The Commons – An Appeal to the Social Justice Advocacy Community in Detroit

An Appeal to the Social Justice Advocacy Community in Detroit

From the Eastern Michigan Environmental Action Council

In 2011, the Eastern Michigan Environmental Action Council (EMEAC) received as a gift the property of the First Unitarian-Universalist Church (First UU), located at the corner of Cass Avenue and Forest Street. This property consists of the august church building and sanctuary, as well as the adjoining elegant parish house, which has a spacious vestibule and parlor, a very large social hall, a kitchen, and several floors of multipurpose rooms. Constructed in 1916, the structure has been awarded an historic designation, and occupies a prime site in midtown Detroit, a central hub of corporate gentrification.

A Legacy of Social Justice Activism

In accepting the stewardship of the First UU property, EMEAC inherited a long-standing legacy of social justice activism. From its inception to the 2lst Century, the First UU congregation was engaged in community building and human rights causes:

The 1960s was an active time for the members of the church, who sponsored the largest Vista volunteer project in the city of Detroit. The project included a residents’ organization and a food co-op. Members and friends during this time included activists, such as civil rights martyr Viola Fauver Gregg Liuzzo, and Vic Schumacher, who worked with Bayard Rustin to integrate the segregated dining hall when he was in federal prison for being a conscientious objector during World War II, marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and was a union organizer; and pioneers, such as Judge Wade McCree, the second African-American solicitor general in the history of the United States.

Between 1998 and 2004, a 501(c)(3), UU Community Place, was formed and operated as an umbrella organization for neighborhood activism and grant funding source. Various organizations benefitted from UUCP, including: C.A.M.P. Detroit, Cinema Cafe?, The Learning Center, Black Folks Arts, Digital Video Studio, Detroit Summer, Food Not Bombs, Center for Women’s Culture, Detroit Women’s Coffeehouse, Kwanzaa Movie Festival, Wisdom Institute for Teenage Mothers, Urban Visionaries, and Blue Triangle.

Community involvement continued through the 2000s. After September 11, 2001, over 50 First Church members held a vigil outside the Islamic Center, our neighbor across the street, after a vandal destroyed one of the mosque’s windows. Church children made drawings to cover the broken windows. Before September 11, the two congregations had cooperated on other issues, including a march in support of Iraqi children. In 2002, the nationally known speaker and philosopher, Rev. Dr. William Jones, conducted a workshop titled “Oppression/ Neo-Racism – How It Operates in Society.” In 2003, First UU was a founding member of Michigan UU Social Justice Network. In 2004, a Get out the Vote Workshop (sponsored by the UU Social Justice Network) was held at First Church. M.O.S.E.S. (Metropolitan Organizing Strategies Enabling Strength) was formed when we joined with 55 other churches, unions and schools to confront local and state officials about health care, affirmative action, job training and immigrant rights.  (

EMEAC Continues the Legacy

When EMEAC assumed ownership and management of the property, it continued this human rights legacy, working in partnership with numerous coalitions, including People’s Water Board, Grassroots Global Justice, Zero Waste Detroit, US Solidarity Economy Network, Detroit Equity Alignment Lab, Climate Justice Alliance and the Overbrook Foundation’s Building Equity and Alignment for Impact. EMEAC has also hosted and facilitated workshops on race equity, environmental justice and community organizing with national coalitions and University partners. As a pilot site of the Climate Justice Alliance, EMEAC continues to foster collaborations among environmental and justice groups to support green and just solutions to race, poverty and environmental concerns in southeast Michigan. EMEAC’s doors have been open for the meetings, projects and organizing efforts of countless community organizations. In addition, the First UU congregation has continued to worship in the Church sanctuary every Sunday, and hold its social hours and organizational meetings during the week.

Protecting and Securing a Vital Base

Given this synergy of organizational activities over the years, the property has become a true “commons” for social justice advocacy and cultural development. However, the care and maintenance of an aging, 44,000 – square feet facility involves heavy financial responsibilities. Though EMEAC has succeeded in securing grants, a few major rental contracts, and intermittent income from rentals for events such as weddings, workshops and conferences, these strategies have not generated the volume and regular flow of funds required to cover operational costs.

An Immediate Goal of $60,000

As major corporations appropriate the heart of the City, dislocating and dispossessing working class neighborhoods, people of color and the poor, we social justice activists who are current EMEAC board members want to secure this valuable, strategically located community center. We are convinced that this base is indeed treasured by many community members. Therefore, we are inviting those organizations and individuals who have created projects and relationships here — relationships and mutual efforts which, in fact, constitute the commons, to join us in implementing a program that will secure this property while advancing our capacities to build movement unity.   Our immediate goal is to raise $60,000. Then we will work to generate an income of $10,000 each month. (Please see the attached sample budget.)

What You Can Do as a Member of the Commons




 Work/Skills Commitment








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