Shamayin Harris, better known as Mama Shu, is a mother, a community activist, a former school administrator, and the founder and CEO of Avalon Village in Highland Park — what she calls a 21st-century sustainable “eco-village” on Avalon Street that is a safe space for learning for the people in her neighborhood.
“The Avalon Village is an eco-village in the making,” Mama Shu says. “We’re rebuilding our neighborhood. We are using all things that are healthy for the environment and more economical to rebuild our space in this community.”
Schools in Highland Park are closing, and the library is no longer around for the people in this community.
For Mama Shu, the vision of transforming an entire city block came from a place of grief.
She started the project after her 2-year-old son Jakobi was killed in 2007 in a hit and run.
Today, there’s a garden and community space in honor of Jakobi Ra. There’s also a village hall where community members can hold events and the homeless can seek shelter.
“I am a citizen here in Highland Park, I was born in Highland Park, so I was basically taught by my ancestors and elders that we help uplift the community,” Mama Shu explains. “So, me as a citizen, I knew I didn’t want to live in blight. I wanted to live in a beautiful neighborhood with beautiful surroundings like other neighborhoods in Michigan.”
Since 2008, Mama Shu has been buying up vacant homes on her block and turning them into different facilities for her community. One home was turned into a homework house for kids in the neighborhood, where martial arts classes are also held. The land she purchased on Avalon Street is used for an outdoor summer camp, so inner-city kids can get the feel of going away to camp. She was also ordained 20 years, ago, and has even married couples in this green space.
The village now has a new off-the-grid STEM Lab, the first of its kind in Highland Park. It’s solar-powered and was built out of a recycled shipping container. Avalon also has high-tech solar streetlights that were installed to serve as free wi-fi for the neighborhood.
One of Mama Shu’s latest initiatives is to raise $50,000 for equipment, computers, 3D printers, whiteboards, desks, programming, and more to bring the space to life.
“I used what I had to create this village in my community,” Mama Shu says.
Mama Shu says she funded the project with “my check from work, fundraisers, grants from foundations, donations from all over the world from people who really care about what we’re doing in the neighborhood.”
So far, she has raised more than $200,000.
Last year, while the homework house was in the process of opening, Mama Shu experienced another devastating loss.
Her 23-year-old son Chinyelu was shot to death — while protecting the space his mother was creating. She says Chinyelu was parked in a grassy lot in front of his mother’s home, watching the area to make sure people didn’t litter and the area was safe. That’s when someone went up to his car and shot him. He died at the scene.
Through her loss, Mama Shu continues to grow her village. A playground and tennis courts are expected to replace overgrown yards. Another shipping container has been transformed into the Goddess Marketplace, selling goods from local women entrepreneurs.
“We have programming for all ages,” she says. “We have an outreach for seniors, different events for young adults. It’s a village, just like a city. There is something for everyone when you come in.”
This summer, concerts will be held in the Jakobi Ra garden, and it’s all done in an eco-space.
Neighbors expressed support for the project.
“I am excited about the Avalon Village,” Lanay Gilbert-Williams, 43, of Highland Park says. “The first block really stands out with all the colors. When anyone drives down Avalon Street, you have the understanding that there is life there. You know that something different and good is going on.”
Gilbert-Williams says that her children attended the “Hood Camp all the way up until they were teenagers,” and have made a lot of friends joining the camp.
“I hope that one day we can get a café or an eatery in the middle of the community,” she says. “How cool would that be? I look forward to the bleachers at the basketball court, because that is not often seen at local courts. I also look forward to all the programming that is coming to the Homework House. My youngest is 5 years old so she is next to experience all that the Village has to offer.”
Harold D. Wilson, 32, of Highland Park, says Avalon Village has shined a new light on the city.
“The transformation that has and is happening is indescribable,” he says. “It brings us citizens so much joy to see something so great to be birthed right here in H.P.!”
Wilson has three sons that use the new community basketball court.
“To sit, see, and hear children laugh and play in a safe and clean space brings such joy to us within the community,” he says, adding that he “deeply appreciates the positivity that Avalon Village brings to our great city.”
Mama Shu says within 10 years she wants to build up the next four blocks in her area.
“I want to add an urban garden, activities area, picnic area for family enjoyment,” she says. “So, my goal is to make all of the Avalon blocks beautiful.”
More information on Avalon Village is available at theavalonvillage.org.