A Highland Park community leader on a mission to turn “blight to beauty” in her city was named one of CNN’s top 10 heroes and is in the running for the network’s 2023 Hero of the Year award and $100,000 to support her work.
Shamayim “Mama Shu” Harris is the founder and CEO of Avalon Village, a nonprofit rejuvenating a block in Highland Park by creating spaces and offering support for the community. She is among a group of honorees providing scholarships and mentorship for young adults with incarcerated parents, restoring coral reefs in the Florida Keys and connecting migrant and refugee children in shelters with educational resources.
Through Avalon Village, 58-year-old Harris is on a mission to transform vacant and abandoned lots and structures into a sustainable community on Avalon Street, between Woodward and Second avenues. Avalon Village also includes a Homework House for students, a marketplace for women entrepreneurs, a basketball court and a community garden. Avalon Village came about after the death of her 2-year old son, Jakobi RA Harris, in a hit and run in 2007. She founded the organization the year after and Avalon Village officially became a nonprofit in 2016.
“I needed to just basically change grief into glory, pain into power. I just tried to transform it and make it into something bearable and something beautiful,” Harris told CNN.
Highland Park is a municipality located within Detroit’s city limits with a population of more than 8,600. The city has gone through tumultuous times, as properties emptied and street lights dimmed. Avalon Village grew from about four lots, Harris said, to 45. It’s a space for children to get tutoring in a house that feels like home and where women can run their businesses and network. Harris plans to grow the village with a cafe, greenhouse, restaurant, laundromat and market-rate housing.
“I would love to see all four blocks of Avalon look beautiful,” she said in the CNN video. “I would love for it to be infectious. I would love for it to spread throughout the whole city. I remember every inch of how this whole block used to look. Folks hated to come over here, now they’re like, ‘Woah, what’s going on over there?'”
For her work, Harris is one of this year’s Top 10 CNN Heroes — which recognizes everyday people improving the lives of others in extraordinary ways — and will receive a $10,000 prize, according to the network. People can vote to decide who will become the 2023 CNN Hero of the Year and get another $100,000 for their efforts.
Harris said she was elated to learn that she was among the top honorees. The exposure, she said, is an opportunity for people around the world to know that it’s possible to revive neighborhoods in disrepair.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to inspire other folks that work in their neighborhoods and other grassroots organizations that are trying to make their spaces better,” Harris said Thursday.
The $10,000 grant will help expand activities at the Homework House. If Avalon Village receives the additional $100,000 award, the funds would allow the nonprofit to complete an activities area, including a new playground, tennis court and fencing for a basketball court, Harris said.
“It would be just like hitting the lottery and just being able to get a little heads up on some of the things that we would love to have in our community,” she said.
Go to CNNHeroes.com to learn more about the honorees, cast a vote or make donations, via GoFundMe. People can vote up to 10 times a day through Tuesday, Dec. 5. The votes can be for one nominee or divided among others.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper will announce this year’s CNN Hero of the Year on Sunday, Dec. 10, starting at 8 p.m.