A Hamlet in the Hood: Mama Shu Builds Sustainable Village in Highland Park  

Mama Shu leads Avalon Village with activities for children and all in Highland Park. 


Growing up decades earlier, the Highland Park neighborhood of longtime resident Shamayim “Shu” Harris (known simply as Mama Shu) was one to envy.   

The area had a local school, a store within walking distance and many other services one comes to expect of a bustling, safe residential neighborhood. Mama Shu was also raised with elders in the community she could go to in times of trouble or just to talk.   

Her community was like many other thriving ones in Detroit, too, where Black businesses and growing Black families were anchors for society and the community.  

Mama Shu, who moved out of the city to Detroit and later back to Highland Park, told the Michigan Chronicle recently that Highland Park fell on some rough economic times in the past when businesses moved out and the school district was under emergency management. She was spurred to do something about the changing neighborhood landscape that, too, couldn’t escape the crisis, especially after she faced her own tragedies.  

Pain Into Power  

Mama Shu, founder and CEO of Avalon Village, began her incredible journey to renovate a neighborhood in Highland Park that came from beyond simply desiring a better place to live, “It came from a place of pain turned into power,” according to her website.  

“Nothing has deterred our focus, our love and our purpose from continuing to build what we have here.  And whatever we want to manifest here in the Village, we will get it done,” she said previously. 
The youngest son of Mama Shu, Jakobi RA, died in a hit-and-run incident in 2007. This tragedy affected Mama Shu deeply, but she was determined not to let sorrow change the direction of her life.  

“I thought losing Jakobi RA was something I couldn’t survive. My friends and I would have conversations about how losing a child was the worst thing — it was something I feared. When I woke up the next morning [after the accident], I knew that I was invincible because my worst fear had been realized and I was still here.”  

Mama Shu transformed her suffering into strength, her sorrow into glory, and her anguish into love. The Jakobi RA Park and its annual Reggae in the Hood Birthday Celebration event honor Jakobi RA on his birthday, August 17.  

To help construct Avalon Village, a sustainable eco-village on Avalon Street between Woodward and Second, Mama Shu gathered a team of engineers, futurists, artists, urban farmers, volunteers and donors from all over the world. The community now owns 20 land parcels and 4 dwellings, and has aspirations to buy more land. The Homework House, an after-school learning and activity center for neighborhood kid; the Goddess Marketplace, a business development program for women entrepreneurs; the Healing House, a center for holistic healing; a healthy café; activity courts; greenhouses; a micro-library, and other projects are being revitalized on these abandoned, dilapidated lots and buildings.   

As Mama Shu and her staff worked to finish Avalon Village, another tragedy occurred when her son Chinyelu, who was 23 years old, was killed late January 2021 while sitting in his car alone by a lone gunman. Highland Park Police are investigating. 

Chinyelu served as Mama Shu’s right-hand person and collaborated with her to expand the Avalon Village concept. He was also the Village’s defender. He enjoyed working as a volunteer for organizations like Hood Camp and contributing to the building of several Village places.  

Chinyelu’s memory is honored with a Garden Shrine named Invincible Gardens and the annual “NO FAKIN” fundraiser.  

“They say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.” This quote is often heard and rings true for Mama Shu, who remembers her children whose memories live on throughout the Village.  

Positive Women’s Network (PWN) notes that throughout history, Black women have been the backbone of practically every facet of society.  

“Black women have been the caretakers of our communities, families and other people’s families. We have had to find our own beauty and value in our hair, bodies, gender, race and lived experience in a society that has not valued us,” PWN stated. “Through it all, Black women continue to demand justice, equity and liberation for all.”   

Justice for Mama Shu looks like Chinyelu’s killer being captured and held accountable.  

“When Black women are uplifted — we are all uplifted. When Black women do better – we all do better,” PWN said.  

Avalon Village serves as a model for disadvantaged and neglected communities that want to transform into self-sufficient, resilient and eco-friendly communities.  

Looking Back, Addressing the Present and Building Tomorrow 

At Avalon Village, they pay respect to the people who came before them by incorporating principles from the community into all of its initiatives, activities and events.  

It also aspires to serve as the benchmark for eco-friendly urban habitation, wanting to spread positivity and encouraging others to transform their communities from “Blight to Beauty.”  

“We want to create community spaces and initiatives that continue to grow and live on for years to come,” according to its website. “We want to teach and inspire the children of the community to lead by example and continue to build up their neighborhoods, one block at a time.”  

Described as the “Unlikely Urban Planner,” Mama Shu and her passion for helping youth and others in the community is evident with a safe park for children to play in, a basketball court and the Homework House where residents can obtain their GED and gain new skills, just to name a few initiatives.   

The Homework House, a 111-year-old, three-story renovated house, which once stood abandoned and on a demolition list, features a computer lab, a STEM Lab, a music room and other spaces for learning.      

“I wanted a place where children could come and do their homework in a quiet and safe environment,” said Mama Shu previously.  “The Homeroom House will be available to all children in Highland Park to have access to tutors, computer and STEM labs, and other services for school-aged children.” 

Mama Shu is also the founder of the Goddess Marketplace, a nearly two-decade-old economic initiative for women, which was formed to help support Avalon Village.   

“The Goddess Marketplace was formed for women who were starting up businesses who need support so they can have a space to run their businesses,” Mama Shu said of the incubator-type operation.   

During Women’s History Month, Mama Shu’s work, which empowers women year-round, does not go unnoticed.   

“All of my work has been to uplift women entrepreneurs spiritually,” she said. “It’s very impactful because one of the things is if all of us get together … [we are] able to feed off each other and serve each other. … This is a space you can prosper and make money for your families in a community way.” 

For more information visit theavalonvillage.org. 


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