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After accident, woman reinvents work for herself and her community

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Perhaps no city in America has been hit as hard, or for as long, as Detroit. We’ve been hearing about unemployment, vacant lots and poverty coming out of the motor city for decades. So it might come as a surprise to hear that Detroiters are creating new and innovative ways of living and working in their city.

After an accident at an auto plant, Gloria Lowe became one such visionary, reinventing the way she approaches work and her community. Lowe spoke to producer Zak Rosen. The tape was edited by Rosen and transcribed below, with minor changes for clarity.

Gloria Lowe is a community organizer and founder of “We Want Green, Too.” (Photo courtesy of Amanda Le Claire)

I worked in an automotive plant. I understand what it means to not be able to think. What that takes away from a person. Because, it took it away from me. They said just do the job, don’t think about the job.

I could not even give suggestions to building something. I’m the one who’s working there. I could not understand why you felt that I didn’t have valuable input for building this automobile that people like myself would buy. And it seems like such a small thing. But it really isn’t. Not when you’re building something.

I was a final line inspector. My job was to drive the cars outside the plant and park them in a certain area so then transportation would pick them up and load them on the trucks. This particular day, I had driven the car out and was walking back into the building and just as I was up under the automatic door, the bushing fell. The door came down, right on my end.

There was so much pain. Couldn’t sleep. Didn’t eat much. Delayed speech. Problems with my vision. Ringing in my ears. My body would go into contortions. On a lot of medication. The neurologist that I saw told me that I had left side nerve damage from the top of my brain down through my feet.

It took about two, two-and-a-half years for me to come back around. I felt so blessed to have been given an opportunity to live again. But I was told by my doctors that I would never work again, that all of that was complete in my life. I was only 50 years old. I didn’t know what it meant not to work.

I do remember that there was an awakening that happened inside of my soul that when I came up out of this, I no longer had the same concerns. I understood what love was unconditionally because it had been given to me. And all I could do was return it.

A new day

Gloria Lowe prepares for a discussion at the recent “Reimagining Work Conference” in Detroit. (Photo courtesy of Amanda Le Claire)

I’m usually up at 6:30, 7:00 a.m., stop at the Tim Horton’s, always get me one coffee, oftentimes with a bagel. And I do the Michigan turnaround and enter Belle Isle. Belle Isle is the blessing we have in Detroit, an island that is attached to us that separates the United States from Canada. And it’s surrounded by all this beautiful water and boats, which I love. And I go there and I meditate and I think.

I woke up this morning with this thought about language. In the news you hear, ‘the poverty stricken, citizens of Detroit, oh the devastated communities, it’s so desolate and homelessness is everywhere and despair.’ That was enough to make you feel bad. What if it read, ‘the spiritually rich citizens of Detroit, experiencing abandoned homes, have now decided to embrace, with love and hope their communities and rebuild for a future’. That sounds different.

Spiritually it’s said that nothing positive can come out of a negative. If we embrace transformation, I’m not sure that’s true. The ability to recreate is always with us.

The ability to recreate

I’m founder of “We Want Green, Too.” Our mission is to re-educate, retrain and rebuild a 21st century, sustainable Detroit. We are looking to construct various teams in the basic skills: dry walling, painting, floor repair.

Right now we’re working out of shelters and the Detroit Veterans Administration building, a connection we have with homeless vets. We work with young people who are underemployed, people who have overcome their substance abuse, as well as those who have been incarcerated.

We have very good housing stock in the city. And these houses, many of them date back to the early 1900s and late 1800s, it would cost you a fortune to try and build a house today with the same quality of material. So we know that the greenest house is the house that’s already there. All you do is take the time to rebuild it.

Every house in Detroit has a foundation. So where you have people who are challenged, they don’t have jobs. Why not make their jobs restructuring their own communities?

I don’t think that prior to my accident I would have understood the value of working from our hearts through our minds, through our hands. What it does in terms of helping to recreate a humanity that’s been taken away from us.

The work I’m doing now, it’s phenomenal. There’s not a price tag I could hang on it. And I know that ‘cause I’ve been on the other side.

Gloria Lowe instructs her apprentice, Travis Rushon. (Photo courtesy of Amanda Le Claire)

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