary bikes that generate electricity.

It’s the first of its kind in the U.S. And not only does the gym raise environmental awareness, but it helps create jobs. Clients pull their weight by rescuing illegally dumped tires, for example, and making mud mats out of them.

A thought: Gyms don’t exist in a vacuum. There’s a whole exercise panorama to consider, from workout clothes to appropriate food to medical care for potential injuries.

3. Refashioned parking meters that collect donations

When parking meters are ready for retirement, what happens? Usually, they find their way to antique shops, are sold on eBay or, sometimes, are turned into bike racks. But here’s an interesting idea: piggy banks to raise money to end homelessness. Last fall the city of Montreal teamed up with a local magazine to park 70 colorful ParcoDons, or meters, around one neighborhood. Local celebrities also helped by jazzing up the change collectors. The hope is to raise $40,000 over the next three years.

It’s a win-win situation: meters get a second life, and loose coins go to a good cause.

A thought: What if people who are homeless could participate in each step of the project? Celebrities are a great way to raise the profile, but is there a way to involve others in the painting and installation of the meters?

What do you think?

Are these innovations helping the cause? Do you have more examples of successful projects where you live?

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