Empowering Detroit women through graffiti jewelry

Rebel Nell employs disadvantaged women to design necklaces and earrings out of fallen graffiti

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Patricia Caldwell bent over her station, smoothing a chip off a Detroit wall.

Her power tool buzzed as she shaped the pendent for a new line coming from Rebel Nell, a company that employs disadvantaged women in Detroit to craft jewelry out of fallen graffiti.

Today, Caldwell can point to any necklace and tell you its origin: psychedelic patterns (the Alley Project); less vibrancy (the Dequindre Cut); white-washed with pastels (Flint Rock).

But four years ago, the Detroit native was laid off from a Highland Park factory, where she repaired car seat covers. She faced a custody battle for her two children and things got “a little bit rocky” living with her mother, so she sought refuge at the COTS homeless shelter.

In need of a job, Caldwell applied to the Empowerment Plan, which employs women from shelters to sew coats that turn into sleeping bags for the homeless. They turned her down.

“I was a little bit heartbroken, but the same day, someone — I still don’t know who it was — saw me in passing and noticed the jewelry I was wearing,” says Caldwell, who’d make jewelry for women in the shelter “to give them love.” “Someone told the social worker at COTS that I would be a good fit for a position at Rebel Nell.”

The 38-year-old started as a creative designer and was promoted to production manager. Instead of seat covers, she repairs and designs necklaces, bracelets and earrings.

“You can’t ask for a better job,” she says.

Her sister couldn’t agree more. Azzie Caldwell, 36, spent four years in prison. After being released, she worked long hours washing hotel laundry and lived in a halfway house.

“I was in a bad space,” she says.

However, her life turned around when Rebel Nell hired her last March. Besides a decent wage, the company, founded in 2013 by Detroit residents Amy Peterson and Diana Russell, provides housing resources, legal aid and financial literacy workshops.

For Azzie Caldwell, who’s paying off debt by working a second job at a truck assembly plant, the jewelry provides an escape.

“I actually put out better pieces when I’m going through stuff because I focus on a piece,” she says, “and it takes me away from what’s bothering me.”

The shape of the graffiti is up to each designer.

“My favorite part is the organic shapes that come out and to see their personalities reflected through each piece — I love that,” says Peterson, wearing graffiti earrings that match her blue-green eyes. “I can tell you who made what piece based on their personalities.”

Believing in a dream

Rebel Nell’s beginnings lie in a rare law school study break Peterson took to see “Hotel Rwanda.” After watching the film, she felt inspired to help survivors and contacted a friend who worked with the International Fund For Rwanda (IFFR). Peterson had a small jewelry company on the side. The next thing she knew, her friend asked her to make 100 awareness pins for celebrities to wear at the Academy Awards.

She grabbed a friend, skipped class and made pins the color of Rwanda’s green and blue flags for 24 hours.

“We overnighted them, and sure enough, I watched on my 2-by-1 foot TV Joan Rivers interviewing on the red carpet, and all these people — from Cher to Don Cheadle to Santana — were wearing the pin,” she says.

Peterson sold the pins for $20 and donated the profits to IFFR. But one thing bothered her.

“I never got to see what the impact was,” she says. “... (I thought) if I were to do something again, I’d want to be more a part of the change.”

It’s been a decade since the Jamestown, New York, native became a Detroit Tigers attorney and moved to the Motor City. Back then, she lived next door to COTS and often chatted with the residents while walking her dog. The women shared how they ended up in the shelter.

“There was a lot of abuse — whether physical, emotional or financial — I heard about,” Peterson says. “That was my ah-ha moment: ‘What if I could teach them to be financially stable and prevent them from going back into the shelter? ’ ”

To do that, they needed jobs.

She pulled in her friend, Diana Russell, who majored in fashion merchandising at Wayne State University. They decided to create jewelry that women could make and sell. The two explored “all sorts of crazy ideas,” Peterson says. Then one day, she went running on the Dequindre Cut and spotted graffiti that had fallen off a wall.

“I picked it up, and I thought, ‘That looks kinda neat on its surface,’ and then I saw that it was made up of all these layers,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘I wonder if I could do something with that?’ ”

She brought it home and started experimenting.

“I called Diana and was like, ‘You gotta get over here. I think I have an idea,’ ” she says.

Their first attempt — a triangle with metal clay — was “a disaster,” says Russell, 32. The second, graffiti glued on a Christmas ornament, wasn’t much better. Six months later, they had the first necklace and named the company Rebel Nell — a tribute to Eleanor Roosevelt (nicknamed “Little Nell”) who stood for women’s empowerment.

When Peterson told her idea to Delphia Simmons, COTS’ Passport to Self-Sufficiency director, Simmons knew it would work. For one, Peterson had talked to the women she wanted to help.

“You’d be surprised how often that doesn’t happen,” Simmons says.

Empathy ‘social sensibility’

Peterson also had empathy and a “social sensibility” that many companies striving to hire Detroiters lack, Simmons says.

“The cookie-cutter approach to hiring and working with people in poverty to stay employed doesn’t work, especially in a city like Detroit,” says Simmons, referencing Detroit’s 39.8 percent poverty rate.

Expecting people in poverty to behave like polished 9-5 workers isn’t realistic, Simmons says. For instance, they might be tardy if the bus is late, or they might need to take their child to work.

Patricia Caldwell, for one, says the option for mothers to leave their children in the adjoining room as they work in the Grand River studio is invaluable.

“You don’t have to worry about your children — where are they, who they’re with,” says Caldwell, whose teens often hang out there. “You know that your children are safe. It makes it easier to love your job and be dedicated.”

COTS also pairs Rebel Nell staff with a coach who sets goals. The model works, as a few women have graduated to jobs in home health care, case work and pursued their entrepreneurial dreams.

“If you take a woman who’s never been employed and has not been raised in a household where there’s regular stable employment,” Simmons says, “and you get them to a place where they can now hold a traditional job and be thinking about a career, that’s a big deal.”

The goal, Peterson says, is to help women reach a point where they can “breathe again.”

“Many times, they never even had the opportunity to think of what they want to do next,” she says. “So year 2-ish is when we focus on ‘What does your dream look like?’ ”

Rebecca Smith founded the Hamtramck-based Better Life Bags, which also hires local disadvantaged women. Smith says Peterson is her “biggest teammate in the social enterprise community.” Yet in the four years they’ve been “sister companies,” Smith says she’s surprised other local businesses haven’t popped up to hire women facing employment barriers.

“We have a long list of women waiting for jobs with our company,” says Smith, who employs 15 women to sew purses. “There are thousands of good women who get overlooked in the mainstream of society. But when adopted into a work family, invested in and given a chance, they really excel and become incredible workers.”

Expanding the family

Rebel Nell sells over 2,000 pieces a year at over 35 stores in 11 states. The majority of sales come from Michigan, though they saw a spike in online orders nationwide when Peterson appeared on Harry Connick Jr.’s TV show in early January.

Rachel Lutz, owner of The Peacock Room, carries one of the largest collections in Detroit. The pieces are “a conversation starter,” she says.

“Customers want to wear things with a story behind them, especially a Detroit story,” Lutz says.

Profits from the $75 rings, $65-$135 earrings and $60-$200 necklaces go back into the business to fund salaries, programs and materials. The graffiti itself is free, as the team ventures out a few times a year to collect it. They take donations, too.

Eventually, Peterson says she hopes to open a shop in the city. She also wants to increase her four to six hires to 15 or more. But, really, they’re more than hires.

“We’re such a close-knit family,” Patricia Caldwell says.

Though she dreams of opening a nonprofit — a safe place for Detroit children to go after school — she says she’ll stay involved with Rebel Nell. That goes for her sister, who wants to start her own business, too.

“This whole experience has taught me that I can overcome any obstacles,” Azzie Caldwell says. “... that I can do anything — it’s OK to jump out there and just hold onto faith.”

(313) 222-2156

Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg

Where to find Rebel Nell

City Bird

460 W. Canfield, Detroit

Dancing Eye Gallery

101 N. Center, Northville

Detroit Institute of Arts

5200 Woodward, Detroit

Our Greentopia

3165 12 Mile, Berkley

RSVP Plymouth

833 Penniman, Plymouth

The Peacock Room

15 E. Kirby, Detroit

University of Michigan

Museum of Art

525 S. State, Ann Arbor

For more information, visit