Educating and Empowering the Women of Detroit

Last year was pivotal for women in that many reclaimed their voices — or found them for the first time — and pursued work and support systems that acknowledge their unmatchable and unique contributions. Rebel Nell, however, has been empowering women in these very same ways for the last five years, employing the disadvantaged and abused and educating them so they can live a safe, healthy, independent life of their choosing. They do this surrounded by fellow women who believe in them.

It all began when co-founder Amy Peterson spoke with women staying in a shelter next to where she lived. Many had suffered physical and mental abuse at the hands of a partner. Some had also experienced financial abuse when a partner garnished their paychecks or ran their credit into the ground. Peterson saw a window of opportunity to help these women and made a pitch at one of the fundraising dinners put on by Detroit SOUP. Detroit SOUP is a micro-grant organization that invites community members to present creative projects to dinner attendees, who eventually select one of the four projects to receive all the money from the event. These can range from technology to arts to criminal justice reform and are intended to unite and strengthen the overall community.

Peterson and her co-founder, Diana Russell, used the Detroit SOUP prize money to hire their first three female employees. Their specialty? Making beautiful and unique jewelry out of what some would consider to be urban decay – although this is perhaps what makes it even more special.

The three use graffiti from the Dequindre Cut, part of an abandoned railroad that, years ago, became a canvas for Detroit’s spray can artists. As the years passed, the graffiti began to peel away from the walls, creating a raw material that is the perfect blend of art and historical culture for the women to use to make their jewelry.

Julia Rhodes, Rebel Nell’s co-owner and director of sales and marketing, outlined challenges the organization faces –which include revising its business model to generate more capital and effectively educate and liberate more women — and also some of its aspirations.

“Women who come to us are coming into a new setting and learning a new trade, which is rewarding, but also scary in the beginning. Some women who come to Rebel Nell also face other barriers to their success, such as health issues and reliable transportation.”

Rhodes shared that she would love to see Rebel Nell open a sister location within the next five years. “We’d like to refine our programming, so we’re able to hire more women and graduate them at a faster rate to help them get on solid footing. We’d also like to invest in an alumni network to create a more collaborative environment and connect women who are currently in our program with others who have gone before them and can relate to their story.

When I asked Rhodes to outline what Detroit stands to benefit by investing in these women, she shared, passionately, “Women are so amazing. They balance the day-to-day struggles of being a female in a climate that isn’t always inviting or supportive, especially for African American women. If we can empower one woman, she is going to use those resources to empower other women, and so on. It’s an important investment that not only impacts the women working at Rebel Nell but the community at large and hopefully beyond.”

To find the jewelry of the talented women at Rebel Nell, or to support their work, visit their website or find them on Facebook.

Rebel Nell Detroit, MI l (630)450-3326 l RebelNell.com