Unlike most other major cities which have weathered the upswings, downfalls, and pendulum shifts typical in the lifespan of a major thoroughfare, Detroit has a penchant for the extreme.
Throughout the remarkable history of Detroit, the city seems to scream, “Go hard, or go home!”
With the founding of Motown, Berry Gordy didn’t just create music, he transformed it on a global scale. With the mass production of the Model T, Henry Ford didn’t just revolutionize manufacturing, he mainstreamed it. And, as Detroit moved from the Baby Boom Era into the 1960’s, the city spiraled into decline with the same speed and vigor that propelled its dominance.
Born in 1965, Hiram E. Jackson witnessed the latter part of this narrative as a kid coming of age in the Metro-Detroit neighborhood of Highland Park.
“Most people think that the ‘67 riots were the turning point (for Detroit), but the trend started in the ’50s. The big three automotive companies closed all of their plants in the central city and they started building plants out in the suburbs. Residents began moving out of the city. And then – with urban renewal – they started building freeways through the neighborhoods,” Jackson said.
“The freeways went from the suburbs through these old black neighborhoods into downtown. There was a lot of redlining and over-policing by the time the riots hit and by the end of the ’60s, it had become kind of a lower income city that – like most inner cities – was challenged. I grew up in the center of all of this,” Jackson shared.
The Boys Club of Highland Park (now known as the Fauver-Martin Club) provided Jackson with the discipline, structure, and tools needed to avoid the pitfalls of this changing landscape.
“My parents were desperate to find a way for me to get out of the street, to make sure that, I wasn’t in harm’s way,” Jackson said. “So, at six-years-old, I joined the Club on Ferris (Street).”
Today, the publisher, entrepreneur, and Ivy League graduate of Cornell University is a pillar of his community. Jackson attributes much of his success to the foresight and support of his parents and the foundational friendships, mentorship, and connections he gained through the Club.
As Board Chair for Boys & Girls Clubs of Southeastern Michigan (BGCSM), the Detroit native has come full circle from his days as a Highland Park Club kid.
With his personal ties to the Clubs and a sense of pride in his native city of Detroit, Jackson offers a unique perspective on what it means to reimagine BGCSM to include adult memberships, co-working spaces, new programming, and strategic organizational partnerships.
“Reimagining an organization is not just changing the paint and changing the employees, it’s challenging the entire community to think differently about how they received services,” he shared.
Read on as Hiram E. Jackson retraces his personal history as a Detroit Club kid and shares his moonshot for the future of Boys & Girls Clubs of Southeastern Michigan.
Hiram, you have been a major advocate for our multi-year effort to #ReimagineBGCSM. Why have you chosen to back this effort so whole-heartedly?
I’ve always been a firm believer that you have to meet people where they are. When I was growing up, you could have the Club on the other side of town and I would have to make it to the Club.
Today we have different kinds of challenges in our inner cities, one of which is mobility. People cannot get around like we used to be able to get around. The bus systems aren’t as reliable.
You know, thirty-five to forty percent of Detroiters don’t even have a vehicle. Forty percent of Detroiters are living in poverty.
And so, I’ve been a firm believer that you have to meet people where they are, which means to me that the focus is on partnerships, not solely on the brick and mortar buildings.
What does it mean to reimagine Boys & Girls Clubs of Southeastern Michigan with focus on partnerships?
I see the future of BGCSM being executed through partnerships, community partnerships, partnerships with other organizations, and kind of ideating with organizations that maybe have more penetration in communities where we don’t.
We need to partner with organizations that are better suited in some areas than we are. Let’s be good at what we do, and let other organizations be good at what they do, and we can work together because ultimately at the end of the day, we want to impact that child and that family.
You talked a little bit about how Detroit communities have changed from the time you were coming up. What was your experience like growing up in Highland Park in the 1960s and ’70s?
Highland Park was a small city at the time with about 30,000 to 40,000 residents. It was really more like a hamlet to Detroit. It was known for having a great school system and really at one point, it was a wealthy community. It was called the city of trees.
Highland Park was where the original auto barons lived, where the first movie theater was built, where Ford built its first moving assembly line. It started out as a place for wealthy residents. By the time I was born, the city had started to decline.
It was a small community and everyone kind of knew each other. It was one of those communities where you personally knew the Chief of Police, the City Council folks, the School Board people.
I grew up with two parents, I had two sisters, and I would just walk or catch the bus to the Boys Club every day. There was a lot of structure in Highland Park. You had a YMCA, the YWCA, and Woodward was thriving with businesses. So, at the time, there was still a lot of good happening in Highland Park, but it was at the beginning of rapid decline.
If you were lucky to interview and get into the Club, you knew everything was going to be alright.
And once you did get in, what was the Club experience like?
When I first joined, it was not a part of Boys & Girls Club of Southeastern Michigan. It was an independent Boys Club, and initially, it was like the wild, wild west. It was just a rough and tumble place for boys. There weren’t a lot of strict rules and regulations or programs yet, but it was safe and fun. When they did reopen as Boys & Girls Clubs of Southeastern Michigan, they brought a lot more formality to it.
There was a Club Director there named Ike Hoover. He was a big stout African American man who lived and breathed the Club. He was all about the rules and regulations, and when you walked in the door, you took your hat off. You didn’t mess around. So all of the people who were doing their dirt outside of the Club, they would never bring that inside of the Club.
How did your Club experience impact the direction of your life?
When they say, “we save lives,” that’s real. I mean, it’s a slogan to most people, but to me it’s real. The impact that it (the Club) has had on my life and others who attended the club has been vital.
Growing up my dad was a janitor. My mom was a stay at home mom because she was injured on the job. And, it (the Club) gave me a place to go so that I wouldn’t be hanging out in the street.
There was a man named George Brown, who was our summer camp counselor. George would drive the orange bus up to Kensington Park. He worked part-time at the club. George was an older white gruff dude who knew how to handle inner-city young boys and he was tough and his language was tough, but we respected him.
What we didn’t know was that George Brown was a teacher at Detroit Country Day School. What I didn’t know is that several African American boys from my neighborhood had gone to Country Day before me. George would see something special in one of us and then go meet with our parents and have them take us to test into Detroit Country Day.
I went home one day and he was sitting there with my mom and dad and I remember my mother saying, “you know, Mr. Brown wants you to take the test to enter Detroit Country Day.”
My older friend Courtney Vance was a day camp counselor at the Club and he also went to Detroit Country Day. So Courtney said to me, “Hey man, take the tests. Go for it.” I took the test and ended up going to Country Day and graduating in 1983, and so that was had an amazingly huge impact on my life!
How would you say that your experience speaks to the value of mentorship and peer-to-peer influence at the Clubs?
When I was interviewing and looking at college and thinking about possibly going to Ivy League institutions, I spoke to Courtney – who was at Harvard – and he said, “Hey, you know you can do this.” So I felt that I could make it at a Yale or Brown or Cornell. That’s the importance of peer-to-peer mentorship and we all made a point of lifting and encouraging one another.
I think we have a responsibility to pay it forward. There were about five or six kids that came in after me that I helped, and we’re all still around. We’re all still working and staying active in the Clubs today.
Why do you think it’s necessary for the organization to incorporate the neighborhood into the reimagine process?
As we go through this process, we’re not only educating ourselves and our employees, we’re educating the community on what excellence looks like and what they should expect to receive. And that’s a big mountain to climb.
I think the reimagining sessions that Shawn (Shawn H. Wilson, BGCSM President & CEO) has taken us all through, we’ll say to our community, know you deserve excellence and this is what excellence looks like and we’re going to give you excellence. And if you don’t receive excellence from these other organizations, now you know what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable.
The reimagining of this organization is really happening in tandem with what many call the “resurgence” of Detroit. In what ways do you think that this organization can benefit from, our operate in synergy with, this citywide momentum?
I do think the city is in the midst of a resurgence. Actually, I think we’re just at the beginning of it. You’re talking about sixty years of decay, sixty years of people leaving our city, and sixty years of disregard for one of the nations most iconic cities.
And, because we are at the beginning of the resurgence, I think that it’s smart to set a seat at the table in terms of how the city envisions treating families.
We (BGCSM) should be the experts on youth development and to me, youth development means family development. People flock to cities that focus on families.
I really believe that if we get this right, then we will be able to be ambassadors all around the region on the kinds of things that you do to re-engage families, to excite families, and to provide jobs for families. That’s the ultimate goal.