Co-founder of Summer in the City works to ‘repair world’ in Detroit
In the summer of 2002, Ben Falik came home to Detroit after his sophomore college year with an itch to volunteer. He and two buddies scratched that itch by launching Summer in the City, a nonprofit that has mobilized more than 150,000 hours of service in Detroit since its inception.
The organization – with some 40 community partners in Detroit, including nonprofits, schools, churches, block clubs, businesses and city agencies – offers three “P’s” for young volunteers: Paint, Plant and Play.
Volunteers in Project Paint create bright, durable graffiti-deterring murals in parks and playgrounds, commercial corridors and historic neighborhoods. Project Plant partners with Greening of Detroit and more than 20 community gardens to plant, weed, water, harvest and landscape green spaces, ranging from inches to acres. Project Play pairs volunteers with kids to offers arts, athletics and academics – and Friday Field Trips to the DIA, Wayne State and the Detroit Zoo, among other exciting local destinations. An end-of-summer “Backpacktacular” sends each kid back to school with a new backpack chock-full of art and school supplies.
“I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the most incredible people on the planet,” Falik says. “I loved my college years at Columbia College in New York, but service motivated me to move back to Michigan and really try and make big things happen here. Volunteering, when it’s done right, can create a level playing field, a way for people from all different backgrounds to convene and gain from each other’s experience and perspective – through good humor and lots of sweat.” Service didn’t just bring Falik back to Detroit. It has kept him here and kept him motivated to be the change he wishes to see in the city and beyond. Now married with two children and degrees in law and public policy from the University of Michigan, he works as Manager of Detroit Service Initiatives for Repair the World, a national organization dedicated to making service a defining element of Jewish life, learning, and leadership.
Falik, who has received considerable recognition for his efforts – Silent Heroes Award, Do Something BRICK Award, Michigan Week Volunteer Leadership Award, and Red Cross Everyday Heroes Award – works full time for Repair the World to engage and empower the local Jewish community to serve. Currently, Repair the World is piloting a national campaign to help young people achieve greater academic success by recruiting volunteers to serve as tutors, mentors and college access coaches for the nation’s students. With Detroit serving as a primary hub for this activity, Falik is leading the on-the-ground efforts in the region. Through partnerships with schools, synagogues and community organizations, he strives to “turn our shared values into shared value – the kind that transcends all the differences that tend to keep people apart.”
“I’m a professional volunteer – as paradoxical as that may be,” Falik says, adding that the skills he learned from U-M Law School stand him in good stead in his work. “I hope both organizations grow, in an organic and dynamic way by developing more partners, more stakeholders, more equity in the community. It’s exciting to think about all the things the future holds.”
Voluntarism is a family affair. Three unsung heroes are his wife, A.J., and parents, Falik says. His father Joe – retired from a long legal career in the insurance industry and working as an independent mediator – is a supporter and adviser. His mother, Deborah, is an accomplished artist.
“There would be no Summer in the City without my parents,” he says. “Their support was unequivocal, enthusiastic, and they were instrumental in helping to launch it.”
Falik hopes his own two children, Judah and Phoebe, follow in his footsteps. Judah, 3, is “the official toddler” of SITC and Repair the World, accompanying his father to project sites throughout Detroit.
“Judah has already had shared experiences with people from all kinds of backgrounds,” Falik says. “I hope my kids will feel a call, on their own terms and in their own way, to be active citizens in whatever messy world they inherit from us.”
To learn more about Falik’s work and Repair the World, please visit WeRepair.org or follow them on Twitter @wassify and @repairtheworld.
By Sheila Pursglove