Work in the System
Hyperlocal workforce development delivers civic strength to Detroit and Chicago
There are some days you’ll never forget. For Arron Nelson, November 18, 2003 is one of those days. As he was carrying a hand-me-down desk into his home on Corbett Avenue near Detroit’s Coleman A. Young International Airport, he heard a harsh, profanity-laden voice screaming at him to get on the ground. He turned to find a police officer, gun drawn. Five other officers quickly appeared. They had a warrant for Nelson’s arrest on charges of marijuana possession. After searching the house, they also turned up an illegal firearm — and though this wasn’t Nelson’s, they added a “constructive possession of a firearm” infraction to the list.
Nearly a year later, after a series of delays and plea deals, and after the city police dropped the case and federal officials picked it up, Nelson received his sentence: 121 months (or a little more than ten years) in federal prison. This was the first — and last — time he got on the wrong side of the law.
“I had a lot of time to think while I was in there,” Nelson says.
Sometimes his thoughts would drift to the past. A lifelong Detroiter, he’d always been a hard worker — in fact, he got his first taste of earned wages at age six when he started mowing some neighbors’ lawns. He had attended the city’s Denby Tech Preparatory High School, where he played on the football team and eventually graduated with honors.
But outside of school, his responsibilities piled up, too. At 14, he became a father, and by 17, he had three kids. He maintained a steady place in their lives all while attending classes and holding down a patchwork of part-time jobs. Domestic obligations ruled out college, so he found a full-time job and things were going well. But a serious car accident caused him to lose his job — and his means of taking care of his family.
“So I thought I did what was best and I turned to the streets — and then I ended up in jail.”
Though behind bars, Nelson never lost touch with his lifelong work ethic. He held down prison jobs. He hit the gym whenever he could and competed in volleyball, softball, basketball and track. And he picked up a dozen certifications in disciplines including culinary arts, parenting and self-assessment. When he was released in 2012 — two years earlier than anticipated, on good behavior — he was 32 years old and he was ready to roll up his sleeves, eager to re-join the workforce. He just had to figure out what that would look like.
Devon Buskin is easy to talk to — when you can manage to track him down, that is. As director of workforce development at the Greening of Detroit, he’s often on the move, whether hopping into a meeting with municipal officials, checking in on a project in the city, interviewing a potential apprentice or tending to any of the countless other tasks on this plate. The Greening of Detroit, where the 37-year-old Buskin has worked since 2012, is a nonprofit dedicated to reviving the city’s green spaces, replenishing the city’s tree population and roping community members into the process through general education, community engagement and workforce training and development.
This last piece — workforce development — is where Buskin has found his true calling. A graduate of Western Michigan University, he spent the first six years of his career working for Michigan’s Department of Transportation, before making the leap to the Greening. Since arriving, he’s helped spearhead the Detroit Conservation Corps, an adult workforce training program that lives beneath the Greening’s umbrella. More than 350 Detroiters graduated from the program in its first five years and, with significant expansion to come, the Corps expects to train 2,500 more Detroit residents in the five years ahead.
“We really want to help tackle challenges in Detroit’s ecosystem,” says Buskin. “And unemployment and lack of training is huge.”
The Greening’s approach to workforce development begins with boots on the ground. Team members canvas the neighborhoods where upcoming projects are slated, looking for people who are eager for work and who express interest in seeing their own communities improve. If they pass a drug screening (which only about 10 percent of first-time applicants do), they’re invited to an initial eight-week training program, which runs from 8am–4pm every weekday. When they complete the program, apprentices (as they’re called) receive an $800 stipend — as well as money-management assistance, so that they think about how to put that stipend to good use.
To date, the graduation rate from this program is 100 percent.
Among that 100 percent is Arron Nelson, who completed his inaugural Greening program the same year that Buskin joined the organization — and just about a year after he was released from his eight-year stay in federal prison.
“When he first did our orientation, I just saw this real serious gentleman,” recalls Buskin. “Super respectful, super humble. His goal from the get-go was to get it down. He grew up doing this type of work. He loved doing this work. Ever since that day, Arron has been committed.”
While the majority of the training program’s graduates move on to other opportunities (the Corps boasts a 96 percent job placement rate), some, like Nelson, are invited to stick around. In early 2014, Buskin nominated Nelson to become a crew leader, overseeing trainees near the Marathon Petroleum refining site, where the Greening was turning vacant lots into verdant civic spaces that would eventually connect cut-off communities to the nearby Rouge and Detroit rivers. Soon after, Buskin elevated Nelson to the staff position of quality control training coordinator, followed by a promotion to quality control manager, the role he’s held for more than two years now. His team is centered in Fitzgerald, a northwest Detroit neighborhood that — after decades of disinterest, disinvestment and economic decline — is experiencing a rejuvenation thanks to a layered investment in the community’s civic commons through a cross-sector collaboration among local organizations such as the Greening and Live6 Detroit, government entities, private foundations and individual community members.
The size of Nelson’s crew flexes based on the project. At the moment, he manages 17 team members, all of whom live in and around the Fitzgerald neighborhood. Because these crew members don’t have to travel far to begin their work day, the means and cost of transportation — a common barrier for low-income workers — are not an issue. And importantly, Nelson’s crew members are able to train and work on projects that directly benefit their own community. They’re clearing space for a new greenway that will bring neighbors together across historically disconnected city blocks. They’re clearing land for a new park that will become a neighborhood gathering space. They’re demonstrating to the people around them that there’s value in taking care of the turf that they all share.
Nelson sees the success of each of his crewmembers as his personal responsibility — and he loves that.
“I wake up happy to go work,” he says. “It’s not a job to me. I don’t consider this a job. I consider this a pathway to success — and I’m leading people down this pathway.”
Five-hundred thousand — that’s how many trees were taken down by Dutch elm disease in Detroit between 1950 and 1980. And the depletion hurt, drastically thinning the city’s canopy and biting into the pocketbooks of property owners who had to pay to have the rotting trees removed. It was this beetle-borne blight that indirectly compelled Minnesota transplant Elizabeth Gordon Sachs to establish the Greening of Detroit in 1989.
Almost 300 miles west, an arboreal epidemic has been wreaking havoc on Chicago, too, bringing its own strain of ecological and economic hardship. In this case, the culprit is the emerald ash borer — an Asian beetle that, coincidentally, was first discovered in North America in Detroit in 2002. The insect feeds beneath the bark of ash trees, leaving legions that eventually destroy branches and kill entire trees. Tens of thousands of trees have already died or been removed due to the blight. And with nearly 400,000 ash trees spread across Chicago’s public and private lands, that number could rise dramatically in the years ahead.
But from this problem arises opportunity — at least if you ask artist and urban innovator Theaster Gates and woodworker Damon Doerschuk.
Several years ago, Gates, who’s been pioneering community-centered redevelopment in South Side Chicago for well over a decade, began collecting felled ash trees from the city. Before long, he had them stacked across a vacant lot in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood — and he needed to find something to do with them.
Enter Doerschuk, who had cut his teeth in urban timber projects in Denver before migrating to Chicago to open a bike shop with his brother. When the bike shop didn’t pan out, Doerschuk went back to his roots in woodworking. Around this time, he heard that Gates was sitting on a pile of lumber. “I started hounding him about who was cutting his trees,” Doerschuk says.
What Doerschuk learned was that Gates had built a temporary saw mill, where he hoped to train neighborhood residents in the skills of woodworking. Though Doerschuk himself doesn’t live in Greater Grand Crossing — he’s a North Sider who does a vertical commute each day — he quickly found a position managing the mill. His charge is not simply to create products from the ash trees, but also to train up apprentices from the surrounding neighborhood so that they can contribute to the vision, direction and development of their own corner of the city.
“It definitely feels like Theater’s ecosystem has grown up and out of the community,” he says. “And I think the benefit of having people from Greater Grand Crossing come and work here in the ecosystem is that it gives the community stronger roots to grow. If the community feels a sense of ownership, that in turn can provide a sense of pride — that [the things we create in the mill] came from Greater Grand Crossing and this place is ours and we work there.”
Khris Williams, Doerschuk’s apprentice and colleague at the mill, embodies this. He was born on the south side and lives at East 66th Place, just a quick walk from the mill and other notable projects by Gates, including the iconic Stony Island Arts Bank. One day, about six years ago, Williams was walking past the Arts Bank (which, at the time, was just the long-forgotten and well-pillaged shell of a shuttered savings and loan) and he spotted some people walking out. What were they doing? he asked. The group, which included Gates, mentioned a plan to reimagine the bank as an arts space and a community center. Williams was hooked immediately — and he asked for the best way to keep in touch.
Over the next year, Williams sent Gates handwritten letters, expressing his interest in getting involved in projects that were bringing fresh vitality to Greater Grand Crossing — the neighborhood where he lived. “I had a desire to be part of this project for the community,” he says, “because I just knew, man, this is going to be something.”
Eventually, Gates brought him on board. Williams began helping with demolition at the Arts Bank. After that work was completed, Williams pitched in on other projects at Rebuild Foundation, a Gates-led community-focused non-profit. And he’s now part of the two-person team — along with Doerschuk — that operates an ash tree mill, which will be moving to a permanent facility in nearby Garfield Park this summer.
Williams represents a central principle of the work that Gates’ team — and a handful of other civic commons innovators around the country, including Detroit’s celebrated city planner Maurice Cox — is pushing: that building a strong, engaged workforce of residents who live, play and earn in their own neighborhood is key to building a healthy, sustainable future for these communities.
“We consider it neighborhood development with the neighbors,” says Lori Berko, who’s chief operations officer at Place Lab, a University of Chicago-affiliated initiative that’s led by Gates and champions urban transformation and creative redevelopment. “We want to make sure the neighbors are as included in the process as we are.”
For his part, Williams couldn’t be more excited to be involved. “You’re proud,” he says. “You live in your neighborhood. You work in your neighborhood. And it makes you proud. You feel good.”
And all the community benefits aside, he also really enjoys the work itself. “I love the experience of smelling the wood,” he says, “of seeing the logs turned into usable boards.”
Workforce development is one thing. Hyperlocal workforce development is an exercise of a different order, especially in urban pockets where jobs are sorely needed, trust (in each other and in civic institutions) is low and neighborhood pride has been eroded by a generation or two of poverty, crime, disinvestment, vacancy, neglect or just a simple lack of resources. In these circumstances, workforce development, when done right, becomes a vehicle for meaningful civic engagement, directly connecting citizens to the social and economic fabric of their neighborhoods and providing pathways for them to become community contributors, stewards, advocates and leaders.
But this is easier said than done. So the first step in crafting a successful hyperlocal workforce development program is meeting people where they are and sympathizing with the sometimes myriad roadblocks they’re up against. “So many of these folks come to us with multiple barriers and we try to remove those barriers,” explains Devon Buskin. At the Greening of Detroit, that means not only providing job training, but also assistance with money management, transportation concerns, interview skills, resumé building, team building, financial literacy, homelessness, food, clothing, mental illness and more. While not every one of these issues is addressed in house, the Greening establishes partnerships and support networks to ensure that no barrier is insurmountable as long as the participants are willing to try.
“Some of these folks, they’ve been beat up, life has been challenging for them,” Buskin says. “For some of these folks, we’re the last stop before they go off the edge.”
And that’s why he says it’s so important to honor the unique circumstances of each person. “Before you can be a part of this, you have to really care about people. It’s not about numbers. It’s about people. We’re about changing lives.”
In Detroit’s Fitzgerald neighborhood, the impact of a robust community workforce is evident. Greening teams have planted trees, installed landscaping, led urban agriculture projects and cleared out dozens of alleyways — strips of land so overgrown that you probably wouldn’t believe that there had ever been an alleyway there in the first place. Safety, beauty and connection are increasingly evident in Fitzgerald these days — and an ever-growing neighborhood workforce deserves much of the credit for these civic steps forward.
The corps of local workers in Chicago’s South Side are making a mark, too. At the woodworking mill, Khris Williams and Damon Doerschuk are turning fallen ash trees into products that better the community — benches and tables, pallettes and crates, firewood and two-by-fours. Step into the Currency Exchange Café or the Stony Island Arts Bank or the forthcoming Garfield Park Industrial Arts — all part of the Theaster Gates ecosystem — and you’ll discover neighborhood residents training, working and shaping the future of the community they call home.
Arron Nelson may never forget the day law enforcement officers turned up at his door, but there are a handful of other days etched into his memory, too. One of those is December 2, 2013. That’s the day he graduated from his initial Greening of Detroit course. An apprenticeship soon followed. Then some additional certifications. An opportunity to serve as a crew leader for a cohort of trainees. Along the way, he picked up his operating license, chauffer license and forklift license. Today he’s the Greening of Detroit’s quality control manager, overseeing a growing workforce that is making a tangible difference in the way people interact with each other and with the civic spaces that their city has to offer.
And earlier this year, Nelson took another huge step — a step that might have been unimaginable just a few years ago. He filed the paperwork to open his own company: Arron’s Small Tree and Bush Removal. The business, which operates on the weekends, has been accepting customers for several months now.
“The Greening has really saved me,” says Nelson. “They have opened their arms to me, man, and it’s beautiful — it truly is.”