Life Remodeled is partnering with communities to turn painful disinvestment into new opportunities

At Life Remodeled, everything we do is based on our belief that, as a result of our country’s deep and tragic history of systemic racism, many Black families in America are still not experiencing equitable access to opportunities to thrive in the areas of education, economic prosperity, health and wellness. We know that we don’t have the power to end systemic racism, but we can create equitable access to opportunities.

We do this by acquiring vacant school buildings in Detroit neighborhoods and repurposing them into one-stop hubs of opportunity where entire families can thrive. When you think about the history of school buildings, most of them were built in the center of communities, surrounded by residential neighbors. They were designed as hubs of opportunity for academics, athletics, and social advancements. 

When a school building closes, in many ways that becomes a dagger to the heart of hope for a community. And schools don’t close overnight, but rather as the result of decades of disinvestment, which in Detroit, is directly linked to issues of systemic racism.

Life Remodeled starts by identifying property where we could make a significant impact in a community, and then we find out from the community if that's what they want. If they want an opportunity hub to be created out of a former school building, we then spend years engaging the community to learn what increased opportunities they want to see.

Four things consistently rise to the top: jobs, youth programs and after-school activities, community resources including health and wellness, and support for, or influx of, local entrepreneurs. We focus on finding those best and brightest nonprofits that are moving the needle in these areas, and we help move them into buildings along with for-profit entrepreneurs. We help them collaborate with each other to make a more collective impact. 

In 2017, we acquired the former Durfee Elementary-Middle School on Detroit’s west side, and redeveloped it into the Durfee Innovation Society (DIS), so named by Durfee students who’d previously relocated to the nearby Central High School campus. We’ve invested five years into the DIS, and into its community, repairing owner-occupied homes and mobilizing thousands of volunteers to clear blight from the surrounding 4 square miles.

Today, our hub is humming. It’s 100 percent occupied with a waiting list. We have 39 organizations as tenants, 13 of which moved in during the pandemic. Seventy-seven percent of these organizations are led by people of color, and 67 percent are led by women. Not one of them had a brick-and-mortar presence in the Durfee/Central Community before the creation of the DIS.
 
Together, these organizations are serving more than 17,000 people a year. Through the work of the DIS, 2500 youth are receiving youth programming every year, 4500 adults are receiving opportunities to acquire jobs and 10,500 children, youth and adults are receiving a variety of community resources. 

At the DIS, we’re focused on a holistic approach. Community members can access free diapers and formula here, pediatric therapy and after-school tutoring. We house a Federally Qualified Health Center and a cancer support group. We have programming for 900 senior citizens, and our youth activities include a Planetarium, a free arcade and an open gym. Along with our many youth-focused tenants, we host regular pop-up programming from other local youth nonprofits: violin, chess club, theater, dance and more.

When COVID-19 hit, the DIS, as a one-stop hub, got put on the map in a whole new way. We did significant food distributions with Gleaners and Eastern Market, and we gave away gift cards to Black-owned Detroit restaurants. When Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) went virtual, we opened The Safe Center for Online Learning. An average of 39 students came daily to receive tutoring from our tenant, Cleary University, and others. We provided meals and fun spaces for students to just let off steam. Our safety protocols and high level of cleanliness helped parents feel good about sending their children here. 

In communities that have experienced high levels of trauma, like this one, there’s a lot of relational trust-building and bridge-building that needs to take place for an organization like ours to have a significant impact. By serving the community in the ways they needed most at that time, we developed that trust. 

In 2021, we opened The Spin, a totally free laundromat for students and families at Durfee and Central. We learned from The Black Caucus Foundation of Michigan's work with youth that a lack of access to laundry facilities is the number one reason kids are truant from school. Even before the pandemic, DPSCD has struggled with high truancy rates. We wanted to remove this barrier to our children's learning and education. 

A number of Durfee and Central students went through an entrepreneurship training with Junior Achievement to create a marketing and business plan for The Spin, which is run by our youth today. Much of what we do here is driven by the vision, the leadership and the implementation of students. 

And now, taking all we’ve learned, our sights are fully fixed on purchasing and repurposing the former Cooley High School. For the past two years, we’ve been engaging the community, listening and discerning what their hopes and dreams are for that property. We have over 1000 signatures from local residents and Cooley alumni saying they want us to repurpose this building right now. It’s been vacant since 2010, and if it sits much longer, it will be irreparable.

We haven’t purchased the property yet because currently, DPSCD has a moratorium on all of their real estate. We hope this will be lifted soon, as we are ready with our offer and have tenants ready to join: a pediatric mental health respite center, a vocational trade school and junior college, an athletic program led by a Super Bowl Champion and Cooley alumni. Catch our vision to continue the community’s legacy here. Gaining access to help lead this vision to fruition is my greatest challenge right now.

My greatest encouragement in this work has come from seeing Durfee and Central community members experience equitable access to opportunities. Communities like these haven’t been given the opportunities they've deserved for many, many years. Seeing a high number of organizations committed now to this community, and families thriving together, is what gets me out of bed in the morning to want to do it again and again.

Chris Lambert is the founder and CEO of Life Remodeled in Detroit. This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.