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It Takes a Village – and Mama Shu is Building One

Detroitisit Talks to Avalon Village Founder


Avalon Village in Highland Park is heading into its sixteenth year in existence. It is what Shamayim “Mama Shu” Harris, its founder and CEO calls the “Sweet 16.”

Mama Shu is by all accounts a remarkable woman. Before founding Avalon Village, she worked as a school administrator in the Detroit Public Schools for 27 years.  She is also a minister and was the first female chaplain with the Highland Park Police Department. She was the chairwoman of the Highland Park Charter Commission, charged with helping shape the city’s future. In addition, she served as Vice President of the Highland Park Housing Commission, president of the Highland Park Board of Education, and as an appointed member of the Michigan Commission on Community Action and Economic Opportunity, appointed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Shu, a 2023 CNN Hero, has received the national Let Freedom Ring Award from the Rainbow Push Coalition and numerous other local and national awards for her work. She is also a mother and a wife – a mother who has lost two sons.

In 2007, Shu’s two-year-old son Jakobi RA was killed by a hit-and-run driver. Shu took her grief and turned it into a steadfast and profound mission to heal her community, make it a safe place, transform the blight she and her family and neighbors were living amongst, and turn it into beauty.

In 2015 her stepson Pili Humphrey died. In 2021 her 23-year-old son Chinyelu was murdered. These painful losses drove her even harder to keep doing the work.

Mama Shu head shot


Today Avalon Village is a safe and nurturing place. With an emphasis on green infrastructure, Shu calls it an eco-village in the making. It encompasses 45 lots of land across three blocks. The community now has The Homework House, an after-school learning and activity center for neighborhood children powered by a solar roof and  geothermal heating and cooling system. It also has the Goddess Marketplace, an economic development initiative for women entrepreneurs, and a shop called the Whine and Tea Shop, both of which are powered by solar energy. It also has a Healing House – a center for holistic healing – and an Imhotep STEM lab where students learn about science, technology, engineering, and math. In 2016 Ellen DeGeneres donated a home, which is now the village hall. There are also multiple community gardens, a basketball court called “My Three Sons” after the sons she lost, a park named after Jakobi RA, and more.

Shu is not stopping. She has visions of rehabbing more blocks – adding affordable housing and other services the community needs – and she continues to work daily to achieve it.

Detroitisit caught up with Mama Shu to find out what’s new in the village, what’s on the horizon, and what her life is like doing this work.

Q: Is there anything currently under development at the Village?

A: There are several things underway.

We are working on a grant to build up the Healing House to add resources and continue renovation. The vision is to add massage therapy, yoga classes, diet and nutrition education, and more. A two-family flat is currently being renovated to become a place for young adults in need of lodging, and health, and wellness support.

We are planning a fundraiser that will take place in August to expand the Goddess Marketplace.

We are ordering bleachers and fencing right now for the basketball court.

Homework House TODAY 1


We are also developing our own farm – which now has thirty chickens – to provide produce and eggs for the community.

Q: You’ve been doing this work for sixteen years. What inspires you to keep going daily?

A: I want a beautiful space to live. Highland Park doesn’t have a lot of amenities and as a citizen, I am trying to do my part to help. I don’t want people to move out of the community because they can’t experience a clean, safe, and healthy way of living here.

Q: What does a day in your life look like?

A: My office is my front porch from Spring until November when it gets too cold. I answer calls, pull things together, and work on grants to get more resources. I focus on seeking things out that will build up the village and make it better. I attend meetings and zoom calls, work on paperwork, give tours, appear in media interviews like this one, develop social media content, plan programming, oversee our team, and do everything I can to make the changes our city needs – for the people.

Q: What results have you seen come out of your work?

A: I’ve seen people get inspired to start building up properties in their own neighborhoods. We are an example to others and that’s fantastic.

I’ve seen the Homework House transformed from an empty shell that was once on the demolition list to a thriving space with classes going on and children coming after school.Hood camp 2

We are able to support many children with camps and events.

Our Hood Camp is underway now for the fourteenth year, educating kids on how to survive in the neighborhood if the lights are out or their water is dirty.

Events are going on continually to support and entertain and educate the kids and the community.

Q: What are you most proud of?

A: One thing is the completion of Homework House.

I purchased that house for $2,300 and it took five years to renovate it and receive the certificate of occupancy. We received that on January 26, 2022, exactly six years to the day that my son was murdered. Now we have twenty to thirty kids a day, we have martial arts and archery classes, emotional regulation classes, chess, and music camp. There are showers, and a special needs ramp, a kitchen and food, and a pantry full of underwear and everyday essentials kids might need.

Q: What are your biggest challenges

A: Funding always – to build capacity. We are always looking for grants, and donations and resources.

Q: What are the biggest opportunities?

A: Expansion. I want to develop more housing, build a healthy restaurant, create places to shop which also creates jobs, and repopulate our city.

Q: What does the future look like for Avalon Village?

A: All of the blocks totally rehabbed. People milling around. Playgrounds on each block. A garden or farm for each block. I want this to be a space that is infectious and keeps spreading, and I want others to catch on.

Goddess Marketplace


Q: What does the future look like for Mama Shu?

A: I’ll be geeked when we get all the blocks done.

I want to show people how to do this. So I’m starting seminars and workshops to educate people on how to build a village. People think they need a lump sum of money to start but that’s not how I did it.

You need to lay the groundwork and take on one thing at a time. And it takes time. It takes discipline, commitment, a good team around you, and focus. It’s a journey.

Learn more about Avalon Village at theavalonvillage.org.


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