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Mother Heals Herself, Community With Michigan Eco-Village

Avalon Village

Shamayim Harris, the founder and CEO of Avalon Village in Highland Park, MI, knows how hard it can be to turn a loss into love. In 2007, her 2-year-old son Jakobi was killed by a hit-and-run driver while playing on Rhode Island Street in the Detroit-area enclave. 

Harris — known as “Mama Shu” — chose to heal and honor Jakobi’s memory by digging deep into an idea she’d had to restore the once-beautiful streets of Highland Park one house at a time. The goal is to create a safe, nurturing, healing, and sustainable community.

“This was one of my favorite places when I was younger,” Harris told Consensus. “I was born here, and seeing the blight as a citizen, I wanted to do something about that. I lived across from Avalon Street. I had seen it look beautiful, then watched the decline over the years.”

“When Jakobi was killed, I said I was going to move back there because I had previously imagined what I could do with that space,” she said.

“Six months after he was killed, the house I wanted to be in became available, and I bought it for $3,500. I stayed in it boarded up. It gave me something to do, to occupy my mind.”

“It was something I wanted to create and loved doing. My neighborhood was a mess, and I wanted to do my part as a citizen,” Harris continued. “It kept me focused off of the tragedy. It was healing work and healed the block.”

Photo Courtesy Avalon Village

Harris, also a minister, found herself fixing up the first house in what has become the center of a sustainable eco-village on Avalon Street between Woodward and Second. Over the past 15 years, the house has become Avalon Village, which includes 40+ parcels of land and five houses, a health café, greenhouses, a micro-library, a park, and the Homework House

The Homework House is a six-years-in-the-making space designed to give children of the community a place to come before and after school and participate in programs such as Music Camp and Hood Camp.

“We created a park out of two vacant lots,” Harris continued. “A beautiful garden named after Jakobi that has evolved to become a beautiful space for the community. I envisioned a park in those vacant lots so younger children could be safe.”

“So many parks in Highland Park were overgrown or being used by adults for liquor and drugs,” she said. “Jakobi was killed playing in the street, so we made sure the playscape was built in the back of the lot, away from the curb.” 

“The Homework House was inspired by when you move into a new town to build your family — you look at the schools,” Harris said. “Our schools here had been in emergency management mode, so my vision was for children to get before and after-school support.”

Photo Courtesy Avalon Village

Though the heartbeat of Avalon Village is its people, its infrastructure is the clean and sustainable construction and energy Harris insists on incorporating. Having reliable, sustainable power was essential for her after all of Highland Park’s street lights were repossessed when the city could no longer pay its bills.

“We built with green infrastructure because it’s clean for the future. What is more affordable than having the sun light up your block?” she said.

“We fundraised for solar street lights, now the maintenance is low, and we have no bills to pay anybody. This allows us to be self-sufficient, self-reliant, and resilient. I think of ways we can save money because there’s not a lot of money in the first place going into our neighborhood.”

Photo Courtesy Avalon Village

The Homework House runs on geothermal heating and cooling, with solar panels on the roof, which means no bills to pay. Many Avalon Village structures are off-the-grid shipping containers, including a space for women entrepreneurs and a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) lab.

“We are working to transform this space into an eco-village more and more, one step at a time, changing what we can a little at a time,” Harris said. “Eventually, we want the whole village to run from a green infrastructure, so it’s more affordable and cleaner for the environment.”

Photo Courtesy Avalon Village

Harris’s work continues to inspire others to create sustainable urban areas for better living. In 2016, she received the eWomenNetwork Foundation Humanitarian of the Year Award, and Ellen DeGeneres pitched in by donating a building for the village headquarters. As the area expands house by house, lot by lot, and block by block, it creates a brighter, healthier future for Highland Park’s residents.