It Takes an Avalon Village

Date: 21 Mar 2024 | posted in: Building Local Power, Detroit | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Mama Shu’s journey began with a profound commitment: healing her community. Despite the challenges faced by her hometown of Highland Park, Mama Shu felt a deep connection to the area. Determined to make a difference, she embarked on a mission to reclaim neglected spaces, tirelessly working to steward the land, organize the community, and secure resources for revitalization.

Today, Avalon Village owns 45 lots that have been transformed into vibrant community spaces, including gardens, parks, a homework house, markets, a cafe, an entrepreneurial hub, a healing space, and more. Yet, Mama Shu’s impact extends beyond physical infrastructure. Her holistic approach to community development embraces spiritual and cultural revitalization, honoring and celebrating her departed loved ones while nurturing a loving space for future generations.

Avalon Village stands as a testament to the resilience of communities and the transformative power of collective action.

Mama Shu: My job as a feminine entity on this planet is going to help to heal it, help to bring it back into balance, I would say. And so that is what my work is about, is about to helping to bring things back into balance. Sometimes it’s the feminine touch or whatever sometimes that’s missing in things and that right there. And so I believe that Highland Park, I believe that Avalon Village is a place that is being healed.
Reggie Rucker: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of Building Local Power Detroit, our first stop in a multi-city series where we explore how to build local power from the experiences of people who are doing just that on the ground in their respective cities.
If you’re just jumping into the series midway, these are the people who are proving what’s possible when a community comes together to shape its future. We talk to community leaders, advocates, activists, entrepreneurs, and elected officials, all who have powerful stories about the drive to write Detroit’s next chapter. We think these stories will be illuminating in their own right, but we also hope they inspire you on your journey to build local power wherever you’re listening from. So excited as always to do this tour with my co-host, Luke Gannon. What’s up, Luke?
Luke Gannon: Hey, Reggie. I am so excited to be here. We have quite a special guest today. Shamayim Harris, or Mama Shu, was named USA Today’s 2024 Women of the Year. Mama Shu was also on The Ellen Show and was given a house from Ellen. Yep, you heard me. More on that later. And was named CNN Hero in 2023, and was introduced at their 17th year Heroes event by Sterling K. Brown. Yeah, it’s crazy. And now she’s talking on our podcast.
Reggie Rucker: I know, right? When I saw the Sterling K. Brown clip, that just blew me away. I immediately went into fanboy territory. And it’s funny, because she talked about Avalon Village being infectious, like those ideas and that vision being infectious, but honestly, I’m going to take it a step further and talk like, it’s her, like she’s infectious. Sitting here listening to her, and I was thinking, like, “Mama Shu, what are you doing this weekend?” Or, “Where are you going to be?” Because that’s what I’m doing. That’s where I want to be. Right?
Luke Gannon: I know, seriously. I’m practically ready to head over to Avalon Village to meet Mama Shu in person.
Reggie Rucker: It’s just really incredible. I took away so much from Mama Shu’s story, but one certainly is this idea that we all want the same thing. So when she was building her vision, she knew it wasn’t hers alone. We all want and deserve beautiful spaces and safe spaces and healing spaces, spaces we can learn and find joy and all of these things. We are one in that regard. And that’s what creates the shared humanity, which is the foundation that we can build anything on, including this beautiful village.
Luke Gannon: So after decades of stewarding the land, keeping it clean, organizing community, buying property, designing lots, Mama Shu has literally built a village. Let’s hear how she did it.
Mama Shu: My name is Mama Shu. I’m the founder and CEO of Avalon Village, and I’m just over here building a eco village. We’re transforming blight to beauty, and we’re in the city of Highland Park, which is 2.9 miles, and it’s a small suburb inside of Detroit, Michigan. The population is close to 10,000. We’re just basically making things better and better here in the community out of distress or something that was distressed before, because we believe that we deserve to live in a beautiful environment and grow up in a beautiful environment, and grow our families up and prosper in a clean, healthy, and safe environment.
My relationship to Detroit was, well, I was born in Highland Park, actually, and as a little girl, we moved on, a baby, actually. My family, we moved to Detroit, which is almost right across the street, because it’s just so close and everything. So grew up on the east side of Detroit, actually Field Street between Palmer and Medbury. And grew up over there and went to Rose Elementary School, graduated from Kettering High School in Detroit. And just grew up on Field Street as a young person, and just loved my neighborhood. I was always fascinated by the neighborhood and would walk my block and visit the elders and just do stuff, and sell Avon and Tupperware and everything. I hustled on that block in my neighborhood. All of the most beautiful comfortable things happen on that block.
So yeah, I love building neighborhoods, because I believe that neighborhoods are foundations for family and for growth, for spiritual growth, mental growth, all of that. That’s like the beginnings to me. And if the neighborhoods are not together, if they’re neglected and full of blight and just all kinds of things going on, it’s hard to grow.
And I see other beautiful spaces like downtown, it’s just looking real beautiful. But I think that the neighborhoods, to bring these neighborhoods up to be able to create a community that we want. So that’s like my mission, is to basically transform blight to beauty just on this block here in Highland Park, Michigan. I felt that I could just take that little chunk and try to do what I can. And sometimes I think that’s crazy or whatever, and they’re like, “What the heck are you doing?” But it’s turning out good.
Luke Gannon: In 2007 and 2008, Mama Shu would drive past what is now Avalon Street and see the neglected streets, mattresses strewn about, dumpsters and homes, boarded homes and broken down cars. Yet Highland Park was Mama Shu’s home, so she embarked on a journey to turn blight into beauty.
Mama Shu: I’m a minister too of 21 plus years as well, and I was like, “I’m going to go over there on that block and fix up my ministry and put my ministry in the house that I’m in right now.” And I said, “And then I’m going to go ahead and clean up the block and I’m going to build the village.” It’s because I wanted a beautiful space to live in, but I didn’t want to move. I wanted to stay where I was. And I felt that this is something that we can do. We can clean it up and we can get it in order.
And so I would just drive past the street every day. And then six months after my Jakobi, he was two years, one month and six-days-old, he got killed in a hit-and-run accident. And then I’m driving to my school job, okay, driving to my school job, and something said, “Just go down the block.” And I saw a dumpster in the driveway of this house that I’m sitting in right now, and I saw a dumpster. I said, “Wow.” I said, “Okay, this house is for sale.” I saw a For Sale sign in the window. And then I just decided to let me just call and get on this block, get over here, put my ministry on this block and get to work. And ended up buying this house for 3,000 bucks and started fixing it up and stayed in it when it was boarded up.
And I always say that some people look for a beautiful place, and I just want to create. We can create a place and make it beautiful. That’s basically what it is. We don’t have to run away. A lot of people leave and they go to other towns and everything, but I wanted to stay. I really did. I’m like, “You know what? This is cool. This is a block. It’s only 2.9 miles. We can really do and grow and make things better in this city as a whole.” And my goal was to fix this house up and also to build Jakobi Ra Park, which is the very first entities, the name of my nonprofit. The first one is the Moon Ministry, and then we built the park simultaneously.
I was born here in Highland Park, so I’m really proud of where I was born. This is my city. Hey, we fall down on hard times. There is places like this everywhere in all different kinds of states. And so I just wanted to begin to just initiate some beauty, and how we can transform and how we can revive the space, in hopes that it will spread and be infectious and catch on and actually help the rest of the city grow and maybe see possibilities, different possibilities.
Luke Gannon: In 2010 and 2011, Highland Park was grappling with challenging economic circumstances. Schools were shuttering, financial hardships loomed large, and essential infrastructure was being neglected. But Mama Shu recognized the potential for change. She decided to bridge the gaps.
Mama Shu: So I just wanted to make this place a better and more desirable to live in, and so I figured the very first entity was The Homework House. Why? Because when you move into a new city or a new town or a new village, people look for a place to raise their children, to be able to nurture their children, and you got to have spaces where you have children being taken care of. It’s just a natural thing. And so when you got a place where the schools are being torn down, I just have a problem with that. And so I just like, okay, so that to me, made the most sense.
Luke Gannon: Jakobi Ra Park and The Homework House were two of the first entities Mama Shu brought to fruition. Today, Avalon Village makes up 95% of the entire block, but it took years of hard work, dedication, and community organizing to get to this point.
Mama Shu: A lot of my visions comes from what I envision for myself, what’s going to make myself what I feel that I deserve in the neighborhood. I believe that I should have eclectic coffee shops and a nice park to sit in and a space to put my dog in a dog park and get training lessons in there, and a spot where you can have ice cream, and somewhere where you can party at and the children can learn. So I just envisioned those things for myself first, and then I knew that other people wanted the same thing.
And so I’m no urban planner as far as like I don’t have a degree or anything in that. Most of it came intuitively and organically. You just know what to put, you know what’s missing, and I know what used to be here, and I just had to do it in a way that was economically feasible and that I could actually do it.
So how I even started buying the lots, I sold fish sandwiches for $5. Yep, I sold fish sandwiches. I used my own work money from my school job, my income tax check. That’s how I bought this house. My sister friend gave me $1,500. I used… My income tax check had came in the mail. I was so excited about that. And then I used my work check and I patched it together. So this process takes a little more time, because if you don’t have the whole big giant funding to do it, but at the same time, I really love this process too. So it was just started off of selling fish sandwiches, just chipping my own money together.
I did get a donation from the Big Sun Foundation. That was where the big chunk of the seed money came, to like, okay, I’m getting ready to build the village. Let’s get this started so we can get the Kickstarter started to actually initiate the build. It was all of that. Just gathering up a bunch of activists and folks that I know, construction workers and my civil engineer friends, and like, “Okay, y’all, we going to do this.”
There was eight years or so that I just basically cleaned up the block first. So really, I just took stewardship of the land, and I didn’t own it yet. We just helped, did our part as citizens. Well, I don’t want to sit in the trash. I don’t want to look at it, and so I cleaned up a lot almost every year. The guys from over here at the shelter across the street here off of Woodward Avenue, and then I was in the school system, so a lot of my students and stuff, “Hey, you want to earn community service hours? Come on over here, help Mama Shu clean up, because we building a village over here. We’re going to make it better.” So it was little things.
What I did was embedded our energy into it, in the soil, and cleaned it up and all the glass, and it was just, well, the houses were torn down, but sometimes some of the debris was still stuck in this. It was like that took actually some years to do that. And then started buying the property, I’m going to say, in like 2016, 2017, really like, okay, now here’s the deeds to it.
So we own about 95% of this block now, about 45 properties over here, so we have space. We’re able to build what it is that we want to. The block that I’m on is slated as mixed use as it relates to the master plan in the city of Highland Park. And I didn’t know that either. That was like an organic thing too. I know I want to put a playground, I want to do this. I want to put The Homework House and the school and this and all of that, but didn’t know that that was possible. Because sometimes you just can’t sit and just build something on a residential, but it just so happens that all of my vision actually fit. I was in alignment with that just intuitively.
Luke Gannon: After years of stewarding the land, Mama Shu started implementing her vision to give residents and neighbors the types of businesses, spaces, and education they deserved.
Mama Shu: The Goddess Marketplace is… Yeah, it’s a beautiful thing. Actually, we’re working on the expansion this year. The Goddess Marketplace is an economic initiative for women entrepreneurs. And so what we’ve done is that it started off as pop-ups, a collective of pop-ups for women back in 2001. And I said, “Okay, we’re building a village. We’re going to start that and we’re going to put it in the shipping container.” And so we have two shipping containers, a 40-foot and a 20-foot that house the Goddess Marketplace. And it’s an open season marketplace. It starts in May and it ends in October. And women entrepreneurs are able to put out their tables, pop their tents and stuff around that time. And so that’s what the Goddess Marketplace is about, basically nurturing and supporting women businesses. And so we have that.
And we also have another shop called the Whine and Tea Shop. It’s W-H-I-N-E. It was our 20-footer that we just got remodeled and everything. So that is just different wine tastings and wine swag, gifts and different things like that. So those are made out of shipping containers. Those are also ran by solar, so those are lit by solar, so there is nothing on the grid. So that’s one space.
Also, we have the Imhotep STEM Lab or STEAM Lab, and it is another shipping container that was remodeled for the children to learn science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics in. And it’s beautiful. It has a beautiful mural on it. We like to use a lot of local artists to paint and put vibrant colors on a lot of the things that we do. We were fortunate enough to be on The Ellen Show, and she donated a house that we have. And I had an option to live in it or use it as retail, but I’m like, “You know what? This is going to be The Village Hall.” Because every city has a city hall, village hall or a place of business. So I’m like, this is where we have our security offices on one side of it, and the other part is multipurpose for meetings and everything. So we have that. The Moon Ministry, the spiritual base is also the admin building as well.
And we have Invincible Gardens, the My 3 Sunz Basketball Court, Jakobi Ra Park. Those are spaces that are dedicated to my ancestor sons, my sons that are ancestors now. The Invincible Garden is in memory of my Chinyelu. He was murdered in 2021, so it’s been three years. And so we built a beautiful garden with a gazebo. It’s a sign and it’s just Garden Diva here at the village. Yesterday she was in there getting everything ready, because there’s getting ready to be some beautiful flowers. So Chinyelu’s Garden is total flowers in his.
Jakobi, we built the park. There’s a Starlight Amphitheater. His name is Jakobi Ra. The Egyptian god of the Sun, Ra, and Jakobi means stars. So we did something like a Starlight Amphitheater. So we have our concerts there. I marry people on that. It’s just a platform. It’s really nice. And so it’s all lit with solar lighting. So we have just so many parties and gatherings and stuff in the summer, in the spring, in the summer. So those are some of the entities that we had.
We even changed our street sign too. We went and there was a resolution passed to change our street to Avalon Village. So when you roll up on us, whenever y’all come and just take a trip, you’ll see that we actually have the street sign changed. So that was just kind of cool to get that done.
We have our own security team, what’s called the Avalon Village Peace Team. Police officers back in the day were called peace officers. And so our logo is basically we take our peace seriously, and we do. It’s just a village. And so we have all of those departments and everything economical.
We even have a space called the Avalon Village Healing House, which is under construction now. And it is a space for holistic practitioners, Reiki therapists, doulas, all of that where you can come right in the neighborhood and receive holistic care.
We’re going to build a cafe, the Blue Moon Cafe, with attached greenhouse and some holistic businesses. So that is our health and wellness phase that’s down there on the corner. So that’s how we got things kind of blocked off around here.
Luke Gannon: Every part of Avalon Village is envisioned and built from love. Mama Shu’s departed sons are ancestral guardians who oversee the village. Over the years, most people embraced Mama Shu’s vision because of her consistency and commitment to bring positive change to the whole neighborhood.
Mama Shu: If someone doesn’t understand or even just seek to understand what’s going on and how it’s happening and everything, that can be a limiting thing to them. I think that some people just openly embrace because they know they want change and they want to see something different, and they understand that somebody’s actually doing it. And usually it’s the ones that’s not really doing this that’s thinking the other.
One of the things is that I stayed consistent and I was very serious and I didn’t change up, and that’s one thing that people need. They need consistency and they don’t need folks to change up and actually do. So those that actually see what’s going on, like, “Wow. Okay, okay.”
This block right here, what you got to understand is this was one of the most notorious blocks in Highland Park, and so people are just really shocked. And I was actually spiritually drawn to it to actually do something. I didn’t know that it was this horrible block, but I’m over here, “Do-da-do, let me just… Oh, we going to plant flowers here. I’m going to do this and that.” Man, I learned the history of the block, and there was a lot of murders over here of young men, and my son was actually shot here. This place was a Phoenix coming from the ashes, and I know that, from what it used to be. And so I have a lot of guys that tell me, “You know what used to go on Avalon Street?”
So there’s a lot of people who love and enjoy watching what actually happens, and are very supportive, are very consistent in their support. And some just kind of look by the wayside, and then they’ll come a little closer and everything. And if it’s for you, it’s for you.
Luke Gannon: If you persist and follow the moral arc of the universe, others will follow your lead. Mama Shu’s unwavering self-belief inspired others to join the journey.
Mama Shu: That’s all I did, really, just stuck to it and just kept going no matter what. I done buried children and everything, but this was important to me. I don’t even care what the obstacles are. The things that have happened in the journey throughout that, it’s like… You know, after losing the kids and stuff, it’s like, okay, then somebody going to say no? I don’t even worry about nothing like that because I don’t care. I just keep it moving. If somebody want to nay-say, or they want to sit up there and try to block and all of that? None of that, it just don’t work with me, that’s all.
You’re going to draw the people who are really digging what you’re doing. Those are the ones that you want. You want the ones that’s going to dig in. And those other ones help to strengthen things too, because sometimes they can keep you on your toes. You’re not in alignment, you always get the folks that are in alignment what you’re doing, always. They always come, so you’re good.
Luke Gannon: On the anniversary of Jakobi Ra’s passing, Mama Shu opened The Homework House.
Mama Shu: One of the moments that really stands out to me, I’m going to say that it took me about five years plus to finish The Homework House. And so when I got that all finished, and I didn’t get that totally finished, y’all, until September 23rd when I did the ribbon cutting in 2022. And even though I still had lower hanging fruit projects to work, that was my main entity, so in my heart, that was really a big thing. Some beautiful magical moments and different things that just let me know, just indications that say you’re on the right track and I’m connecting and everything, and that’s important to me to accomplish and to get done, and like, “Wow, okay.”
But I’m going to tell you one that’s kind of made me proud. The CNN Heroes did. But the USA Today Woman of the Year, that really kind of… I’m like, “Okay. I’m Woman of the Year.” Sometimes when I get awards and different things like that, it’s like, “Man, I’m just doing my work.”
Local self-reliance means really being a solutionist, being able to solve the problems within an area that you think that you can actually do something about. When you make a commitment to a space, to a place, and you take charge and you start putting that in order. And somebody has to be the one that’s in charge or the one that they’re going to throw the tomatoes at, build you a nice team. You know how that goes and all of that. But I say take charge and do things consistently.
Consistency is the key. Keep doing it over and over again and show people that you are actually there for the long haul, and be real intentional. And I think that once you do that, and really it all boils down to you just got to do the work to make sure that that happens, to be able to be empowered locally. Do the work. Do what it is that you say you’re going to do, and just keep doing it, and keep growing and organize, organize, organize.
Luke Gannon: Developing solutions that are both by and for the community embodies the very essence of local self-reliance. Mama Shu has spearheaded the creation of a village complete with parks, businesses, organizations, and communal spaces that foster peace and prosperity for its residents. She has transformed blight into beauty.
Mama Shu: There’s this sister, her name is Queen Afua, and she has a book called The Sacred Woman. But basically it was a process in this book to really help to build that I was able to use. It was a tool to be able to help to build myself spiritually, physically, how to eat right. To be able to, I guess, arm myself with what I needed and what I need for my work and to live a beautiful life. It’s some practical things. Different teas, exercise and everything. And I went through this book, it’s like nine sections of it, and I’ve went through it several times, just going through it and just getting tighter.
So I really love it, because I know and I believe that my job as a feminine entity on this planet is going to help to heal it and help to bring it back into balance, I would say. And so that is what my work is about, is about to helping to things back into balance. Sometimes it’s the feminine touch or whatever sometimes that’s missing in things, and that right there. And so I believe that Highland Park, I believe that Avalon Village is a place that is being healed.
Luke Gannon: Mama Shu, thank you so much for sharing your story with us on the show today.
Reggie Rucker: Luke, great job. Thank you for bringing us this story. And Mama Shu, look. I have a trip to Paris coming up in a couple of months, and for as excited as I am for that real talk, I cannot wait to get to Highland Park and to come visit Avalon Village. Thank you for your infectious optimism and joy and persistence and vision. This was truly, truly, truly a blessing.
And thanks to all of you, our listeners, for tuning in. We’ll be back again in two weeks with another story out of Detroit. But in the meantime, check out the show notes from today’s episode to dive deeper into today’s discussion. And as always, you can visit for more on our work to fight corporate control and build local power. And we always welcome emails to Let us know what’s on your mind.
This show is produced by Luke Gannon and me, Reggie Rucker. The podcast is edited by Luke Gannon and Tea Noelle. The music for this season is also composed by Tea Noelle. Thank you so much for listening to Building Local Power.


If you want your city to be a focus in an upcoming season, send an email to

Like this episode? Please help us reach a wider audience by sharing Building Local Power with your family and friends. We would love your feedback. Please email Subscribe on the podcast platform of your choice.


Subscribe: SpotifyApple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Android Apps | RSS


Music Credit: Mattéa Overstreet

Photo Credit: Em McPhie, ILSR’s Digital Communications Manager

Podcast produced by Reggie Rucker and Luke Gannon

Podcast edited by Luke Gannon and Mattéa Overstreet

Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

Follow the Institute for Local Self-Reliance on Twitter and Facebook and, for monthly updates on our work, sign-up for our ILSR general newsletter.

Avatar photo
Follow Luke Gannon:
Luke Gannon

Luke Gannon is the Research and Communications Associate for the Independent Business team.

Avatar photo
Latest posts from Luke
Avatar photo
Follow Reggie Rucker:
Reggie Rucker

As Communications Director at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Reggie develops communications strategies and leads campaigns to build public support for ILSR local power initiatives. Contact Reggie with media inquiries.