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Luther Keith: Raising revival in Detroit neighborhoods

ARISE Detroit! works tirelessly to connect volunteer groups across the city of Detroit

On retiring, you expect a distinguished editor and columnist to take up residence in Harbor Springs or Mackinac Island, the better to think deep thoughts.

Not former Detroit News writer Luther Keith.

When he took an early retirement in 2005, Keith — who was inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame in 1995 — dove headlong into the subject that has always animated him: How to revive the beleaguered neighborhoods of this great city.

Keith launched a nonprofit called ARISE Detroit! on a shoestring budget in 2006, which connects people and organizations doing good volunteer work all across the city.

Speaking in the small, crowded offices he shares with his one employee, Keith defined ARISE Detroit! as a coalition of 400-plus activist groups.

“I call us a community mobilization organization,” he said. “We promote volunteering, activism and positive media images. Our whole goal is to get people excited about getting involved in something that improves life in city.”

The Detroit News' Michiganians of the Year

To that end, Keith, ever the journalist, places stories in local media spotlighting the good work groups do. He also publishes a free newsletter on who’s involved with what and who might need help. Many call it an essential lifeline.

“You discover all these great groups,” said Sandra Cobb, director of community involvement at Habitat for Humanity. Before signing up, she says, she hadn’t realized “the incredible number of organizations out there doing good community-revitalization work.”

Call it networking heaven for the nonprofit, urban-uplift sector.

Keith also organizes an annual ARISE summit and a Neighborhoods Day the first Saturday in August, when hundreds of organizations man tables and market themselves to thousands of potential volunteers.

To make it a success, Keith gets representatives together ahead of time, and even throws a dinner for them.

“You see people start talking — you do this? Hey, we do that. Maybe we could do something together,” Cobb said.

At the Kresge Foundation, which helps fund ARISE, Deputy Director Wendy Jackson called Keith “a real breath of fresh air in terms of how we think about our role in neighborhood revitalization in Detroit.”

And she’s perpetually dazzled, she added, by the 66-year-old’s “relentless energy.”

For his part, Keith says he’s just trying to build critical mass for positive change. “We’re just a link in that chain,” he said, “but you can’t sit on the sidelines.

Keith, who’s a regular at the Rev. Wendell Anthony’s Fellowship Chapel, recalls what his mother would always say:

“We know Jesus is coming, but He probably isn’t coming tonight. So we need to do something ourselves to make change happen.”

Michael H. Hodges

Luther Keith

Age: 66

Occupation: Founder, ARISE Detroit!

Education: Bachelor’s degree, University of Detroit

Family: Wife, Jacqueline; adult daughter, Erin

Why honored: For his commitment to bringing people together to improve Detroit’s neighborhoods.

Read about the other Michiganians of the Year