Do you consider yourself a social entrepreneur?
Nora Feldhusen, “Super Mentor” and Director of the teen volunteer and mentorship program PeerCorps Detroit hesitates before answering the question. In fact, the designation takes her by surprise. “Oh gosh,” she says, “I guess you might call me a social entrepreneur. I’ve started things, I’ve been in charge of things. I have the skill set of a manager and a leader. It’s just that I haven’t fully grown into those shoes yet.”
Moderate as her answer seems, make no mistake, Nora has been carefully chosen. Highly regarded as an emerging Jewish leader in the Detroit community, Nora is an alumna of the University of Michigan with a degree in Organizational Studies and a concentration in Community Development. Before joining PeerCorps as its co-founding Coordinator, Nora honed her creative educational skills as a teaching assistant, after-school director and literacy educator. Today she is part of an elite cohort of international Joshua Venture Group (JVG) Fellows committed to innovative ideas that produce social change.
Meeting for coffee at Café 1923 (just slightly off the beaten path in Hamtramck where she lives), Nora takes time out from a busy morning to chat with myJewishDetroit about her career steps to PeerCorps Detroit and her present ventures with JVG.
Thinking beyond the “mitzvah” project, redefining volunteers
A grassroots initiative of Federation in partnership with Repair the World and area congregations, PeerCorps Detroit launched its teen service program in the city two years ago with the support of the Hermelin Davidson Fund for Congregation Excellence. At that time, Nora was recruited, along with Blair Nosan, to run with the program and to nurture its mission of inclusion, inviting Jewish teens and b’nai mitzvah students and their families of all denominations to build relationships with one another by engaging in community-based work in the city of Detroit.
“PeerCorps Detroit grew out of a community need to invest in young leaders, starting early with teens,” Nora explains. “Our program works as capacity to build bridges and lasting relationships between the suburban Jewish community and the city of Detroit while fostering a culture of curiosity, critical thinking and understanding through the lens of Judaism.”
Acknowledging the age-old tension that exists in Judaism to maintain the balance between tradition and innovation, Nora observes, “When we speak of tikkun olam – the traditional Jewish idea of repairing the world – the concept has largely come to mean tzedaka – charity or good deeds. What PeerCorps offers is something more profound, not just in the doing, but in the giving of something deeper. We strive for building relationships, understanding the community, becoming a part of it, then sharing it with family and school. That’s leadership.”
With its promising startup in 2013, PeerCorps Detroit gained further funding through the Joshua Venture Group, a New York-based nonprofit investing in Jewish entrepreneurs since 2000. “Our mission is to support social entrepreneurs who are working to transform the landscape of the Jewish community, and Jewish Detroit certainly had our attention,” stated JVG Executive Director Lisa Lepson at a recent retreat hosted in the city.“We visited Detroit last year with the goal to open up an opportunity for a Detroit Fellow in our 2014-2016 Dual Investment Program.”
“It’s funny how things happen sometimes,” says Nora. “I knew JVG was looking to invest in our community. I knew all the people, all colleagues and friends, talking about the selection of a Fellow. I myself was talking about it, but not for myself.”
As it turned out, PeerCorps Detroit and Nora’s credentials fit the criteria for the JVG Fellowship like a glove. As she observes, “They were looking for someone doing something innovative in the Jewish community, specifically within the city limits; we were a startup, still in the early stages of development with a budget well within the range of their grant allocations.”
“The way it works is that JVG fundraises locally for its Fellows to receive more than $100,000 in funding and skill-building support over two years. Specifically, the funding I now receive to grow the PeerCorps venture comes from the Mandell L. and Madeleine H. Berman Foundation and the William Davidson Foundation.”
Growing strong during the past academic year, PeerCorps recruited 14 high school teens (several of whom returned to the program for a second year) to mentor a total of 46 b’nai mitzvah students participating in mitzvah projects. Many of the mentees also returned to PeerCorps to participate in more than one cycle of the program. Projects included after school sports at the Clark Park Coalition; social action projects and a community garden at the Downtown Synagogue; cooking at Freedom House; building friendships with kids at Mount Elliott Makerspace; planting and harvesting crops at D-Town Farm and exploring the creativity of the James and Grace Lee Boggs School.
In his column for the Jewish News, Ben Falik, Executive Director of Repair the World Detroit, states, “PeerCorps is a wonderful thing . . . an innovative and intentional thing. It was my idea, and like most of my ideas, a half-baked one . . . until Nora Feldhusen and Blair Nosan fully baked the idea into a robust and respectful program. Today it is a wellspring for community partners who are excited to work with young, energetic volunteers, motivated to move beyond one-and-done service days into a yearlong relationship with teen leaders.”
Nora’s vision is even more ambitious. Originally from New York City, Nora has become a staunch Detroiter. Calling the city her home for the past three years — and Michigan for the past nine — she is passionate about community building. “I didn’t grow up in this region. I went to school and even started my own food business for a while in Ann Arbor, got around the city on a bicycle, never owned a car or went to the burbs before I started this job. But with PeerCorps, suddenly I realized how much is still needed to bridge suburban and urban Detroit, and to bring those two rich and diverse worlds together.”
“A collaboration” is the word Nora uses when asked what next steps she sees for PeerCorps Detroit. Given the brain trust of her cohort of like-minded JVG Fellows, and with the funding that now affords her professional coaching and another year to develop her own entrepreneurial and fundraising skills, there’s no doubt that Nora will “grow into those shoes” and find her way to new discoveries, new partnerships for PeerCorps and innovations in Jewish education.
“In PeerCorps we know we have created a transformative experience for teens and we have an incredible opportunity here to develop a replicable model for other cities,” Nora says. “As all educators realize, especially working with middle schoolers, conscious-raising education can be challenging. In the year ahead, I would like to learn more about adolescent development in order to begin to apply some science and psych into what I do.”
“Next summer I envision launching an even more intensive program with a larger group of teens – tapping into leadership programs like BBYO or the National Honors Society – to give students the opportunities and framework to build relationships in the city and to bring that spirit of collaboration back to their schools and families.”
How will Nora’s role evolve? It’s still early in the game for PeerCorps. “We’ve only begun to tap the myriad resources in our community and to learn the culture, tenor and attitudes of the organizations with which we’d like to work in the city.”
It’s work in progress and it’s still going to take lots of conversations . . . and lots of coffee.