Leaders Behind a Cultural Rebirth in Ypsilanti

In an age of social activism where more and more individuals are empowered to find and speak their voice, a once forgotten community has begun to rise again.

Ypsilanti, looked down on as a hub of crime and low-income in years past, is experiencing a wealth of change under the influence of countless individuals in multiple movements and fields.

Here are a few of the people making strides within the community:

Benjamin Edmondson - Ypsilanti Community School District - Photo Credit Nick Azzaro
Benjamin Edmondson – Ypsilanti Community School District – Photo Credit Nick Azzaro

Leading education

Benjamin Edmondson, 47

“Ypsilanti is the most authentic place to be,” said Ben Edmondson, Superintendent of The Ypsilanti Community School District. “I can be me in this city. I am able to speak about race and race division and class issues with authenticity and I love it. In a world that is very pretentious, Ypsi is real. It celebrates your uniqueness.”

Edmondson stepped into the position with YCS 19 months ago and immediately began revamping. “Overall, I am re-working the brand of YCS,” he said. “Like Ypsi schools has been a lesser product. My mind doesn’t operate that way. Our school system isn’t going to be a lesser product.”

With numerous programs already implemented and many more on the way, Ypsilanti schools are a component of the community experiencing a “re-branding” with Edmondson at the reins.

Derrick Jackson - Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office - photo credit Teresa Fox
Derrick Jackson – Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office – photo credit Teresa Fox

Behind the badge

Derrick Jackson, 41

Ypsilanti has a special place in the heart of this social worker turned police officer. “I get to sit between law enforcement and the community. I see residents and law enforcement saying a lot of the same things… it’s the notion of bringing them together (that drives me); that progress, that change.”

The Director of Community Engagement of the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office has called Ypsilanti home since 1993 when he moved from Inkster to attend Eastern Michigan University. He immediately fell in love. “I think the mentality of the people who live here is what makes Ypsilanti unique,” he explained. “The people are hard workers and passionate. Ypsi is that kind of place. People are really engaged.”

Jackson and the department are hard at work building and strengthening programs to better all facets of the community including LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion), the Street Outreach Program, and improving the county’s re-entry model.

With progress and forward-minded members, like Jackson, in Washtenaw County law enforcement, good things are assumed, moving forward.

Ashanti Africana - Artist & Designer
Ashanti Africana – Artist & Designer

On the canvas

Ashanti Africana, 22

“I am an artist and designer,” Africana described. “I moved to Ypsi for the environment. When I was going on a hunt for college, the people here were so nice and there is so much potential. You feel at home automatically.”

Now finding a place within the progressive art movement in Ypsilanti, Africana works alongside orchestrators of “Keep Ypsi Black” in an effort to “create a safer area for minorities and students to create… (to) basically fight for the rights of minorities and keeping safe spaces for creative (people)…. To keep a showcase of live music, art, dance.”

A Senior at EMU in fine arts with a concentration in time based media, Africana said that she is “amidst working on my own solo show (paint and digital) and a couple collaborative shows exhibiting with a fellow artist… When Ypsi has a show or an event you have a big melting pot. People feel comfortable in their own space. You find your place in Ypsi.”

Tanya Andrews - Marketing and Events Manager, Growing Hope
Tanya Andrews – Marketing and Events Manager, Growing Hope

Growing sustainably

Tanya Andrews, 39

Andrews is more than the Marketing and Events Manager for Growing Hope, an Ypsilanti-based nonprofit focused on providing members of the community with access to healthier food and the tools needed to grow their own. Andrews is the voice reaching out and making it possible.

The Ypsilanti resident remarked that often people have no idea how much Growing Hope is doing within Washtenaw County – including running both Ypsilanti farmers markets.

“I’ve seen firsthand the devastating effects of poor diet, and I believe with all my heart that access to real, healthy food is a basic human right,” Andrews said of her passion. “When people have health, they have strength and the mental clarity to take action and make a difference… I want people to THRIVE, and that is what drives me. When you see a kid’s eyes light up when they taste a cherry tomato for the first time, and you know they’re starting on a healthier path, it makes your day. Everyone deserves a chance to live their life to the fullest.”

But what is it about Ypsilanti that is unique to Andrews’ passion? In her words, “Ypsi has so much heart, and this really unique spirit. A town that proudly embraces a hilariously-shaped water tower as its symbol has to have a sense of humor! From the moment I arrived here, I fell in love with the special sense of place, the creativity everywhere, and the kind of scrappy can-do attitude.”

Andre Upton a.k.a. Flwr.Child - Photo Credit Ashanti Africana
Andre Upton a.k.a. Flwr.Child – Photo Credit Ashanti Africana

On the stage

Andre Upton, 21

You know him by his stage name, “Flwr.Child.” Making appearances across the Ypsi music scene at popular venues Crossroads, Bona Sera, and Project 23, the Toledo native moved to Ypsilanti to pursue a life-long dream of becoming a performer.

“The potential of Ypsi, it’s willingness to grow, that’s what drives me to move forward,” Upton said of his passion. Which is ironic because it appears that Ypsilanti has benefited equally from the rap/funk artist.

The 21-year-old has found a key place not only in the performing arts community but with the growing nonprofit organization, 826Michigan, as an Assistant Program Director.

“The Ypsilanti community, I don’t have a detailed description,” Upton said, “It’s open to interpretation. With the vast things going on, some things people see, some things they don’t see, but they’re all happening.

D’Real Graham - Program Manager, 826Michigan - Photo Credit Nick Azzaro
D’Real Graham – Program Manager, 826Michigan – Photo Credit Nick Azzaro

Behind the scenes

D’Real Graham, 29

A lifelong resident of the city, D’Real Graham will always know Ypsilanti to be home. Because, for Graham, the vibrancy of the community is one like no other. “The people, the geographic features, access to highways,” the activist described Ypsilanti’s many positives, “The individuals who wake up every day and become motivated by the people here… Running into people at cafes and you bump into two or three of your friends – the ability to exist together for the betterment of community.”

Graham, the Program Manager of 826Michigan, sees his position with the nonprofit, and within the community, as one based on collaboration. He stated that he hopes to “extend learning opportunities by opening our doors. To collaborate. To direct students to tutors that can help them. (To) secure relationships and to allow the community to benefit from those opportunities.”

Also an active leader of the “Keep Ypsi Black” movement aimed, among many other focuses, on the effort “to offer love and protection to the downtrodden; to be in the streets; to post art, sounds, and writing.”

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