Pillars Ramadan 2021 | Renew
/ May 5, 2021
On April 20, 2021, Pillars grantee leader Mark Crain from Dream of Detroit joined Pillars Social Media Manager Mohammad Mia for a conversation on communal practices of renewal in Detroit. Watch and listen to their conversation in full on Instagram. You can read the full transcript below.
Mohammad Mia (03:55):
Assalamualaikum everyone, Ramadan Mubarak to all of you out there who are fasting. My name is Mohammad Mia, my pronouns are he/they, and I am the Social Media Manager here at Pillars. For those of you who are just joining us today, this Instagram Live is part of Pillars’ Ramadan series. As we go through our second Ramadan in a pandemic, this series of Instagram Live conversations provide a space to reflect on the lessons of the past year, reset our intentions, and remind each other of the hope and inspiration that exists all around us. Throughout this Ramadan, we will be having conversations on rest, renewal, and reimagine. Today’s conversation will be centered on renewal, and we have Mark Crain, the Executive Director of Dream of Detroit in conversation with us today. We want to acknowledge that the world is a lot, that there is much happening everywhere, and that we may be carrying some anxiety, tensions, and tiredness. So I just wanted to begin by taking a moment to just pause and center ourselves as we take a deep breath in.
Mark Crain is a digital strategist and community organizer with local and national experience. At MoveOn, Mark serves as Chief of Member Experience, where he’s worked on successful campaigns to promote diplomacy over war, expand Medicaid access in GOP-led states, and take down the Confederate flag in South Carolina. Mark is a co-founder of MPower Change, a rapid-response campaigning organization mobilizing Muslims and their allies, as well as the executive director of Dream of Detroit, combining community organizing and development on Detroit’s West Side. With DREAM, Mark has been heavily involved in cleaning up, stabilizing, and, God-willing, revitalizing, the neighborhood around one of the city’s historic mosques. During his time with the group, DREAM has rehabbed nearly 15 homes, mobilized more than 500 volunteers, planted 114 trees, secured vacant buildings, and held community-building events that have brought out thousands. Mark has been featured in publications including The Detroit Free Press, The Nation, The Guardian, and NPR, so needless to say, we are about to have an exciting conversation. I’m looking forward to it.
Mark Crain (06:56):
Yeah, I’m happy to be here, and I’m very grateful to Pillars, always, and I’m looking forward to talking to you today, Mohammad.
Mohammad Mia (07:04):
Agreed! So we’ll start off by asking, how does valuing communal renewal inform Dream of Detroit’s approach to community organizing and the work that you do currently?
Mark Crain (07:19):
So in terms of how we value communal renewal, Dream of Detroit actually started with the name Detroit Revival Engaging American Muslims. I think the word revival is related to the word renewal, the sense of making something new again, something fresh again. So for us, we operate in a neighborhood that had essentially been written off by the city, or at least prominent planners in the city. This is a neighborhood where a tornado touched down 25 years ago and did some significant damage. That’s not normal for Michigan. If anyone doesn’t know, it’s not normal for Detroit to have tornadoes come through the city.
So we have an act of God that did some work in this neighborhood, but it’s also a neighborhood that saw a lot of disinvestment over the years, and it was a working class neighborhood that was essentially left behind. Around the time that I got involved with this work back in 2013, it was actually right on the heels of the release of something called the Detroit Future City Plan. This was a 50-year strategic land use framework that looked at the entire city and dictated what different areas of the city were useful. Well in our neighborhood, they called it an ecological innovation center, and that doesn’t indicate it has anything to do with people, right? So what that meant was that they planned for our area a controlled overgrowth of vacant lots. You know, I tell anybody, especially speaking to women, walk through the neighborhood at night and tell me if controlled overgrowth is really a thing.
They talked about shallow pools to collect rainwater and take pressure off the sewage system. Cool things if you’re interested in green infrastructure, but if you’re one of the families that’s been here in this neighborhood for 50 or 60 years, if you attend the masjid that has been in this neighborhood for 40 years, if you use the clinic that’s been in this neighborhood run by the Muslim community for the last 15 years, if you’re a patron or a supporter or an actor at the historic theater that’s been here for 65 years, the idea of your neighborhood giving way to ecological innovation feels like being left behind. It feels like being left out of progress and out of the future. So that was a lot of what we were responding to in our early year.
Alhamdullilah today we’ve made progress such that we are a neighborhood that I don’t think is being written off anymore. In fact, we just recently found out that we are going to be the location of a brand new K through 12 school, right in the heart of our neighborhood. That’s the type of announcement that I don’t think would have happened six, seven years ago without all the work that we’ve been able to put in. However renewal is different than replacement, and I just want to note that as well because we didn’t come into this project looking at this neighborhood as a tabula rasa. This was no blank slate for us. This was a neighborhood full of people, full of history, full of memories, full of aspirations.
So we’re not here to replace anything and we’re not here to displace anything. We were here to contribute to a type of renewal that values and benefits everyone that’s here. I’ll also say before I stop rambling, we combine community organizing with development, or at least that’s our intention. So we’ve rehabbed those homes, but we’ve also worked really closely to make this an effort that’s led by folks who are from the neighborhood or folks who are committed to the neighborhood. Organizing is about empowerment. It’s about leadership development, right, about investing in people, and it’s about people feeling like they can create their own future. Sometimes when you look at a city like Detroit, which has been maligned in the national media for decades and has been the beating horse, frankly, of even our suburban communities for a very long time.
Then you consider on top of that a neighborhood like ours, which was slow to rebound from the market crash and left out of city plans. Sometimes when people have been beaten down that much, you actually have to help renew the spirit, right? You have to give people a reason to hope. Again, you have to give them a reason to believe that their neighborhood is going to see a future. You have to give them a reason to believe that what they’re reading in the future city plan, isn’t the end all be all, that there actually is an opportunity for us to paint a different picture. So that’s been a lot of our work too, just working with our neighbors, working with folks who want to be our neighbors, working with the institutions here, and getting us all aligned around the sense that actually we can lead the renewal of this neighborhood together.
Mohammad Mia (12:36):
I really appreciate what you said on making the distinction between, was it renewal and revival?
Mark Crain (12:44):
Well I think renewal and revival are related, but the difference between renewal and replacement, you know? That’s the fear when a brand new community organization comes into an area, and I’ll be quick to say you know, I moved into this particular neighborhood. I’m from Detroit, born and raised, but I grew up on the East Side of Detroit. We’re on the West Side here. This neighborhood meant a lot to me because this is where the Muslim Center Mosque and Community Center is. The Muslim Center’s been here for almost 40 years; it’s a beautiful masjid that grows out of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed’s community. Today it is the meeting point of so many different strains of the Black Muslim experience in Detroit. In fact, it’s a connecter for the entire Metro Detroit Muslim community. When folks are looking for a masjid to do something at, something political or something that appeals to the entire city, when they’re looking for a masjid in the city to do that, they look to the Muslim Center.
So it’s a place that has a lot of meaning. However, you know, I moved into the neighborhood, right? So, you know, I had to reassure my neighbors. I had to reassure the people to my left and right and the blocks surrounding me that the efforts that we’re doing here are to benefit everybody. We’re not trying to move anybody out of their house. If anything, we want to fill in the gaps in between your houses, we want to take away the eyesores that we all have had to deal with. You know what I mean? We want to bring everybody’s housing values up. We want to bring everybody’s lived experience when they walk down the street up. You know, sometimes I chuckle when I include the 114 trees planted in that description, because, you know, to some extent, it may seem inconsequential to folks.
But the reality is that in an urban neighborhood like this, the presence of those types of trees is actually really important to people’s mental health, right? You know Detroit is a city that used to have this beautiful treescape and canopy, and you would go downtown and you could look out over the city and you couldn’t see anything but the top of the trees. Then we dealt with the Dutch Elm disease and it really devastated a lot of the green beauty in the city. So planting those trees, bringing 300 Muslims families out to do that and to participate in that, and inshallah receive sadaqah jariyah from that was really special. So, you know, it’s a part of that renewal process.
Mohammad Mia (15:06):
Speaking about the centrality of the Muslim center as a space that’s not only important to Black Muslim history in Detroit, but as a community for political organizing and being in relationship with people, I wanted to ask, what are the ways that spirituality informs the work that Dream of Detroit does?
Mark Crain (15:29):
We don’t often call ourselves faith-based, but we do often call ourselves faith inspired. We’re clearly Muslim led, right, and we’re proud of that and that’s an important part of our identity because we want more Muslims involved in this work. We also want to be an organization that feels accessible to everyone, right? Detroit is a city of faithful people, you know; Detroit at one point in recent history had 3000 churches. You know, sometimes we joke and say that there’s a church every hundred feet in Detroit. In fact, on some streets, literally every hundred feet there’s a church. So this is a city with a rich history of faith-based community development and just people of faith in general.
Of course we also know that, in terms of the history of Muslims in America, Detroit has a special place. You think about not only the arrival of very early immigrant communities working in the auto factories at the turn of the century and that type of experience, but also particularly in the Black Muslim community the founding of the Nation of Islam here in Detroit in the early 1930s. Even prior to that, you had like the establishment of the Universal Islamic Society by Duse Mohamed Ali in 1926. Duse Mohamed Ali being a mentor of Marcus Garvey, you know if you really look at the [Universal] Negro Improvement Association that Marcus Garvey ran, you see the influence of tawhid because he had people like Duse Mohamed Ali mentoring him. Duse Mohamed Ali would eventually come to Detroit and open up an Islamic center, that actually even predates the Nation of Islam. So there’s this really, really rich history here and we’ve always wanted to tap into that, because we stand on that history. We’re actually doing a project right now that we call the Dream Storytelling project where we’re collecting oral histories from a lot of the pioneers and the elders in our community. We’re capturing these long histories of how Islam has been practiced here, the stages of development that our communities have gone through, and really capturing it from a lot of different dynamic perspectives. Alhamdulillah we’ve recorded about 50 so far and we’re anticipating doing another 25 or 50 histories. Then we’re actually gonna also try to make a short documentary that shares some of those stories with the community and also speaks to that future vision. Faith inspired is certainly how you could describe our work.
The t-shirt that I’m wearing, it has a quote on the back that from a hadith by the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) that says Angel Jibreel continued to advise me to treat my neighbors well, until I thought that he would make them my heirs. So, you know, just this idea that our neighbors are so important to us and that the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) was reminded of their importance so much that he actually thought he would have to give whatever he left of his inheritance to his neighbors. So we put that on the back of this shirt just to emphasize the significance of that relationship, because you know those relationships are core to organizing, they’re core to community building, and they’re core to living peacefully with each other. They’re especially core in a pluralistic society where people are coming from different backgrounds, whether it be race or ethnicity or faith, just having that common appreciation for neighborliness and having that as a shared value. So we do turn to our faith and to our tradition for inspiration like that. As I keep mentioning, we try to combine organizing and development and so when it comes to our housing work, we sometimes refer to another hadith of the Prophet (SAW) where he says, “There is no right for the son of Adam except in these three things: a house in which you live, a garment to cover his nakedness and a piece of bread and water.” So the Prophet described to us these three very basic universal human rights, the first of which he named was housing or shelter.
So when we talk about our work, obviously the Muslim community is incredibly diverse across all vectors, including politically. What we’d like to say is that, based on this statement, the idea that housing is a human right is something that we should all be able to unite around, no matter what your political disposition is, no matter which part of the city or the suburbs or the metro area you live in. The fact that there are people going without quality housing is a stain on society, and it’s something that we should be committed to being a part of the solution for. DREAM operates at two levels in the sense that we are both trying to move Muslims into this community around this masjid and here in the Dexter and Linwood neighborhood in general, but also trying to bring the broader metro-area Muslim community, whether they live right here or not, or whether they ever will, kind of bring them into this conversation about what does justice look like in our neighborhoods?
What does it look like in a city like Detroit, that’s been beaten down by de-industrialization, that was driven into the largest foreclosure in the country, that has a 40% poverty rate? What does it look like for us to reach deep into our values as Muslims, and to be as much use as possible for the people around us? One really basic way we can do that without getting too preachy, it’s just by helping people have good quality housing, you know? So that’s, you know, it’s really simple, alhamdulillah.
Mohammad Mia (21:25):
I really appreciate the oral history project that you’re working on and the importance of being able to pass down that intergenerational wisdom. I wanted to ask for my last question, when future generations look at the work that Dream of Detroit has done for our communities and the way that we work, what do you hope they take away from it?
Mark Crain (21:53):
Number one, I hope that there’s a future community living right here in this area that we’re working in. This masjid, though it’s been here for 40 years, has had Muslims here and there who’ve lived around the masjid but it has never been the type of masjid that has had a dense community living around it. That’s not atypical in many parts of the Black Muslim community, you know, for reasons we won’t dive into in a whole bunch of depth right now. Yet it has always been an anchor in the community. We’ve run a soup kitchen for 37 years out of the masjid, the free health clinic that Muslims run in the neighborhood called the HUDA Clinic started in the masjid.
We were just doing COVID vaccinations two days ago and we’ll be doing them again in a few days. So it’s always been a site of service, but it wasn’t until fairly recently that we started to see this critical mass of brothers and sisters wanting to come live around the masjid in real numbers. So one of our aims is to facilitate that for folks and to create a pathway for folks to easily move in, join in, and be in community with one another. So I hope that we’re able to be successful at that en masse. We’ve done close to 15 homes now and I hope that one day we’re able to say that we did hundreds of homes, maybe one day thousands of homes. It’s been years since hundreds of homes were built in Detroit, and that’s also a part of our city, a story of development fleeing. The average age of homes in our neighborhood is actually 105 years old for the most part, so imagine trying to rehab a 105-year-old house, it’s not an easy job. Detroit had caught this reputation around 2010 that you could just show up here and put down a couple of thousand dollars and you have a house you can move into. I don’t think so.
You have a house that you have to put several more thousand dollars into to make livable, and you have to do that several times over. So turning that story on its head and building a community that stands on the history of the Black Muslim presence in Detroit and all, that acknowledges that Detroit is still a 90% Black city, but that also says as a Muslim community we can model building a multi-ethnic community in America. Segregation and housing segregation are a problem all across this country. It can be more or less acute in some areas, and Detroit is a really great example of that, but it’s a problem everywhere. So we often tap into that idea that Malcolm X, may Allah have mercy on him, talked about when he said that Islam could solve the race problem in America.
So we want to model what it looks like to build healthy well-functioning dynamic multi-ethnic communities. You know, we want to model what it looks like to build communities that are mixed income and multi-class. We started this project with one house and it was a charitable effort. I got involved right as they were finishing that house, actually, and we started to kind of put some more long-term vision for this thing. One of the first things we said was, we’re not just trying to do low income houses in this already economically depressed neighborhood. That story has been told too many times and that project has been done too many times. We’re trying to build a community where folks from all backgrounds feel like they have an opportunity to live, want to live, and can live and can coexist peacefully.
So, you know, I hope that future communities see the success of that vision. I hope that they see themselves as a part of that legacy and see themselves continuing it. We often talk about the fact that we are very much focused on figuring out what this looks like right here and now in our neighborhood. Yet there is a part of us that hopes that one day there is a model here that other folks are also inspired by and are replicating in their own communities across the country. Just like we’ve been inspired by other groups doing really powerful work across the country. So that’s some of what I would say we hope that future generations say about our project. I also, frankly, I hope they say that we were a vehicle for the Metro Detroit Muslim community, really leaving its impact on this city.
We’re not here to be extractive, we’re here to give back, we’re here to be of service. We’re here to make a difference in the lives of everyone around us, you know, that’s da’wah. I’m not out here fishing, as they used to say back in the past, fishing for souls. We’re trying to live our values and we’re just trying to be peacemakers. Prophet Muhammad (SAW) said spread salaams, and that’s what we’re trying to do through our work inshallah.
Mohammad Mia (27:19):
Thank you very much for this wonderful conversation. I know before we leave, I just wanted to ask, is there any programming or anything that you want to shout out or put out for people in the audience who are listening in?
Mark Crain (27:35):
So for people in the audience, we don’t have actually a bunch of live programming right now happening during Ramadan. We’re really grateful to be invited to some conversations like this, so thank you again, Mohammad and Pillars. However, what I will say is DREAM is at an inflection point. The truth is that for me, this has been a labor of love for the last seven years now. I got involved with DREAM, you know, my family committed to this project, committed to this neighborhood, et cetera, but this is actually not my full-time job. Even though I’m called the executive director, but I’m actually getting ready to leave my full-time job and inshallah step into DREAM full-time. So I’m excited about that opportunity, I’m excited about the chance to see what we can accomplish with some focused attention on this.
Thus far, hundreds of volunteers have been a part of making DREAM possible. An even smaller sort of core group have been here for years, working together to really sustain this thing and keep it going. We believe that this project and this neighborhood has the potential that again requires someone’s full-time attention, and so we’re trying to step into that. So, especially in this month of Ramadan, we just ask for your prayers, for your financial support, frankly, as we try to make this transition, and we ask that folks visit dreamofdetroit.org and get on our email list so that you can stay in touch with us. We look forward to kind of sharing more of this progress as we go along inshallah.
Mohammad Mia (29:15):
I think I speak for everyone in the chat in saying congratulations on the transition to committing full time to this project. Inshallah, I’m sure that it will flourish and grow as a result. Thank you for making the time to speak today and to share about the wonderful work that you’re doing at Dream of Detroit. Thank you all for joining us for this conversation. We have one more conversation which will be happening next week Tuesday at the same time and we would love to see you there. We hope that you have a wonderful remainder of Ramadan and thank you for joining us. Take care.
Mark Crain (29:56):
Salamu alaykum everyone.