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.