Dennis Nordmoe of Urban Neighborhood Initiatives believes that real change starts small in creating a better environment for a neighborhood, a street, or even a block. Since 1997, he’s worked to empower residents of the Springwells neighborhood to improve their community.
Michigan Nightlight: What does being a leader mean to you?
Urban Neighborhood Initiatives Executive Director Dennis Nordmore
: Attracting talented people to work enthusiastically from the same vision and knowledge base and toward the same goals. Our staff and volunteers and interns are attracted by the vision we have articulated and the work that we have begun. We have built up a core group of very talented people who want to work here because of our neighborhood-centered approach. We’re not just a housing organization; we’re working with people to make a better life in their neighborhoods.Adults see the kids as contributing to the neighborhood rather than being the enemy, and it teaches kids it's important to leave their mark in a positive way...
What is your dream for kids?
That they will grow up safe and healthy and committed to educating themselves for productive lives to the best of their potential. In our work with young people, we’re working with the environment that surrounds them and bringing them into contact with positive, productive adults. It’s always important for kids to have additional positive adults in their lives. Aggravation can set in with teachers and parents, so it’s important to have more allies on the positive side. We focus on bringing kids into relationships with coaches, and the relationships that transmit values … they need the encouragement that comes from being part of the team. Kids in our apprenticeships have an encouraging relationship with a successful adult as well. Adults see the kids as contributing to the neighborhood rather than being the enemy, and it teaches kids it’s important to leave their mark in a positive way -- it’s more fun than leaving it through graffiti.
What is one concrete thing that could be done to improve the environment for social sector work in Michigan?
We need effective law enforcement on chronic criminal activity locations that demoralize and destabilize the community, which means the ability to actually investigate complaints of continuing criminal activity such as drug house operations, and actually remove the people effectively, rather than just do a raid. We’d like to see law enforcement really use all effective means to remove the culprits from the neighborhood and put them away. That is how it happens in the suburbs; what happens in the city is they get a raid and a court date, and the drug dealers go back to business.
Another example is disorderly conduct continuing to happen in a house. That makes people want to leave, and abandon their homes. In the suburbs this is dealt with very effectively; in Detroit you get occasional responses to 911. If the person is drug addicted they’ll maybe go to the hospital and be back in three days. Here it just goes on and on and on for maybe years, with occasional 911 calls responded to and no effective action until the person gets so sick that he goes out of commission. We have little drug and prostitution activities sprinkled all over neighborhoods – if the state police were to come here and give us an hand it would unleash all kinds of creative energy and people would have the confidence to invest in We use positive goals, instead of the negative goals of crusading for people not to use drugs or whatever.
their property and stay in the neighborhood.
How do you know you’re making progress?
When young people become strongly committed to completing high school and enrolling in extended training; when the community unites around a positive agenda of change; and when prospering residents decide to fix up their homes and stay in the neighborhood.
What are you most proud of?
Our parks, our youth program, and our role in bringing the community together around a hopeful agenda. Right now we have completed a six-month planning process with our community. People have really rallied and are very positive and very hopeful, and are waiting to see if real projects come out of this. It did not result in rancorous divisions and fighting and all that stuff that goes on when you try to get money for a neighborhood. It was very positive and very congenial. We have youth programs in which we get hundreds of kids involved in one positive activity or another. We have invested in four different locations where we offer family-based outdoor recreation opportunities. We have a playground across the street from our neighborhood center and there are always from 15 to 40 people out there -- parents as well as children. When we built our basketball court there, kids were lined up with balls in hand as the contractor finished sweeping it off. It’s little victories like that.
What originally drew you to your current profession?
A determination to make a unique contribution to the history of the city of Detroit through comprehensive neighborhood development and an understanding that healthy neighborhoods that place a strong value on education are the most effective means of reducing urban social problems. I did teaching. I did ministry in urban neighborhoods. And that gave me insight into a way of serving people that was more than one on one, but creating an organization to serve people. I worked for the city in substance abuse, then urban development and substance abuse systems of care. I came more and more to the conclusion that there are two main plans of attack: quality education and healthy neighborhoods. If we have those two in order, we have a much better chance of getting successful outcomes from young people. We use positive goals, instead of the negative goals of crusading for people not to use drugs or whatever. It’s in everybody’s interest to have a good education and good neighborhoods -- poor people and rich people all want to see better neighborhoods. If you can create a neighborhood of such quality that those who are prospering want to stay, you also create a better neighborhood for the single mother who is living in subsistence.