Marcus Brown was a teenager living on Detroit’s east side about 25 years ago. One day he was helping a neighbor woman carry some boxes.
“Did you know there’s a famous woman with your name too?” Brown asked her.
Neighbors laughed at his question, leaving Brown confused. Only later would he find out that he was speaking to civil rights icon Rosa Parks. He was taken aback that a woman of her stature would be living in a drug-infested neighborhood in Detroit.
For the past year and a half, Marcus has pushed to open the Village Summit Community Center on Lansing’s south side in an effort to unite people the same way his former neighbor had done. Village Summit is operating as a “micro community center,” focusing its efforts on resources for neighborhood children and building bonds and relationships between community members.
Realizing a need
Growing up in a rough Detroit neighborhood gave Brown, 41, an early lesson in understanding the importance of a strong community. Having left the city to pursue his degree in education at Michigan State University in 1987, he remained in the Lansing area after graduating and observed the same plight he had seen in his teenage years.
Living on Barnes Avenue near Washington Avenue for close to 15 years, Brown and his wife, Chitra Pulliam, watched foreclosures and unemployment devastate the area. Pooling their savings for retirement, they decided to invest in the neighborhood.
In February 2009, they purchased an early 20th century home at 119 E. Barnes. The idea was to turn the house into a community center.
After sitting vacant for nine months the large wood-frame house needed serious repairs. But with the help of neighbors and organizations like Habitat for Humanity and MSU MRULE (Multi-Racial Unity Living Experience), the project started coming together.
“If you see a problem, go for it. If you give people the tools to make decisions, give people the opportunity to work, they will take ownership,” Brown, an august former Marine, said. “People here may not have the money to donate, but they have the time and willingness to help out. The neighborhood has been extremely supportive and has exceeded my dreams.”
Village Summit opened in May 2009, only to be shut down shortly thereafter by the city for not meeting building codes. Over the next year, volunteers built a handicap-accessible bathroom and entrance ramp, only to wait for the city’s audit.
“A lot of paperwork to give away free books,” Brown said.
Close to a year after the initial opening, Village Summit passed inspection. With the help of the MSU Small Business and Non-Profit Clinic, Brown was able to navigate through the necessary paperwork for a final re-opening in April 2010 as a registered nonprofit.
All are welcome at Village Summit, but there is a distinct focus on Lansing’s youth. Year-round services for children include tutoring, computer and Internet access, a mentoring program and guest speakers. A pen-pal program was recently established with children at a similar community center in South Africa. Most important, Village Summit is a “safe, peaceful and positive place” for the children, many of whom struggle to find that stability at home, Brown said.
Adults who are struggling to find work, lack access to computers or simply want to cool off in the air conditioning are also welcome. The center offers job fairs and resume tutorials and also has formed a partnership with New Young Fathers to help out young men make the transition to fatherhood.
Located in a “food desert,” an area without adequate access to fresh foods, Village Summit began another initiative this summer. Brown and crew teamed up with the Lansing Garden Project to start a community garden in an empty lot nearby. With the assistance of an AmeriCorps employee, a diverse mix of neighborhood volunteers and children has tended the garden. Village Summit also has a free lunch program for children and adults to teach healthier eating habits.
“I can’t believe the interest we’ve had in the garden,” Brown said. “On our workdays, we’ve averaged 10 kids and four adults. It’s really brought the neighborhood together.”
Jim Cushman, a landlord across the street, credits the deference Brown receives for the promising beginnings of the center.
“I remember standing with Marcus watching two young girls walk by and throw a candy wrapper down on the ground. Marcus called them back and told them to go and pick that up. Sure enough they did. He’s got their respect and attention around here.”
Brown, a Lansing schoolteacher at Dwight Rich Middle School, and Pulliam, a respiratory therapist, continue to work their day jobs in addition to running the center. Village Summit is a self-funded effort with limited donations. Brown is under no false pretenses about the ease in keeping the project afloat.
“We are juggling so many things right now, it’s hard,” he admits.
In addition to funding (Brown estimates that they have personally invested close to $30,000), staffing is a challenge. Volunteers have been integral to the center’s nascent success.
Despite difficulties, Brown has not been deterred. He even admits his desire to expand Village Summit to other areas and cities that are open to it.
“You need the neighborhood to say ‘I want this’ and then run with it,” Brown said. “You need the neighbors to buy into it, and keep things small. Organizations have become too big; they need to be on the neighborhood level. When people take part in the building of something, they feel a sense of ownership over it.”
The walls of Village Summit are adorned with pictures of positive role models. One can’t help thinking of a class-clown teenager in Detroit giving Rosa Parks the business.
“Here she was a hero, living in the slums,” Brown recalls. “Now, here’s my chance to try to make a difference. A resource like this can change lives.”