Samoy Smith grew up in Detroit, with a Jamaica-born mother who wasn’t comfortable letting her venture far from the family’s tight-knit Jamaican community. It wasn’t until a school friend invited Smith to her church’s youth group one weekend, during middle school, that she really saw just how fulfilling it could be to build one’s own diverse “chosen family,” to accept invitations from neighbors and then extend them right back out to the next person.
“I went to the youth group every Friday,” Smith remembers. “It was this community of people who really took care of each other, and were there for each other. It was amazing. They opened my eyes to the idea that you don’t have to stay in your house all the time – you can go and knock on your neighbor’s door, and invite them to a potluck.” Smith remembers being invited to neighborhood Christmas parties, and dinner gatherings. “I loved being in that atmosphere,” she says. “It was something that really gave meaning to my life, to feel like I was a part of something bigger than myself. Everybody contributed. It was a family you got to choose. I was welcome, and I was expected to contribute.”
Bagley’s first ever park
Those early experiences shaped Smith, and made her the community organizer she is today.
So it should come as no surprise, then, that when she and her husband and kids moved to the Bagley neighborhood of Detroit last year, she dove straight into community council meetings. When she learned that her street had no block club, she started one up, putting to good use the patience she’d learned when she was young. “I had to reapply about four times with our city,” she remembers, “because they kept losing our application, and it was a delay, a delay, a delay, just for us to get certified as a block club.”
Next – and this is the project Smith is raising money for with ioby right now – she joined forces with a Bagley resident named Joe Marra, who for a while had been dreaming of creating Bagley’s first park. Together with some neighbors, they set off exploring partnerships with existing local nonprofits, learned a ton, and wound up creating their very own nonprofit. Creating Space Detroit became official this past summer, and Smith and Marra are working with the Land Bank on finalizing their purchase of a nice green, unused plot in town. By next spring, they hope to have the area outfitted with tables and chairs. A mini library has already been donated and installed. Smith’s three children are already attached to the park’s single tree, and get excited to visit and climb it as often as they can.
Speaking of the next generation, the hyper-local activism that has become a part of Smith’s DNA is also a part of the heritage she is passing on to her kids, who she brings right along with her now when she distributes neighborhood info door-to-door, or goes to meetings. She wants them to know that, with hard work, they can make the changes they want to see. “For me,” explains Smith, “it’s just what I do. It comes really naturally. Anything I can do to make the place where I live a little bit better. If I can make it a little bit better, I’m going to do it. I’ve learned that it’s not always easy, and I’m very comfortable in that. When I think of the civil rights movement, and all that they accomplished… behind it all was a lot of door-to-door. It was a lot of copying and printing and knocking on doors and having small meetings and building relationships. People don’t like to think of that, but that’s what it is. It’s not glamorous, and it’s not easy, but I feel strongly that it’s the right thing to do. I feel like that’s my calling in life.”
There’s only us
A long term goal near and dear to Smith and Marra’s hearts is to buy the house next to the Bagley park, and turn it into a community space. For Smith, literacy programming is a top priority for the space. It’s also important to her that the Bagley neighborhood offer a community space that’s not in a church or religious institution; she wants every single resident to feel completely at home there. “I’ve seen what’s possible,” she says, “if you welcome everybody. And I know that it is possible for seniors to interact with kids, and teenagers with seniors. Right now, when you go to Bagley meetings, it’s older people.”
Smith often hears longtime residents talking about the local teenagers’ basketball games with an “us vs them” attitude – calling the cops on them and breaking up their games, rather than fostering relationships with youth. That has to change, Smith believes, if the neighborhood is going to thrive. “There is no ‘us’ vs ‘them,’” she says. “It’s only us! These young kids are great! They have good energy, and they’re respectful. If you would give them a chance, and talk to them, you’d find out. And that’s what someone did with me. At twelve, I was invited in, and they looked at me as someone who could contribute.”
When she talks about how she knows that the Bagley park and community space are truly wanted, Smith remembers something that happened at a launch event they held this summer. “When we did our launch event,” she says, “there were these kids that live on the street who were really sheepish about coming over. They didn’t know if they were welcome. They came and threw their football to each other on the sidewalk, and kind of just looked for a while. A teenager who’s been helping out went over to offer them drinks, and they came over and started playing with my son and the other kids. Just to see the kids playing football on the green space was the most satisfying feeling. That feeling of community – I can touch it. There is no old, there is no new. I just want to bridge that gap. No matter what age you are, no matter what race you are, no matter if they’re Black, white, came from India – I don’t care! We just need to come together and talk to each other.”
Feeling inspired? Want to take action in YOUR neighborhood? If you have awesome ideas about how to make your town greener, safer, and more fun, let us help! Tell us your awesome idea right here. We’d love to help you get started today.
Pssst…. In OTHER ioby news: Have a great idea, but feel like you need a blueprint to get you started? Or a recipe to follow? We’ve got you covered. Check out some of our very best recipes for change, here.