231 East Grand Blvd
Detroit, Michigan 48211
Jeff Sturges came to Detroit with the idea that the damaging effects of poverty and racism can be overcome by handing people tools to create the life they want. He’s done that by founding Mt. Elliot Makerspace, where he emphasizes the need for people to look outside traditional structures to accomplish their goals.
Michigan Nightlight: What does being a leader mean to you?
Mt. Elliott Makerspace Conductor Jeff Sturges
: Being supportive of the leadership growth of those around me. Being a leader means seeing a culture of leaders develop -- when people stop looking at me for answers and start looking to me for collaborative discussion and saying things like, “Can we discuss some ideas; I’m having a problem and I could use your input.” It’s more collaboration than leader and follower.
What is your dream for kids?
My dream for kids is that they become creative leaders, because people with creativity, confidence, and persistence to create the life they want to live can meet challenges. That could be keeping their family together or finding meaningful work. That is that case for anyone regardless of race or class. I want to make sure creative and dynamic leaders can adapt to change very quickly; the ability to do that is rooted in confidence and persistence. They can [eventually] go beyond their own challenges and address the challenges that affect the greater society.
What is one concrete thing that could be done to improve the environment for social sector work in Michigan?
Strengthening relationships between supporters, investors, and the investments people are making. I’m really excited to see more of this happen. I’m not from a nonprofit background, and in the private sector you see more venture capital and family investments with a high level of interaction between the investor and the people doing the work. I am excited to see that
Part of the reason for starting the makerspace is that I couldn't stand school, so I'd just go through the motions. It started to stick when it had application and relevance.
starting to develop. The notion of writing grants and throwing it over the fence is not as productive or effective as working with funders for more of a consultation beforehand. We are on the ground, and the people who are the investors have a valuable perspective to share. Funders can share their resources, as well as what might work and not work, and they could also help with back office kind of things.
How do you know you’re making progress?
The accomplishment of those with whom I work: makers both young and old. It’s in the projects I see them doing, the skills I see them using, and the conversations I have with them that make me feel their mindset is changing.
For example, we have a girl here, Raven. She is 11, and she was flown out to New York City to be on a Youth Maker panel with young people from all over the world. She was the only African-American girl on the panel, and she was representing Detroit. I’m very proud of how she conducted herself on panel; it was incredibly impressive. Now she wants to go to Harvard for journalism. Without this program, she would probably be okay, but we’re able to help her into the stratosphere, because she has incredible capabilities.
We have an 18-year-old guy who was getting into trouble and spent a little time in a juvenile facility. He has discovered his capabilities through the makerspace. He’s found he could create music and write lyrics and do it quite well. Now he is making a commitment to being a hip-hop artist. He won a cash prize at the Hard Rock Café amateur night, and he’s made the commitment to take his talent and grow it.
Some of these kids, if you start slowly pulling them into something exciting, you’ll see them start to evolve. What we’re doing is hopefully providing a new model for learning. If you’re doing something very relevant to what you’re doing in your life outside the classroom, that knowledge is going to stick. Part of the reason for starting the makerspace is that I couldn’t stand school, so I’d just go through the motions. It started to stick when it had application and relevance.
What are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of the work being done by and the accomplishments of people who participate in the makerspace. I’m proud of the process. We’re never going to “get there” and be done; it always will be a process of growing and building on what we have done before. Also, I’m proud of the relatively rapid growth of the makerspace and the number of people in our programs, and also the culture that has developed; it’s a self-regulating, supportive culture. I am encouraging people to learn
...we have a perception and a history that is very troublesome related to prejudice, and related to race, class, and privilege. Everybody is born with incredible capabilities.
from each other and see each other as leaders.
What perceptions, messages, or historical influences create the most significant barriers to engaging Michigan citizens in helping vulnerable children?
First of all, I want to attack the question: the word help is always one I have trouble with. Instead, I think of it as helping Michigan citizens engage and collaborate with people who have ideas, or learning from the people being challenged. I’m not necessarily thinking of it as helping people who are prideful and don’t like the idea of being helped.
In the spirit of the question, we have a perception and a history that is very troublesome related to prejudice, and related to race, class, and privilege. Everybody is born with incredible capabilities. I’d help people become more interested in collaborations: find out what they are passionate about and do what they are passionate about and do it with somebody else who might not have the opportunity. On my own time, I love making stuff and tinkering with things, and my life passion is a deep commitment to social equality. I wanted to incorporate those two things.
Also, the media portrayal of Detroit is a little bit unfair: the idea that Detroit is a dangerous place. It’s no longer so dangerous, but the idea it’s a blank slate is a wrong assumption also. There has been a lot of work done in Detroit that is not so visible.
The historical influence of consumer culture is also very damaging and troubling. The idea that, “I need to eat this or wear this or have this in order to be cool and fit in” is not helping anyone. People, especially young people, are very susceptible to media and advertisers. It’s troublesome in terms of what people like myself are working for. It’s something we push hard. We have a lot of workshops about fixing stuff, rather than throwing it away and buying new.