Reflections : Life Remodeled with Anne Snyder
with Anne Snyder
Reflections is a new BitterSweet podcast series formed out of the idea that in seasons of uncertainty we can ground ourselves by recalling past moments of faithfulness—holding on to the hope extended by the good work of those who use their lives to serve their neighbors.
In this series, we ask our contributors to look back over the catalog of BitterSweet stories they were a part of and discuss the how and why of the story that impacted them most.
Hosted and produced by Robert Winship.
Episode One: Writer Anne Snyder discusses her story “Detroit Neighborhoods Remodel for Life”
As Walter Brueggemann so succinctly notes in Contemplations part I, the Ache, sometimes what it looks like to notice and share resources with our neighbor can be “very inconvenient.” Anne Snyder touches on her experience observing this within the narrative of Life Remodeled, and reflects on how true neighborliness requires both sacrifice and trust.
RW: Anne Snyder is the current Editor-in-Chief at Comment Magazine, author of The Fabric of Character: A Wise Giver's Guide to Supporting Social and Moral Renewal, and a contributor to BitterSweet Monthly. Anne, thanks for talking with us today.
AS: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
RW: So, I wanted to start off by asking, I know you're a writer and author by trade, but how would you describe the work you do with BitterSweet?
AS: So, I really think of myself with BitterSweet as very simply a storyteller. There's some level of storytelling at its best that really tries to honor the subjects and I've always felt great encouragement from the BitterSweet editorial side to take on that approach. So, simply put, I'm a storyteller, but I also have an underlying vocational drum beat as a bridge builder and love when stories themselves can actually be usable and useful for the subjects of the story, to say nothing of the readers, but I'm primarily motivated by the subjects.
RW: The series that we're doing, this podcast series is called Reflections, and so we're asking each guest, each of whom is a contributor to BitterSweet, to select a story that they were a part of to talk about. And Anne, you picked a story titled “Detroit Neighborhoods Remodel for Life” which focuses on Life Remodeled, that chronicles the mission of Life Remodeled, but really your story is about the conflict that was part of the birth of this organization within this community. Can you describe what the story is about?
AS: I think part of why I was drawn to this particular story is that it's not a simple, sweet, cotton candy story that would serve as a glossy brochure for, you know, a well-intended nonprofit that's motivated altruistically, and where you just tell the highlights.
I think I was drawn to something that felt very real, both in terms of race and power and those dynamics—the dynamics between insiders and outsiders, suburbanites and urbanites, that I think have particular currency in Detroit given its history. So, I liked the moral complexity of it. It felt very authentic and actually difficult to capture, which was one of the fun challenges of Life Remodeled itself. Just to give a brief overview, it was founded almost 10 years ago in 2011 by Chris Lambert who's a white guy, who I think grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, which is part of this narrative here in terms of building trust and some of the difficulties there. But the mission of it is, like they would say, to break down barriers and provide various opportunities to build bridges in a historically hyper-divided city.
AS: And so, they do largely three things—every year they'll pick a new project and they'll pick a given neighborhood that seems to have XYZ needs, acute needs, and they learn and spend some time trying to identify the key community asset. Is it a high school football field? Is it the library? Is it this particular community garden? And then they devote a lot of resources and typically quite a few outside volunteers to help remodel it, but with the sort of insider group of that particular neighborhood. They also repair owner-occupied homes throughout the broader neighborhood of that central project. And then they've become quite well known every year within the city of Detroit for mobilizing fairly impressive 10,000 volunteers in this annual cleanup project that endures for just about a week and spans like 300 city blocks.
So, they're sort of multifaceted in their approach. The feature of this story is of a much more ambitious project they took on where they essentially bought a high school for the price of $1—a very historic high school.
The idea initially was to get this property and try to activate it as a space into like a Maker’s Commons—sort of like a community center, but run by small businesses. And I mean, Chris, his idea I think was that this would deeply empower this neighborhood that had been stagnant in a variety of ways economically. And then the complexities go from there because it was a historically black neighborhood and here he comes in trying to do a good thing and all hell breaks loose.
So, they buy this building, or sorry, Life Remodeled slash Chris buy this building and they knew it was going to be a more ambitious project than they had typically done. Partly because it sets them more in kind of almost the real estate business and trying to find the right tenants and all of that, which they'd never really done before. So, he's trying to work on creating this sort of ecosystem very quickly that's just almost birthed from nothing except these organizations. Most of them, most of them already existed in the broader Detroit metropolitan area and he was trying to create almost like a missional We Work for them.
You know, there's just sort of natural suspicion and fear of an outside developer coming in and Chris didn't think of himself like a classic real estate developer, but you know, this is what that project represents. And to summarize what the story winds up painting is, there was a series of town halls where the local community were essentially hazing, or at first vetting, but then becomes clear, a kind of hazing of Chris—basically testing how much can we trust this guy? There were a series of town halls where he was the bad guy and you watch his own chastening occur as he realizes that he has to not just build something good and a lot of resources at something, but he actually has to learn how to share power in a more somewhat scary way if you have a vision and you need to share the vision with others.
To go back to your original question, part of what drew me to the story was almost like the meta nature of the fact that you're with a guy that's trying to create “an open ecosystem” and usually the nature of that, because it's not just one institution, it's like a whole, almost like a series of lily pads all swirling in the same pond. The nature of that, if you're trying to foster that and catalyze that energy and the sort of community center feel, is you actually have to be very open-handed. You're not like the president of a company. But when the rubber met the road in terms of establishing trust, I think you know, he quickly realized through some pain and really condemning words from the locals, who we most desperately wanted to help and honor, that he needed to do some soul searching and figure out if he was willing to relinquish some reigns. And who could you find to empower? Who had more credibility in the community? And so it's kind of a deed. It's sort of a detailing of all of that plot line.
RW: I want to ask before we talk about some of the other people that you focused on in this story—is this the story that you wanted to tell, or was there a change once you got there?
AS: Oh goodness, that's a great question! You know, usually, as a journalist you're supposed to sort of disappear. But somehow in this case I was just hyper aware of what I was even bringing into the space, given my role as an outsider, though I was the storyteller here. To be honest, I remember coming with an unusually blank slate, but I spent the first couple of days just going to the local museum there, getting a feel for the long-term history.
I tried to do a bunch of broader historic work just to make sure I wasn't entering completely blind or naive, but I didn't have a plan. I knew I was interested in not just telling, like I said earlier, a sweet story of how great one nonprofit was. I knew there had to be more to it than that. So, I did go in with maybe some like deeply earnest sight to try to understand the broader kind of community dynamics, but no, the short answer is I really had no script. So, it was discovery as I went—an open blank slate is what I would say.
RW: For the listener, when you read this story, you do start off with a first person narrative of just kind of arriving and getting your bearings before the story and the characters take over. And then I think later you have some assessments of the situation, and especially of Chris and the organization, which I want to ask you about specifically. You've talked about Chris Lambert, who created this organization, Life Remodeled. And we have covered a little bit about these community meetings… it's kind of a showdown! And there's another person, I think it's Dwan Dandridge who's probably like the, almost like a second protagonist in this…
AS: He's the hero. Yeah. He's like the hero that creeps up on you in the last third, but yeah. Yeah.
RW: And he's kind of attacked too in that setting. I'm wondering if you'll talk about that for a minute.
AS: So, he's an African American guy, native Detroiter who had already been working with Chris as part of Life Remodeled when they bought this particular property. And on the one hand, on the face of it stories that Dwan in some of these town hall meetings where it was basically Chris, I got the sense he was probably like the only white guy in this fairly large room where the local community was asking their questions, and getting more aggressive as time went on and the discussion… basically Dwan took a lot of heat for kind of trying to defend Chris's motives and also defend Chris's ability to learn and he would, at one level, he was almost like, I almost thought of him as like pastor and counselor to Chris. They'd known each other for some time and after one of the worst town hall meetings where Chris was like, maybe I should just give up. This is all failure—clearly I'm not trusted here. I think Dwan took him aside and was like, look, you had one experience tonight of not letting your voice be heard and my people, and these people, this has been their entire lives of what you experienced in just a couple hours tonight. And I think those kinds of feedback… Dwan framed it as, you know, this is a hazing process. Like they're testing you to see how you will retaliate, or if you will. And if you don't just hang in there, basically like it may not feel like it and you may not get verbal affirmation or award, but it will be a notch in the right direction to just take the heat and be quiet and be a student of what they're trying to say, be a student of their anger, really.
So, he winds up playing this role of both a moral compass and there's sort of a holy loneliness about Dwan. He's just has a deeply tender sense of, on the one hand, trusting Chris and trusting his motives and often defending Chris's, this white guy, you know, he's defending his character, really, before his racial brothers and sisters. And Dwan would take heat for doing that. Even as he was also helping in the chastening process of Chris—that Chris needed to go to as the right kind of leader in the situation or frankly, right kind of servant in this situation. By helping Chris understand, almost like holding his hand, but like letting him know, this is a fire, and you can get through it, but frankly you've got some pride you need to let go of. You've got some ego you need to let go of. And some blindness and assumptions as a fairly privileged guy coming in here. And so, I think just that ability to play all sides in a way that was ultimately trying to honor the mission of this project that was trying to do deep good in the community. And I think, you know, since doing this story, I kind of look for these, I call them institutional mystics, but these folks that carry the mission of the organization somehow in their bones and just break themselves open to be of service—often in ways that have no reward for them but wind up making the effort succeed. And they consider their rights a loss. And I think Dwan embodies that throughout the story. And I think ongoing to this day in Life Remodeled and therefore in Detroit more broadly.
RW: Circling back around to one of the themes that we've talked about already and I want to hear just a little bit more from you about. I'm going to read a quote from the article. You write that “Chris Lambert and the organization have learned a lot about what it really means to empower a community—well beyond giving resources, it means actually handing over power. And this requires a deep amount of trust on both sides and a willingness to step into uncomfortable spaces.” And though you've sort of said it in that passage, I'm wondering, what does the word empower mean to you?
AS: Maybe handing over power wasn't entirely the right language, to be honest. I'm probably hinting there… and I don't use the word reparations in this piece. I don't think I do anyways. But when I say handing over, I'm probably using that phrase in that light—like it's a way of writing past wrongs to relinquish your own power. In this case, from white to black, ideally. In a perfect world, I think the ideal is not always handing over, but it's really sharing. And by power, I mean that in a good way. Power obviously can be used for good or ill, but here ideally power is not used to abuse anyone else, whether you're black or white. Ideally it's not to condemn anyone else or shame anyone else or hog all the resources or hog the vision, but it is to steward a vision for the good of your neighbors; your own neighbors and symbolically your neighbors if you're part of the larger Detroit metropolitan area but you didn't actually grow up in this neighborhood. So, I do think Chris was very motivated by a love your neighbor ethos in even starting Life Remodeled.
I think primarily it's giving people, especially here because it was so place-based, giving people from the place itself major say, and not just say, but even logistical authority to bring in the right tenants to maybe form a board, like an advisory board that would help guide Chris. So, they're sort of overseeing his behavior—not behavior but his strategy and leadership. It's really trying to activate people's inherent agency as human beings, but to do so in a way that's sensitive to their own cultural ways and gifts and assumptions. It’s complex what I'm trying to say, so I'm not saying it very well, but yeah, it's giving people a stake, and stake in the vision, and then also the capacity and even resources to allow them to lead.
RW: Zooming out just a little bit on that word I, I'm wondering how you see your role as a storyteller. How do you empower people through story?
AS: I mean I think it's very embedded in the process itself. I think it begins with my favorite part of any kind of story writing process, the interview. And a lot of people would say that, I'm not unique in that, but I think if you're the least bit interested in people and you just love the complexity of human beings, and you love to learn slash care, if you actually care about the outcomes of communities and the outcomes of people's lives.
And you know, the best moments, like entering into a conversation where yes, I might be interviewing and asking questions to ascertain information, but my style is usually to try to do so in a way that is more like I would treat a friend that I know, or I'm not interviewing them, but it's like I'm trying to shine a light, trying to give them the utmost dignity, I guess. And I'm not, I'm no saint at all, but that's just sort of a way where you're trying to use the interview as a way to allow people to reflect on their lives, reflect on their future and past. Perhaps in a framework they haven't considered before, just because you're asking the question in a certain way. So, that's probably the first step. And then really trying to, you know, on one hand I said I don't like to totally disappear because I am emotionally involved in these characters even after the story is published, but almost, I'm not a novel writer, but I hear novel writers say that, you know, you're writing and suddenly you're a third of the way through the story and the characters start writing themselves. In this case these are real human beings, so they do the writing, but I really try to get out of the way and allow them to speak and lead…so that I'm just more of a window, like a fairly clear window.
RW: I just want to stop on that real quick. Because as a writer and as a journalist you're sometimes taught to not give over too much space to big quotes, right? You're supposed to be able as the writer to summarize that and wait for the, you know, a really good line or two. But this story, and I think a lot of the BitterSweet stories, can take on almost an oral history.
AS: That's very good. Yeah, I like that word.
RW: And I don't even know if this is so much of a question. It seems like a kind of natural extension of the mission of BitterSweet and of empowering, but to give over as much real estate in terms of these articles and these stories to the people who are a part of them.
AS: I think oral history is a beautiful way of putting it. It’s a better phrase rather than storytelling. And I think you have to do that with community. Obviously, I also have a craft to steward, so you don't want to, you know… long quotes are also sort of onerous for the reader, so you have to keep that in mind. But ideally you really want these characters to recognize themselves and the complexity of what they said to you when they trusted you to share, in this case, something that was real for all of their lives. So yeah, that's why I tend to go for a longer quote than is perhaps appropriate!
RW: Towards the end, in the last chapter, you are reflecting on a quote from Chris about the depth of purpose of Life Remodeled and you write the following, “That depth may be the realization that you can’t necessarily scale human virtue like this, or, rather, the process of virtue formation—virtue honed specifically in the friction between people with pasts. You can provide the space, and some guiding principles for relating to those unlike you, to those who have deep ownership in places of pain and neglect. But beyond that, Life Remodeled’s goal of human transformation is like any other: it’s personalist. Each human ultimately gets humbled and changed by relating to another infinitely unique human being—however encased in structural histories and demographic realities they may be. Each person has to have a reckoning.”
So, I want to focus on the line, “Each human ultimately gets humbled and changed by relating to another infinitely unique human being.” So, as we all are kind of sitting here in some form of quarantine, there may be a superficial sense that, you know, we're living life just like everybody else's…and that's good in the sense that we would see ourselves like others and see what is the like about our situation. But of course, depending on where you are socioeconomically or geographically, that's just definitely not true. I'm wondering as a springboard from that line, how do you think we as a people can dig deeper into that sense of humility shaped by relating to other human beings?
AS: I have been struck by both frankly, how overwhelming it's been to hear about radically different experiences. There's a friend of mine named Pancho Arguëlles, in fact, I think he's going to be a feature of an upcoming BitterSweet story hopefully when we get to the other side of this and we can actually do reporting in person, but short of a long, he's spent the last over a couple of decades working with men and women, many of whom are undocumented or are documented immigrants in Houston, who have been paralyzed by spinal cord injuries, often doing construction. It sounds very niche, but he is deeply at this intersection of all of our immigration debates and a lot of our discourse about disability, which you might imagine the last few years, especially in political rhetoric. It's a very interesting intersection be at.
And we spoke a few weeks ago and he was sharing all that he and his organization are facing from all the ripple effects of something of this level of disaster. And, you know, they survived and thrived, and often led in a very generative way during hurricane Harvey a number of years ago. And now this is this national scale thing, but I was just very overwhelmed frankly in a way I didn't like at first because it required something of me. I was trying to figure out how do I help? But I just mentioned it, I felt very humbled—not only by my relative good fortune to still have work and to be a healthy able bodied human being, and a variety of other things that don't leave me, nor my folks right around me, nearly as vulnerable.
It was like an awakening moment of how deeply destructive this kind of a thing can be for those that are already vulnerable to disease, already vulnerable to the economic impact, to systemic sort of crumbling systems that used to be there, health wise and economically. So, this is personal way of just saying, I think, I've been moved and almost pushing myself to get and stay in touch with those in my whole relational arsenal, so to speak. With those who vividly are living this in a different way, whether because of economic reasons or cultural reasons or racial reasons. You can kind of name your vector. And I would just encourage folks to think about who they think might be in the most sort of obvious need, from even just a physical standpoint. Obviously, their spiritual needs and emotional needs, too, but just have an even conversation about how things are going because there might be a way to help. There's also just a way to understand what it is to need those people in our own lives. So that's the most tangible thing I can offer—is think about the range of needs amongst your friendships and relational lives and stay in contact right now.
AS: There's something in this particular story and then in similar kind of stories that I've observed where when the leader, the public leader, is gifted by humility and just a willingness to say they don't know everything and their willingness to just slightly shift their original vision and share, frankly, share that power we were talking about. That's really the only way to emerge, to actually do what you wanted to do in the first place. But also, I think, too, especially in a crisis like we're all in right now, to emerge as a generative leader on the other side. So, I think the value of humility is something I'm personally learning through all this. And I think the story gestures towards, through the characters and then, you know, cultivating an eye for those bridge builders like Dwan, again, very humble, yet also committed folks who are willing to take heat from all sides in service of a good thing. And how could we all be a little bit more like that? But also learning to value that quality, especially in our times where the boundaries between worlds can be so thick and impenetrable, they're, in my view, the real heroes of our day. And they're often, you know, they're very rarely heralded as such. But that's…I guess my parting words.
Read the Story
Read Anne Snyder's full story about Life Remodeled for BitterSweet Monthly, Issue 050 Detroit Neighborhoods Remodel for Life, here.
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