Homeless 2

Veronika Scott and The Empowerment Plan for Detroit

By Pro­fes­sor Den­nis R. Shaughnessy 

As a grad­u­ate of The Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan, I make it a point to read as much as I can about what’s hap­pen­ing these days in Detroit. The news has been any­thing but good lately; a painful bank­ruptcy fil­ing, a mid­dle class exo­dus con­tin­u­ing to shrink the city’s pop­u­la­tion, aban­doned build­ings lead­ing to entire neigh­bor­hoods with­out res­i­dents, and a near com­plete break­down of pub­lic ser­vices.  There are now more than 20,000 home­less men, women and chil­dren liv­ing on the streets and in shel­ters of this once boom­ing indus­trial city.  While some­thing as big and as impor­tant as the once great city of Detroit is dif­fi­cult to label hope­less or beyond repair, at times it appears to be just that.

Each morn­ing when I drive Boston’s streets on the way to our cam­pus I see home­less peo­ple sleep­ing along the side of one or our largest streets, Mel­nea Cass Boule­vard.  It’s just a short walk from Inter­state 93 and trans­ports thou­sands of com­muters to and from work, and wrap around the  tall new tow­ers that sit along the Rox­bury bor­der of our grow­ing cam­pus.  Boston is a thriv­ing city with an innovation-based econ­omy and seem­ingly the antithe­sis of rust-belt Detroit.  Yet, the nearly 7,000 home­less peo­ple in Boston are as present in many ways as the home­less in Detroit, per­haps stand­ing out all the more in con­trast to the abun­dance of pros­per­ity and promise that sur­rounds them. 

As I drive along, I won­der what each home­less person’s story is that led them to this place on the shoul­der of Mel­nea Cass Boule­vard, and what I might be able to do to help.  It seems like the prob­lem of chronic home­less­ness is such a big, com­plex prob­lem that maybe there’s noth­ing one per­son can really do to make a mean­ing­ful difference.

And then, along comes Veronika Scott.  She encoun­tered the home­less in Detroit while a young design stu­dent in the city, strug­gling her­self to make ends meet.  Through a series of videos and blogs (links at the close), she explains how her child­hood liv­ing in poverty in Detroit led her to a place where she decided she would not just let the prob­lem of home­less­ness go, but instead step in and actu­ally do some­thing about it.  While many of us think that we have the kind­ness in us to take the risk and reach out and help, Veronika actu­ally put her heart to work, on the streets, night after night. Veronika made the choice to be the per­son that we all hope we are capa­ble of being. 

Veronika cre­ated what she calls The Empow­er­ment Plan (http://www.empowermentplan.org/).  Putting to prac­tice what she learned in her design classes, she designed a warm and durable win­ter coat that would con­vert into a full sleep­ing bag.  It’s water­proof and light­weight, comes in white (for secu­rity) and ide­ally suited for a home­less per­son liv­ing on the streets in the bit­ter cold of Detroit.  What was at first just a class project for aca­d­e­mic credit is now a thriv­ing small social enter­prise led by a for­mer col­lege stu­dent who is now a lead­ing exam­ple for com­mit­ted stu­dents around the coun­try to follow.  

The next step in her plan was really the key towards mov­ing from a very clever prod­uct designed for those in need to a sus­tain­able, job cre­at­ing small social enter­prise.  She made the crit­i­cal deci­sion to hire home­less women to make the coats.  Now with seven women work­ing for her in an old mill build­ing in Detroit, the team makes one new coat every 90 min­utes, and with the ben­e­fit of donor cap­i­tal is able to run a small non-profit tex­tile pro­duc­tion busi­ness that employs the for­mer or presently home­less while pro­vid­ing a prod­uct that meets the needs of the same. 

While there is of course no guar­an­tee that The Empow­er­ment Plan will be sus­tain­able for the long haul, its very cre­ation serves as an inspi­ra­tion to young peo­ple, espe­cially uni­ver­sity stu­dents, who are look­ing for ways to cre­ate new projects and ven­tures in which they com­bine their learn­ing in social enter­prise (here at NU, an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary field of study built on a busi­ness plat­form) with their com­mit­ment to serv­ing peo­ple in need. 

I won­der if the future of The Empow­er­ment Plan might include a fran­chise model, so that her work can be repli­cated in cities across the world from uni­ver­sity cam­puses in a “pre-packaged” way.  A hybrid busi­ness model that includes a for-profit cloth­ing design and pro­duc­tion com­pany could also one day com­ple­ment that non-profit ser­vice plat­form that she has built thus far, as a poten­tial path­way to long-term finan­cial sus­tain­abil­ity to com­ple­ment the com­pelling social impact already being made in part­ner­ship with the homeless. 

Uni­ver­si­ties are noth­ing if not ser­vice insti­tu­tions, and here at NU we are work­ing with stu­dents who study social enter­prise to fol­low the lead of young peo­ple like Veronika Scott.  Here’s what The Empow­er­ment Plan instructs all of us to do, but most espe­cially stu­dents and recent grad­u­ates: Apply what you’ve learned in the class­room to develop, build and grow real projects and enter­prises that serve peo­ple and com­mu­ni­ties in need and make pos­i­tive and last­ing change.  You will not only pro­vide a ser­vice to oth­ers, but one for your­self as well, as you see and feel at a young age what it is to strug­gle, to find and seize oppor­tu­nity, and to over­come life’s chal­lenges through hard work and pas­sion­ate com­mit­ment to a wor­thy goal. 

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