Shamayim Harris ran three times for city council in her hometown of Highland Park, Michigan. Each time the voters rejected her. “They didn’t want me,” she says, with a smile. But that didn’t stop her from fulfilling her plans to give Highland Park residents new opportunities, starting with her own block on Avalon Street.
The city of Highland Park is in the middle of the much larger city of Detroit, and could easily be mistaken for another of its neglected neighborhoods. Highland Park has been without a library for 14 years. Its high school was permanently closed by the state last year, leaving just one school, a K–8 program, within its borders. In 2011, utility company DTE Energy removed all the street lights; local and national headlines read some variation of “Highland Park goes dark: City removes lights to pay bills.” The city has struggled financially for over a decade, and was one of several financially challenged local units of government in Michigan where Gov. Rick Snyder took control of operational and fiscal duties away from local elected officials and gave it to appointed “emergency managers.”
These were the conditions Harris, widely known as “Mama Shu,” considered when tossing her hat in the political ring. Her desire, she says, wasn’t simply to be in office or hold any political titles. It was simply to “make things better” for the residents of Highland Park. “I’m looking at the conditions and wondering what can I do, intimately understanding what’s going on?” she says.