I was driving out of the parking lot at the grocery store a few days ago. At the stop sign was a homeless man, holding a sign asking for spare change. He was dirty and dishevelled, looking sad and ashamed, and he wasn’t young. We don’t see homeless people in small communities in Nova Scotia. Life is already hard for so many. I knew I had cash in my pocket, and I furiously wrestled with my seatbelt to free the money. The car behind me honked with impatience. I abandoned my plan and stepped on the gas. The inconvenience of the driver behind me was obviously more urgent than helping a fellow human being. The shame that washed over me left me breathless. I could have gone down the road and turned around to come back. I didn’t. I drove home. I let an opportunity to help someone slip through my fingers in the blink of an eye. My stomach still reminds me of my mistake. “He who hesitates is lost,” is a proverb credited to Joseph Addison from his 1712 Tragedy Cato. Cato’s lines were, “The woman that deliberates is lost.” Addison was right, as was Cato.
I read recently of someone who didn’t and doesn’t hesitate. Her name is Shamayim Harris, known affectionately as Mama Shu. She had a vision for her struggling neighbourhood in Highland Park, Michigan. Grief put Harris down when her two-year-old son, Jakobi Ra, was struck and killed by a hit and run driver in 2007. Harris transformed her grief into action, calling her vision Avalon Village, between Woodward Avenue and Second Avenue on Avalon Street. Six months after the death of her son, a house came up for sale on the corner of Avalon Street. The property was listed at $5,000 and she quickly called the realtor and offered $3,000, more money than she had. She borrowed and used her savings to buy the house and slowly began buying other lots on the street. This area of Highland Park had been struggling for years. 1400 streetlights were taken down due to unpaid debt to the city. Buildings were locked and in disrepair – a building that once was a library, a building that once was a school, buildings that once were homes. Much of that area was in the past tense. Harris saw so much more for the neighbourhood that she became “an unlikely urban planner”.
Mama Shu is the founder and CEO of Avalon Village, a non-profit organization and an eco-community. She is a former school administrator to which she dedicated twenty-seven years serving Detroit schools. Her route to healing was transforming her dying community and inspiring others with her call to action and her infectious determination to bring life to this worn-out area. For eight years, she and her team of volunteers worked to clean up the area, tearing down some buildings and repairing others. Engineers, artists, urban farmers, volunteers, and donors from around the world joined in her quest. They have created a Homework House for after-school learning and activities, a Goddess marketplace for women entrepreneurs, a Healing House centre for holistic health care, a healthy café, activity courts, greenhouses, and a library. Mama Shu and her team are still going strong. She wanted Avalon Village “to be something infectious” she explained to the media, and she has done just that.
Today Avalon Village owns forty-five lots within three blocks. Mama Shu’s efforts have been recognized with a Humanitarian of the Year Award presented by eWomen Network in 2016. The road hasn’t been an easy one. It has required a Herculean effort to continue to create safe spaces and opportunities for residents. Projects sometimes get caught up in red tape and the bureaucratic madness of government. A second son of Mama Shu, twenty-three-year-old Chinyelu, was gunned down while sitting in his car in January of 2021. But as Mama Shu declares, if you survive the death of your child, you are “invincible”. Shamayim Harris is indeed invincible.
Mama Shu’s example reminds me to adjust my sense of priority. I hope I will do better at following Joseph Addison’s advice and never again hesitate to help someone when the opportunity is right in front of me. My gesture isn’t even in the same category of Harris’ accomplishments, but every day and every little bit is a good place to start.