the hope district.
For Friends of Detroit Executive Director Mike Wimberley, service has always been a way of life.
“My mother was a community activist, so I started out by just going to meetings with her and talking to people. We eventually started an organization — called Friends of Detroit — to help make a difference in the community where I grew up. We started with some clean-up and beautification projects and progressed from there.”
Though they were indeed making an impact, Wimberley wanted to find other ways to create lasting change in the community by giving folks a chance to improve their own lives. Eventually, his ambition inspired an innovative idea.
“I was looking at these vacant lots in the neighborhood and thinking ‘What if we turn these into urban gardens?’ So, we had the soil tested; it turned out that it was clean, so we started growing potatoes. We had a hardy harvest, but we couldn’t turn it into a business because we couldn’t compete on price with large-scale potato farmers. So, we were stuck with a whole bunch of potatoes and no market for them. Then a friend of ours suggested we try making potato chips.”
It sounded simple enough but turned out to be quite a challenge.
“We started making potato chips, but they were terrible. They were so bad that people who came to our community center and soup kitchen threw them away — even though for most, it was their only meal of the day.
They were getting discouraged until another friend passed on some words of wisdom.
“Jackie Victor told us about a bakery in New York with this amazing bread and said the owner just kept on trying until he got the recipe right. So, with that as our guiding light, we kept making those bad potato chips till we finally figured out how to make good ones.”
The chips were good, but sales were slow. Then, in 2016, Wimberley received an email that changed the company’s trajectory forever.
“It was a miracle… We joined the New York Specialty Foods Association, and it just so happened that the regional representative for the Midwest was from Rochester, Michigan. When she noticed we were from Detroit and had a community-activist background, she wanted to refer us to Specialty Foods Magazine. We’d never heard of it, but we agreed. We were very nonchalant about it though — so nonchalant that the editor at the magazine had to contact us three or four times to run the story.”
They finally answered the call, and it was a good thing they did.
“A few days after the story ran, we got this e-mail from O, The Oprah Magazine,asking if we shipped our product. We thought someone was playing a joke, because just two years before we were making terrible potato chips. But it was real — we shipped them to the magazine, and 18 months later we got another email saying we had been selected for Oprah’s ‘Favorite Things’ list.”
Just like that, business exploded. And two years later, it's still going strong.
Though a remarkable story to be sure, perhaps the most impressive part is that Wimberley has leveraged that success to support the community he serves. Whether it’s providing jobs with the company, or investing profits into community projects, the business became a viable way to start creating lasting change.
“One of the challenges is that people who are marginally employed or unemployable — which some call the ‘useless class’ — often have trouble figuring out how to create employment opportunities for themselves. We knew that no big corporations or companies were going to set up shop in our neighborhood, so if we wanted to help those folks, we had to figure out how to do it using what was readily available. We have a saying: Do what you can, where you are, with what you have now. So, rather than wait for help, you should look within and lean on one another to try to figure out how to do things yourself — and that's what we’ve tried to do with Detroit Friends Potato Chips.
Though potato chips are the product, Wimberley is really in the business of hope — which makes his moniker for the community he serves quite fitting.
“We call it: The Hope District.”
For Wimberley, The Hope District — let alone the rest of Detroit — is ripe with potential. And rather than longing for the return of what many believe to be the city’s economic glory days, he thinks it’s up to individuals to find ways to realize that potential.
“I never thought that the good old days were all that good. One of the things I talk about is the ‘Resource Curse,' which happens when your economy becomes dependent upon one industry, and if that goes away, you don’t necessarily have anything else. In a lot of ways, the automotive industry has become Detroit’s ‘Resource Curse,’ in that people still wish for the Big Three to be the champions of the automotive economy. But now that they’re not, we have to figure out how to create our economy.”
That opportunity also presents a unique challenge though.
“The self-motivation divide is the biggest challenge that Detroit faces now. The problem is that creating opportunities is a hell of a lot of work. A lot of people don’t realize how hard it was to achieve the economy Detroit once had. For much of its modern history, Detroit has punched way above its weight in terms of the economic power and did so through a lot of hard work and ingenuity. That’s one of the lessons I feel gets lost in the debate between ‘Old Detroit’ and ‘New Detroit’: An unfathomable amount of hard work went to making Detroit what it was, and we have to work just as hard to make it great again.”
Though we no doubt have to work hard, Wimberley believes that folks in cities like New York or San Francisco actually have a tougher time creating change because of the increased bureaucratic red tape in cities of that scale. Whereas, in Detroit, grassroots initiatives have less of that to navigate, and therefore have a lot of power — even if they don’t see it that way.
That’s why — be it through Detroit Friends Potato Chips, or similar efforts down the road — his mission will continue to be inspiring Detroiters to create the kind of communities they want to live in.
“So, while many folks aren’t motivated, others that are don’t think they have the opportunity to exercise it. But there’s a famous architect, Rem Koolhaas, who says that people who don't have all those constraints, have more freedom to create what they want. So, I think the grassroots community in Detroit has all the opportunity it needs, but we have to stop waiting for people to come and save us. Instead, we have to take off our blinders, figure out what we want, and make it happen.”