In high school, Jessica Williams used to tease a kid named Itchy for
living in a "clown house." That's all she really remembers about the infamous Heidelberg Project from those days.
Five years later, a lot has changed. The first in her family to graduate college, Williams earned degrees from University of Michigan in art history and African and African-American studies. And when she saw the film Come Unto Me, which is about Heidelberg, in one of her African diaspora classes, it prompted her to revisit a place that had once been so close to home. A tour led by Tyree Guyton and Jenenne Whitfield left her awestruck. She needed to bring her talents back to Detroit.
Williams recently quit her job in the development department at U-M's Museum of Art and moved back with her parents on Gratiot Avenue and Seven Mile Road, saving cash while working her new job for the United Way's southeastern Michigan office. She also hooked up with Whitfield again, and has just become the leader of the newly founded YAH, Young Association of Heidelberg, a volunteer group dedicated to renewing the inner city so it's a place to thrive, not simply survive in. While sitting on the decorated lawn at Heidelberg Street on a Sunday afternoon, with Guyton building art in the background, fellow neighborhood artist Tim Burke mowing the fields and some hilarious dude blowing his bike horn for at least 10 minutes, Williams explains YAH's mission.
"There are lots of programs for children," Williams says, "but what happens when those kids leave the program and go home? They go back to the same situation. People ages 18-30 are the ones with kids here, so this is in part a group for parents, who can teach their children."
YAH seeks individuals with a backbone, "those who are self-educated, who have already internalized things for themselves." With a handful of members so far, Williams already has a few ideas about which issues to take on and how to tackle them, including producing a documentary on "the church epidemic."
"There are more churches than public schools in Detroit, but most of them just sit there in a low-income neighborhood," she says. "They're supposed to be sanctuaries for people to heal and renew, and that's not happening. They're run like businesses. I'd like to get a conversation going."
One YAH member, who grew up on Heidelberg Street, is on the same page. On his blog, Brandon Gaston writes about 27 churches within three miles on Detroit's west side, comparing its leaders to politicians running a campaign for themselves.
It's time to fill some shoes. On her first fact sheet, Williams writes that YAH is a support system informing young people about where Detroit has been, both racially and economically, and where it needs to be. "It's our turn to help out by bringing culture back into the community," she insists. She wants to use art in the same way her mentors Guyton and Whitfield do, getting folks out of their house and really looking at the streets.
"My mom never went to college, but I can talk about critical issues with her as if she was my professor," Williams says. She grew up on the east side with a dad who plays drums and a mom who sings. They took her day-tripping around the city to such places as the DIA and the Science Center. But it's easy to see that some people rarely move beyond a one-mile radius of their homes and their definition of culture is what comes out of a satellite dish, which is why creating neighborhood activities that stretch beyond downtown is one of YAH's charges.
At 24, Williams is still young. During the interview, I watch her developing her thoughts, weaving the right path toward expressing herself. She discloses that she's always been quick to cry and is trying to get over it. In fact, she tears up while we're discussing her parents' creative nurturing. But Williams is not plaintive or lamenting. Life moves her. And I have no idea why she worries herself over these tears, because they're a pure expression of exuberance from a woman of substance.
Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts and culture editor. Send comments to [email protected]