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The best ways to make a difference in Detroit

Here’s how you can get involved in your neighborhood and the city

GM volunteers help in the Cody Rouge neighborhood
| Photo by Michelle & Chris Gerard

When it comes to making change at the local level, the smallest actions can spur the biggest changes—and in Detroit, which often feels like a small town within a big city, starting small is often the best in-road to a larger commitment to activism. With that—and the larger desire among our fellow Detroiters to get involved—in mind, we present these small, but substantial, ways that you can help make Detroit a better place.

Yes, there are many great organizations working in Detroit. We’re offering a sampling! We also hope to expand and reshape this in the future. This list involves actionable steps from making phone calls to organizing a food drive to riding your bike.

We’d like to thank our community friends for their help in putting this together, including some tips from the ladies at J’adore Detroit. Do you have a suggestion for the list? Let us know on the tip line.


From your home

1. Call your representatives. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, it’s important to know who’s representing you at the city, state, and national levels and contact them about issues important to you. Looking for a place to start? Here’s Detroit’s city council members; input your zip code to find your representative here.

2. Donate clothing. Do yourself a favor and clean your closets! Coats, hats, and gloves are especially crucial to donation centers this time of year. Take old clothes to St. Vincent De Paul or a Salvation Army Donation Center. Don’t let transportation stop you—schedule a pick up with Purple Heart.

3. Vote for a hometown hero. The Downtown Boxing Gym’s owner owner Khali Sweeney is in the CNN Heroes Top 10 and the gym is in the running right now for $100,000. The boxing gym is a free, after-school academic and athletic program that serves Detroit students ages 8-18. Children receive tutoring and mentorship, participate in programs like computer coding and music, and athletics including boxing, soccer, and yoga. Vote here!

4. Recycle that holiday sweater or donate unwanted gifts. Services To Enhance Potential (STEP) is a non-profit organization that employs and provides support and services to over 1,300 individuals with disabilities and other mental health needs in Wayne County. STEP Thrift Store and Donation Center has three locations in Wayne County. All donation-based proceeds are allocated towards the many programs and services created to benefit STEP clients.

5. Donate books. Want to share your love of literature with others in the city? Find a Little Free Library near you or start your own!

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6. Stay informed about local news and neighborhood stories. While watching and reading traditional news is important to staying informed, so to are local sites telling the untold stories of Detroit, including Detroit Unspun, the Hub Detroit, and the Neighborhoods (through the City of Detroit).

7. Set your Amazon account to donate to a Detroit charity. As long as you’re ordering anything and everything from Amazon, why not help out a Detroit charity along the way? The AmazonSmile program lets you choose from nearly a million charities, and each time you shop on Amazon, the AmazonSmile Foundation will donate 0.5 percent from the purchase price to the one you picked.

8. Remember reusable bags. Ever find yourself staring at the bag carousel at Meijer, wondering how many they go through in a day? Plastic bags are common at many grocers and retailers, but what happens to them when you’re done with them? Hello landfill! Keep a few reusable bags in your car for shopping trips and help cut down on the waste, a little at a time.


In your neighborhood

9. Join your neighborhood block club. Get involved at the street level and keep up with what’s happening in your neighborhood. Joining your block club helps you keep up to date on crime, safety, renovations, and neighborhood news. It also gives you a good reason to meet more of your neighbors. Check with the city, NextDoor, or just ask around on your block.

10. Run errands for elderly neighbors. Keep the older folks living in your building or on your block in mind next time you make a trip to the grocery store. Ask if they need anything from the store while you’re out or offer to bring them along for the ride. Help rake their leaves or shovel their sidewalk after it snows.

11. Babysit for someone who needs a break. Donating time to babysit for a busy mom or dad is an easy way to make a huge difference in someone’s life. No registration required, just let the person know you want to babysit for an afternoon or evening so they can take a break. Two hour or three hours of free time in a parent’s life is a nearly unheard of luxury.

12. Learn more about equitable development. Building Community Value is working to strengthen neighborhoods and commercial corridors. They offer a Better Buildings, Better Blocks training course to help people get involved in real estate and development in the city.

13. Help your neighbors keep their home. Foreclosures are still a huge problem in Detroit, and are often due to negligent landlords. The United Community Housing Coalition has been working to inform Detroiters of their rights and options. Join a canvasing campaign to help keep people in their homes.

14. Get your hands dirty. Detroit is rich in urban farms, and many depend on volunteers throughout the year. Check out Oakland Avenue Urban Farm and D-town Farm.


Along your route

15. Take public transit. What better way to get to know the city than to take its transit? Take a moment to learn bus routes along your most-traveled roads and hop on!

16. Pay it forward at Bottom Line Coffee House. Bottom Line Coffee House in Midtown has a program in place to buy a cup of coffee for someone in need. Baristas are trained to be mindful of when someone may be using the coffee house for warmth and shelter. Instead of asking them to leave, baristas welcome them into the space with a prepaid cup of coffee.

17. Plant more trees. Want to get your hands dirty and beautify your neighborhood at the same time? Link up with the Greening of Detroit to find out how.

18. Pick up trash. We see it everywhere and it’s not going anywhere unless we pick it up. Better yet, organize a group effort for a few hours to take on a street, neighborhood, or park.

19. Keep the homeless warm. Pick up hand warmers and gloves and keep them in your car to pass out to those in need.

20. Help homeless dogs. Your next best friend could be in a shelter or a foster home. Detroit Dog Rescue and the Michigan Humane Society are working on finding homes for stray dogs and bringing them back to health. Not ready to make the big commitment? Foster a dog in your home or volunteer with the shelter.

21. Support small businesses. It’s hard to run a small business; you know it’s hard to keep one open in Detroit. Instead of buying all your gifts online, get out into your neighborhood and commercial corridors to frequent new and old businesses. Meet new people, find unique products, and keep your money in the city.


In your community

Three small single-story homes, colored blue, red, and white, sit in a row behind well-mowed lawns.
Cass Community Social Service’s tiny homes community
Photo by Michelle Gerard

22. Build a tiny home community. The community of tiny homes for low-income individuals in Detroit has resonated with so many all over the world. Led by Cass Community Social Services and Reverend Faith Fowler, this project is aiming to build 25 tiny homes on vacant land off of the Lodge. Residents have already started to move in, but many more homes need to be built. It’s all volunteer and donation-based. Want to help? Find out more info here.

23. Build a village. Avalon Village continues to build and grow. Mama Shu has made great progress building her self-sustaining eco-village but there is plenty more work to do. People can learn more and get involved at theavalonvillage.org

24. Help improve the literacy rate. Detroit suffers from a very low literacy rate, but many programs are in place to help adults and children improve their reading skills. Contact Reading Works and help improve adult literacy in Detroit. They can connect you to one of their impact partners to start making a difference in the lives of others by giving them the gift of reading. Beyond Basics works with youth in many schools to help increase literacy. Cornerstone Schools is also looking for mentors for youth. Make a connection to make a difference.

25. Say hello to people. Detroit can be like a big small town, and its residents know it. If you’re walking around a neighborhood, or stopping into a local store, smile. Say, “Hello.” Be friendly, it’s ok.

26. Give the gift of art to the next generation. Living Arts has provided education in performing, literary, visual, and media arts to Detroit youth since 1999. Want to help? Volunteer or donate here.

27. Fight the stigma associated with mental health. Find ways to be more supportive of people in your community living with mental illness. Volunteer at organizations such as Goodwill Industries, Neighborhood Services Organization, and Southwest Solutions. Support groups like The Guidance Center, Starfish Family Services, and Black Family Development. Look to become involved in the Arab American and Chaldean Council, Northeast Guidance Center, and others.

28. Fight hunger in the community. Get involved with groups like Gleaners, COTS, and Higher Hopes to make sure everyone in the community has food on the table.

29. Donate basic needs. Organizations like Freedom House and Support the Girls collect items like toothpaste, soap, razors, clothing, bras and feminine hygiene products to help women and families with their basic needs.

30. Turn the water back on. The Human Utility helps those struggling to pay their water bills here in Detroit. They accept monetary and service (i.e. plumbing) donations.

31. Join the conversation. Learn more about urbanism and meet others working to create a better city. Attend a parlor talk at the Urban Consulate to discuss important issues impacting the city.

32. Tour a different neighborhood. Join a bike ride through a group like Pedal to Porch to learn a different neighborhood and listen to the stories of its residents.

33. Support Detroit’s literary community. Write A House is working to build a strong community of writers in Detroit while rehabbing vacant homes. Attend a benefit, reading, or clean-up day to help out.

34. Help low-income Detroiters get their tax dollars back. The Accounting Aid Society just moved into a New Center office and they offer tax preparation and financial advice to low-income Detroit residents.

35. Help a family with a new beginning. Families seeking asylum from other countries can find themselves at Freedom House. Volunteers can help with tutoring, plumbing, home repair, fundraising, and more.

36. Document your city. Does it seem like Detroit is changing all the time? Pick up your camera and start taking pictures around your neighborhood and city. Share them on Instagram and bond over architecture and the changing urban environment.

37. Join the preservation movement. Learn more about the older buildings in your neighborhood and city, and advocate for preserving them. Preservation Detroit offers resources, tours, and help with historic homes in order to protect our built environment.

38. Ride a bike to work. What better way to see the city and learn about its infrastructure than on two wheels? Detroit is becoming quite the bike-friendly city. Put on your helmet, get some fresh air, and hit the bike trails and lanes. New to biking? Learn the rules of the road at the Detroit Greenways Coalition.


With a group

39. Start a bartering circle. Are there certain tasks that are difficult to check off every week? Do you have a vehicle or skill you can offer to help someone else? Start a bartering circle within your group of friends or neighborhood to exchange services or goods. Offer a ride to weekly appointments for help with meal prep. Perhaps exchange resume help, childcare, fitness tips, and more.

40. Organize a virtual food drive. Donating food doesn’t have to mean taking a bag of nonperishables directly to the food bank or hauling a big bin into your office. Gleaners offers a virtual food drive, so you can help fight hunger without the transportation or logistics.

41. Start a potluck group. Meet new people over a good meal. Start a weekly or monthly potluck group with friends, and ask them to invite their friends. Even better—choose a topic of conversation for each potluck and learn more about your community while sharing a meal.

42. Activate a vacant lot. Detroit Future City offers a step-by-step field guide to activating vacant lots, including tips on budget and maintenance. Get some of your neighbors together and work as a group to make an empty space vibrant!

43. Host a letter-writing party. If there’s an issue at the city, region, state, or national level that you’re passionate about, get some friends together for a letter-writing party. Activism can be fun and you can help others learn more about important issues.

44. Rebuild a neighborhood. Life Remodeled chooses one neighborhood a year for a massive volunteer effort, including boarding up vacant homes, repairing occupied homes, and cleaning up blocks.

45. Clean up a local park. Get friends or coworkers together to help clean up or activate a local green space. The city has guidelines and resources available to get you started.

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