“The purpose of ‘A Human Atlas’ is really simple – to inspire a new generation to co-author their lives, not in the shadow of those who came before, but in honour of them.”
British artist Marcus Lyon is so passionate about social change that he’s devoted years to creating books and exhibitions in celebration of the people making things happen – resulting in the remarkable A Human Atlas. Following on from the Somos Brasil chapter, a celebration of diversity in Brazil, i.Detroit takes us to Motor City, a city in transition.
Gritty and full of hustle on the surface, but warm and welcoming underneath, Marcus says that the people of the City of Detroit are as “amazing a group of fellow planet-dwellers that any artist could hope to study and build lifelong friendships with”.
The Detroit chapter was three years in the making and features 100 social innovators creating substantial change, often with limited funding and in the face of entrenched and systemic barriers. Marcus helps them to tell their own stories using using photographic portraits, app-based image-activated oral histories and ancestral DNA mapping – even includes a single with revered producer Brian Eno and Detroit techno legend Derrick May.
We asked the artist to tell us about five FutureHeroes in the ‘D’ (as locals call Detroit). He chose a selection of people who have something in common: they’re all getting creative to tackle very real racial, social and environmental equity issues, uplifting communities with engaged solutions to the problems of today, “not through hand outs and traditional charity projects, but by building resilience with actual community assets and education.”
From the book club where protagonists come to life to a new inner city eco-village on the block, let Marcus transport you to Detroit through five projects that have come out of a city that exemplifies “the very best of what we can be when we work together to build a more hopeful future for all”.
► This is Marcus Lyon’s Human AtlasChart
One of Detroit’s most blighted inner city blocks is being transformed into an eco-village led by a powerhouse resident with an inspirational story. ‘Mama Shu’ is turning grief into joy by rebuilding a sustainable community house by house. Welcome to Avalon Village.
Marcus: Shamayim ‘Shu’ Harris is a mother, community activist and a former school administrator who founded Avalon Village in Highland Park (a city fully inside the city of Detroit). The sustainable eco-village was inspired by the tragic loss of Jakobi RA, Shu’s two year old son, who was killed by a hit and run driver in 2007. To date, this block of blighted inner city has been transformed with Homework House, a greenhouse and cafe, and spaces for children to learn, play and grow in an environmentally sustainable neighbourhood.
Meet Shu ► Meet the “mama of the block”
Progressionista introduces Detroit’s pre-teen girls to reading for fun through book clubs. The twist? The interactive “storybook sisterhood” is attended by a diverse range of women professionals who mirror characters from the fiction reads.
Marcus: After realising how much reading had transformed her life, the ebullient and energetic Shanel Adams created Progressionista, a nonprofit organisation that introduces Detroit girls aged 8-12 to leisure reading through monthly book club meetings featuring women professionals. The speakers, or ‘Progressionistas’, engage participants by sharing intimate stories about their careers and relating it to the group’s next book. Every meeting includes interactive activities that further entice participants to read over the coming month – all with a mission to build a sisterhood centred on books and female empowerment.
Meet Shanel ► Reading fiction makes us more empathetic
Aware that Detroiters of African descent have never lacked creativity or entrepreneurial zeal, one Detroiter wants to provide the one thing they are lacking… money. Black Leaders Detroit Fund is exactly what it sounds like.
Marcus: I love this project. Dwan Dandridge exemplifies the City of Detroit, full of passion for his people but determined to make a difference in his community. As a co-founder of the Black Leaders Detroit Fund, he has once more shown his ability to step up to the plate when things get really challenging. The Fund responds to the current Covid-19 crisis for so many NGOs in the city and gives an essential financial lifeline when so many funding streams are under threat.
Meet Dwan ► Doors in Detroit don’t need to shut
The current face of architecture is not an accurate reflection of what our cities look like. With 400 Forward, one woman in Detroit is seeking to change that, working tirelessly to improve upon one shocking statistic in particular… that of the 0.3 percenters.
Marcus: Founded by the extraordinary Tiffany Brown, 400 Forward was named in honour of the 400th living African American woman recently becoming a licensed architect in 2017. That represents 0.3% of all female architects in the US. The NGO is an initiative to seek out and support the next 400 licensed women architects – with a focus on African American girls – through exposure, mentorship and financial assistance. The mission is to uplift girls by giving them the tools they need to address social issues created by the unjust built environments of our inner city communities.
Meet Tiffany ► Building a more accessible road for the next generation
We The People of Detroit are a group of Black female activists on a mission to improve the lives of Detroiters by empowering the ‘underdog’ to fight for water and an equitable future.
Marcus: Monica Lewis-Patrick (aka The Water Warrior) is an educator, entrepreneur, and human rights activist. In 2008, she founded We The People of Detroit with a group of fellow activists in response to Emergency Management over the city of Detroit and Detroit Public Schools. As a community-based grassroots organisation, WPD aims to inform, educate and empower Detroit residents on imperative issues surrounding civil rights, land, water, education and the democratic process.
Amongst its many initiatives, WPD collaborates with community activists, academics, researchers and designers, using data to visually show the socio-economic consequences of austerity policies in Detroit, while working toward the dismantling of Black and Brown Detroit neighbourhoods. By presenting a critical counter narrative, WPD uses knowledge as a tool to empower citizens as they fight for an equitable future.
Meet Monica ► AKA the Water Warrior
As a “glass overflowing person”, Marcus wants us all to be given to action, now more than ever. “I believe in the now, in ideas, in the primacy of the moment. Being present is one of the great joys of life.” He adds that creativity is a vital part of how we can face the challenges in front of us: “Creativity is the bedrock of how we interact, how we question, how we love and how we break into a better place.”