Waldorf Principles at Work in the Community: The Story of the Brightmoor Maker Space

By Bart Eddy

Detroit Community: Preparing the Soil

Detroit Community Schools, a K-12 public charter school, is now in its twenty-fifth year of operation and firmly established in the Brightmoor/Cody-Rouge neighborhoods on the northwest side of Detroit. Candyce Sweda and I became the co-founders of Detroit Community High School and Kindergarten, as we were called back then, in 1997. We made it very clear that we were not starting a public Waldorf School but that we would attempt to bring the educational archetypes of Rudolf Steiner into the public educational domain. This meant that we would do everything possible to create a holistic curriculum and find a balance between the academic, artistic-social, and practical. For eight solid years, this seemed achievable. We were able to weave the arts and the hands-on deeply into the daily experience, including fine arts, woodwork, ceramics, metalwork, and gardening. At the same time, we were also able to create a sense of community well-being within our student body and faculty.

The early years of the charter school movement invited teachers to create their own schools based on pedagogical interests and ideals. In Michigan, these first schools began operation in 1994. In the early years, we experienced a great deal of flexibility with the curriculum. For example, I was able to teach woodworking under the course title: Psychology of Work. This worked well as a social studies elective, for which I was state-certified, and provided an opportunity to work with the artistic and practical gifts of the individual student while incorporating the values of teamwork and high-quality craftsmanship into a woodworking experience. Gardening and science were also companion pieces. However, in 2002 the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was passed by the Bush administration, and the educational landscape began to change at the federal and state levels.

The passage of NCLB, coupled with the trend of charter schools being managed by “for-profit” entities, pushed the charter school movement into the realm of standardized testing in Michigan as a tool for a speedy academic assessment. For example, the writing portion of tests were dropped because they were too time-consuming to score and evaluate. This gave further impetus to the long-term trend of removing the arts and the practical curriculum from the public school system(s). Educationally, we were pushed into a data-driven, results-based model that eclipsed the holistic model for the healthy development of the child for a more singularly focused and easily definable outcome via high-stakes testing. By 2009, when the Obama administration began its Race to the Top initiative, a certain malaise had begun to settle in over our original mission and vision; we could “see the writing on the wall.”

By 2010, the state terminology of a “failing school” had become the less innocuous “priority school,” which was the category that Detroit Community High School fell into in the spring of that year. Under this designation, we were required to adopt the “turnaround” model, which involved “replacing the principal and 50% of the school’s staff, adopting a new governance structure, and implementing a new or revised instructional program with increased learning time.”[i] These data-driven measurements eventually led to the Common Core standards that were implemented in 2010. Regrettably, many good teachers fell by the wayside as the school administrators hung the “Sword of Damocles” over their teachers’ heads to force the improvement of test scores and save their own positions. There was no way we could have foreseen this nightmare scenario, and yet we were right in the middle of it, still deeply connected to many of our young people and the teachers who had survived the purge.

Brightmoor Maker Space: Planting the Seed

By the summer of 2009, we had lost our woodwork, ceramics, and metalwork offerings, but we were committed to finding another way to at least keep a semblance of our envisioned school alive and well. It was at this point that we decided to take up an unfulfilled aspect of our original vision: to become connected with the community. We found a way to do this in conjunction with the City of Detroit’s Grow Detroit Young Talent program, which allowed us to become a summer worksite that employed our community’s youth. Our first project in Brightmoor was in conjuncture with Leland Missionary Baptist Church, working with them to develop a “Spirit Park” as a remembrance site for their ancestors. We were fortunate to have Johannes Matthiessen, an internationally recognized landscape artist, work with us through his organization, Sacred Landscapes.

During this summer, I also had the great good fortune of meeting my colleague and partner, Nick Tobier, from the University of Michigan Stamps School of Art and Design. It was an exhilarating first step in reclaiming our original vision, and, to this day, we continue to work with church members from Leland in a variety of community projects. During the following summer of 2010, we built the Spiral Bench around a magnificent cottonwood tree at another location in Brightmoor while continuing to meet and work with the residents of the neighborhood. The next summer, we began the Johannes Tree Dome Park on another abandoned parcel of land in Brightmoor. It was here that we resurrected our woodshop out of an abandoned garage on the property next door. After building workbenches for the garage, we began to make hand-crafted community signage for installation at various locations, including Gwen’s Heavens Angels Day Care, Char’s Butterfly Trail, Brightmoor Farmway, and the Johannes Tree Dome Park.

Although Johannes, our landscape artist, could not be with us due to a serious illness, we were fortunate to have three young women from China work with us. One of them, Han Fang, eventually became the co-founder of our non-profit known as the Sunbridge International Collaborative. Johannes, who had met them in Beijing, had invited them to come and work with us, and although he had fallen ill, they came anyway! This was a pivotal summer, and the young people who worked with us were eager to carry on their woodwork as the Brightmoor Woodworkers. When we returned to school in the fall, we began a sign-making business, and suddenly we found that other neighborhood groups wanted a sign for their block club or garden. Thus we began our small entrepreneurial endeavor, working after school and on weekends.

With our original crew, Mariah, Lashay, Tanay, and Kyle, we had many opportunities to speak to community organizations and display our wares. Early on, the Brightmoor Woodworkers were presented with the Pathways Out of Violence Safe Communities Award and the Spirit of Detroit Award by the Detroit City Council. We began to sense that we were making some community impact, especially around youth violence prevention, by engaging young people in creative hands-on work. Within a year, we instituted a bike mechanics program, which still exists today. The program has since expanded into the rehab of industrial trikes and other creative features such as B-Smooth Delivery Service and a renewable energy industrial trike with a battery-powered electronic assist and a water purification system.

With the help of the University of Michigan Stamps School of Art and Design, we also added a screen-printing program to our venue and began to employ many more youths throughout the year. The University of Michigan helped us secure some significant grants from the Ford Motor Company Fund and the Knight Foundation for rehabbing a 3200 sq ft brick garage on the campus of Detroit Community Schools. Whereas we were initially known as the Entrepreneurship in Action program, we became known as the Brightmoor Maker Space program with the opening of our new building. We have since added a carpentry and furniture building program, and, during the pandemic, we began to make outdoor classrooms for different community organizations and study desks for homebound children.

School of the Future: Emergence

As Detroit grew into an industrial powerhouse for the auto industry, the Brightmoor neighborhood witnessed the construction of many low-cost single-story homes to accommodate the influx of workers coming from Appalachia. The housing initiative took place around 1923 and was very clearly a red-lined district where White people were welcome and Black people were excluded. After the 1967 rebellion, Brightmoor experienced, as did most of Detroit, a decades-long period of decline with homes abandoned and torn down and the cityscape left with thousands upon thousands of vacant lots while the tax base moved to the suburbs.

This trend gave way to high poverty rates, street crime, diminished resources for public education, lack of medical services, inadequate transportation, and food insecurity. This is the environment where we found ourselves when we began Detroit Community High School. But there is also another side to the story that has emerged over time, and that has to do with the profound capacity for resiliency in the midst of chaos. The neighbors realized that waiting around for the city or state to do something was useless, and they began to act through neighborhood block clubs and community organizations.

Additionally, the urban gardening movement reclaimed a significant number of abandoned lots and began to farm them. There is now a section of Brightmoor known as the Brightmoor Farmway, which is administered by Neighbors Building Brightmoor. Other local entities, the Brightmoor Education Action Team (BEAT) and Brightmoor Alliance, took up the task of polling a significant number of neighbors in Brightmoor, and they found trauma to be the number one issue affecting the community. To this day, the “Brightmoor Be Healed” community initiative is providing encouragement and support services to deal with the issues of trauma that have been exacerbated through pandemic lockdowns and the social isolation created by online learning.

It has taken thirteen years, but it is now safe to say that the Brightmoor Maker Space has created a ‘school within a school.’ While Detroit Community Schools has valiantly struggled to meet state mandates, the Brightmoor Maker Space has kept the vision and mission alive through hands-on and artistic work after school, on the weekends, and during the summers. Through working with hundreds of young people over the years, we have created a sanctuary space for healing and capacity building that is dedicated to social entrepreneurship, community transformation, and self-development. We have also been able to provide a secondary source of income for our young people, those who are students as well as those who have recently graduated. Lashay and Tanay, for example, graduated in 2014 but came back to work with us in the woodshop and assume a leadership role with our summer interns.

There are moments in the shop when the rhythmic cadence of mallet to chisel to wood is all you can hear, and, during those moments, one can sense the power of craftwork as a healing art. JY came to us deeply depressed and sidelined by a tragic house fire that claimed the lives of two of his siblings. Yet, over the course of six years, he has risen above the tragedy to become a master sign carver and a congenial colleague. Coming from a school system where fights are very common, it is a blessing to say that we have not experienced any acts of violence during these years. Once again, I must point to the power of the arts and crafts to inwardly heal and build a warmth-filled resiliency. However, I would be remiss not to mention those young people who have come to us that are already resilient beyond their years and serve as an example for their peers. Eric “Edub” Wright is one such young person who could walk past crumbling homes on his way to school and take time to perceive the community garden and breath peacefully, knowing that it was still there.

These young people have taught me that it is possible to lose your ‘title’ and lose your ‘money’ in an outer sense, but it is impossible to take away the vision because it is indestructible, eternal, and belongs to everyone! Their presence during crucial moments has renewed my faith and hope in young people and in our culture. They know what it is to be underserved, yet they are willing to learn how to become of the highest service to others. We have taken small groups to China, Kenya, and Japan, where the light has shined for all, but above all, we have witnessed our young people finding their way into the world, having the courage to pick up on their gifts and the initiative to move themselves and their community forward. I am always amazed when Nick Tobier brings his “Change by Design” class from the University of Michigan to work with our youth. When I look out over twenty-five Detroit Community youth working closely with twenty-five university students, I am moved to hear myself proclaiming: “This is the School of the Future!”

Nothing happens overnight, but we are certainly in the process of bringing the community into the school and the school into the community. Prior to the start of the Detroit Community Schools, Candyce Sweda and I had an opportunity to visit the Hibernia School in Germany and to meet up with Hans Dackweiler in a Camp Hill village on the Bodensee. His parting words to us were: “Are you ready for twenty years of trouble?” and our answer was a resounding “Yes”! After twenty-five years, I can say that we have what John Lewis has called “good trouble,” and we are looking for more!

I owe a deep sense of gratitude and thanks to our many supporters who comprise both individuals and foundations, including a very special thank you to the Malama Foundation, Detroit Community Schools, University of Michigan Stamps School of Art and Design, and the Brightmoor community, who have stood with us for many years.


Bart Eddy is the co-founder of Barnabas Youth Opportunities Center (1983), Detroit Community Schools (1997), and the Sunbridge International Collaborative (2012). As a former class teacher at the Detroit Waldorf School, he is dedicated to the educational archetypes of Rudolf Steiner and bringing the movement for social renewal into the community at large. He is happy to answer any questions via email: barteddy45@gmail.com. Up-to-date pictures of his work can be found on the Sunbridge International Collaborative’s Instagram page, @sunbridgecollaborative, whose intention is to strengthen our national and international networks.

[i] “Legislative Summary for 2010 Persistently Lowest Achieving (PLA) Schools.” michigan.gov, 2011. https://www.michigan.gov/documents/sro/SRO_2011_Legislative_Report_511132_7.pdf.