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Rebel with a cause

Aug 5, 2015

When the news broke yesterday that Detroit Tigers General Manager Dave Dombrowski had been fired, I was sitting in a TV studio with Amy Peterson, one of the baseball team’s lawyers.

I didn’t know about Dombrowski, and I wasn’t talking to her about baseball, but about a unique business she’s started that is using art to give disadvantaged women new lives.

It’s called Rebel Nell, and it is about as urban a business as you can imagine. The workers take pieces of graffiti that have fallen off buildings or concrete overpasses, shape them, polish them, and mount them on silver to wear as jewelry.

The resulting pieces are extremely beautiful and uniquely Detroit – so is the way this whole business got started. Amy Peterson isn’t even a native Detroiter, though she came from a working-class background in upstate New York. She earned a law degree and an MBA and came her seven years ago because she wanted to be a sports attorney.

She chose not to live in the suburbs, but in the heart of downtown. She lived next to a homeless shelter, where she walked her dog past daily and became friends with some of the women. To relieve stress, she jogged along the old Dequindre cut, where she noticed layers of graffiti, flaking off the walls. Intrigued, she took some of it home.

Peterson knew something about art; she’d helped fund her education by making jewelry. She had business credentials, and wanted to make a difference in the struggling city she’d adopted. She got an idea. She found a like-minded woman, Diana Russell, and the two decided to start a jewelry-making business with a social motive.

They named it “Rebel Nell” after a woman they both deeply admired – Eleanor Roosevelt. They put in some money, ran an Indiegogo internet fund-raising campaign, found a space and started just over two years ago.

They worked with people who ran the shelter to find women who were emotionally and mentally ready to get back on their feet and take charge of their lives. They trained them, not only to make jewelry but to gain essential life skills.

And it worked. Last year, Rebel Nell made a tiny profit. They are on course to do even better. Peterson sees the irony of her professional life; she negotiates contracts with young men who are paid millions of dollars every year for playing ball, and in her spare time, desperately tries to create more $12 an hour jobs for poor women.

But that’s America. Amy Peterson isn’t a martyr; she’s a normal young professional woman who is married and expecting her first baby in January. And my guess is if Detroit is in fact reborn, it will happen in large part because of efforts like Rebel Nell.

Eleanor Roosevelt may be Peterson’s personal hero. But her work reminds me more of something Robert Kennedy once said, that every time someone “acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression.”

Let’s hope that for Detroit, the ripples keep coming.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.