Ypsi nonprofit seeks to empower urban communities through dance team, gun buyback, and more

Community empowerment sessions that help entrepreneurs get their businesses off the ground, a drama and step dance class for boys, and a gun buyback event. Those initiatives may seem to have little in common, but they're all part of the mission of a nonprofit called The Cream that is looking to solve financial, infrastructural, and social problems in urban communities.


The nonprofit's name is an acronym for "Creating a Righteous Environment Around Me." It started in 2017 as an idea shared by several friends in the Ypsi area with a mission to "combat the breakdown of the urban community."


"I grew up in Highland Park, so I'm from the streets and I know what they can do to people," says founding member and national board president Mwai Leonard. "I knew it was not just me going through these problems and I was always thinking about how I could help everybody."


He and his two co-founders Domonic Hamilton and Roland Tooson met community activist Tru Ajani, who now serves as outreach coordinator for The Cream, and they began meeting in Ypsi to discuss starting an organization to address those problems. Ajani helped incorporate The Cream as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and Eastern Michigan University pre-med student Srikar Chiravuri came on board as national representative for The Cream after seeing the community empowerment sessions members of The Cream were running.


The organization has since expanded its roster of national board members and community officers. It now has chapters in three cities: Detroit, Inkster, and Ypsilanti.


Starting with step


Starting an all-boys step dance and drama club might seem like an unusual way to empower a community, but the initiative fits well with The Cream's mission.


The Cream's drama and step classes were originally held at Parkridge Community Center in Ypsi but are now held at Chapelle Business Center (the former Chapelle Elementary) in collaboration with two other local nonprofits, Bottles-N-Backpacks and Mentor 2 Youth. Chiravuri says about 10 to 15 boys, ages 5 to 13, come to the sessions on a regular basis.


Ajani says the program also features speakers who provide wraparound services.


"We focus on social skills like conflict resolution or anger management and how to deal with one another," Ajani says.


He adds that many of the young men in the program crave a positive masculine presence and will listen to lessons taught by men who keep showing up and proving they care.


"I sat in on a few sessions and the energy they brought was really inspirational," Chiravuri says. "It's a way to show young boys who don't yet know how to express themselves or who have been told how not to express themselves that music, dance, and theater are a very masculine way to express themselves, contrary to what they might think. They might aspire to be in the NBA or NFL, but it also takes a lot of power to hold a form or dance for an hour straight."


Ajani says it's important to give young men a place for creative self-expression.


"Let's not try to create who we want them to be but to add onto and cultivate who they are," he says.


Combating gun violence


Being proactive about violence in urban communities is a core part of The Cream's mission. To that end, the group's Ypsilanti chapter will sponsor a gun buyback event from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Aug. 24 at the Ypsilanti Community Church, 333 S. Prospect in Ypsi. The Cream has partnered with the city of Ypsilanti and the Ypsilanti Police Department for the event.


Ajani says some residents have expressed skepticism of the idea on social media, including concerns about The Cream working with the Ypsilanti Police Department and about poor turnout at past gun buyback events. Ajani says nobody who legally owns a gun is being asked to give up their Second Amendment rights. However, he cites a 2016 study that showed that more than 80% of crimes committed with a gun were committed with guns that were stolen or otherwise illegally owned.


He also notes that past buybacks in southeast Michigan have resulted in only a handful of "rusty old six-shooters" being turned in. But The Cream members have plans for a successful first event that they hope will jumpstart a long-term, sustainable program.


Typical gun buyback events offer $50-100 per gun, but the Aug. 24 event will start at $250 and go up to $700 per gun with no questions asked. The Cream is hosting a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the event and all funds will be managed by the city of Ypsilanti.


Ajani says he knows some people might feel nervous about bringing a weapon to a buyback event run in conjunction with the Ypsilanti Police Department. But the police department has promised that no one will get in legal trouble for surrendering a gun and won't have to answer any questions about how they acquired it.


Any money not paid out on Aug. 24 will be left in a city-controlled fund and can be used for future events related to gun violence, whether it's another buyback event or helping to pay for the funeral of an Ypsi resident killed by future gun violence.


Empowering entrepreneurs


Another of The Cream's core programs empowers small businesses and entrepreneurs.


Ajani says many local small business owners are great at what they do, but often don't know how to market their skills or set up a business website or email address. He says The Cream aims to "supercharge" those business owners' efforts through one-on-one sessions that teach entrepreneurs how to upgrade their websites, use the online workflow tool Slack, or integrate their businesses with social media.


Members of The Cream would like to do more to connect small local businesses with local nonprofits and charitable initiatives. The Cream already acts as a local clearinghouse for donations to Good360, an organization that helps companies donate excess merchandise to charities instead of destroying it.


Ajani says he has plans to create a corporate responsibility community incentive to encourage small, locally-owned businesses to give back to the community. Rather than giving to state or national charities, he'd like to see businesses keeping their donations in their own neighborhoods. Ajani says The Cream would act as the liaison and the leverage to get small local businesses to keep their contributions local, and would make sure businesses got a receipt so they could write their donations off on their taxes.


"We know they can't give away their product and they can't hire just anyone, but want to show how they can directly help the urban community," he says.


Members of The Cream also want to make it easier for neighborhood organizations to reach out to local businesses for contributions. They plan to do that by creating empowerment team "nucleuses" of neighborhood residents who can help community members who want to host a charitable event. The Cream members would help those individuals create a budget and materials to help them solicit donations from local businesses and make sure the business gets a receipt so they get a tax break for the donation.


Across all its programs and initiatives, providing positive role models to young men in urban communities is The Cream's underlying goal.


"We had this idea that the best way for us to effectively impact the community is for us to teach young boys (and) let them know what we know," Leonard says. "What you surround yourself with is what you become. If you surround yourself with negativity, you'll be negative, and if you surround yourself with positivity, you'll be positive. Setting that example is one of the biggest things with us."


To find out more about The Cream and its programs, visit TheCream.org. To find out about future community empowerment sessions, email cep@thecream.org.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.