Rubin: New paths for United Way and its personal poet

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

These were the earnest young men and women from City Year Detroit, most of them fresh from college, serving 11-month tours to help school children in Detroit.


“By definition,” says CEO Herman Gray of United Way for Southeastern Michigan, “they are highly motivated, smart and involved.” So when he addressed last year’s group of 50 or so, it seemed like a good time to ask a basic question: “Who here knows what United Way is?”

Two people raised their hands — and one of them said, “That’s the airline.”

“Clearly,” Gray thought, “we have a lot of work to do.”

That’s where a stirring new video comes in, or more formally, a two-minute, 44-second “brand anthem.” It could be an important bridge for United Way, a reminder of how the century-old organization has changed, and a pathway to big things for the hip-hop performer, poet, teacher and spoken-word artist who’s both its writer and its star.

Or maybe not. Either way, it’s cool, as is Mahogany Jones.

Jones, 39, has built a solid reputation locally and as far away as Madagascar, where she traveled last year with the U.S. State Department’s American Music Abroad program. Between performing and her teaching gigs with assorted nonprofits, she’s consistently busy, which puts her ahead of most artists.

She’s still driving a ’96 Mercury Sable — or she was until the transmission imploded last week — but that’s show biz.

“Moments like this make everything worth it,” she says of the anthem called “On Our Way!” “I got to do something aligned with what’s important to me.”

Through four costume changes and a variety of settings, including Eastern Market, a Midtown community garden, Osborn High and a downriver construction site, she sets a tone and a cadence that are partly gentle rap and partly poetic passion.

“Let’s create environments we want to stay in, play in, grow in,” she says, strolling through a fruit stand and then emerging in a school corridor. “Let’s get in shape together; practice loving one another; learn to grow, to live United. Take my hand and I’ll take yours, so we can be ‘on our way.’ ”

The idea, says digital creative director Yann Caloghiris of the Imagination ad agency branch in Dearborn, was to overcome “the disconnect between what United Way does and how it’s perceived. What donors don’t realize is that it’s not just providing for people in need. It’s sort of the cement that glues all the communities in the tri-counties.”

United Way will use the full version for events and promotions. The agency is crafting a 90-second version for movie theaters, and a tighter trim might air as a television commercial.

“It’s hard to make people understand what we are and what we do,” says Gray, and hard to make them forget what United Way used to be — the guerrilla fundraiser that sometimes had new employees at a company filling out an almost mandatory donation form on the first day of work.

“That doesn’t go over in the modern workplace,” says Gray, a physician and a former executive vice president at the Detroit Medical Center. Also a thing of the past: the old community chest model where United Way simply raised money and passed it out.

“We’re much more strategic these days,” Gray says, with a budget of some $70 million and emphases on health and well being, education, and financial stability. “We’re not in the handout business. We’re in the business of giving people a fair shake.”

Jones, as it happens, has been a secondhand beneficiary.

The video could be a reminder of how United Way has changed, and a pathway to big things for the hip-hop performer, poet, and teacher Mahogany Jones.

Among the places she teaches is the InsideOut Literary Arts Project in Detroit, “and United Way funded us for years.”

In another harmonious convergence, InsideOut turned out to be where the advertising group found Jones.

The original notion was to use a young poet, a teenager and someone from the workforce, Caloghiris says. With only 31/2 days for shooting in late June, though, there wasn’t time to train and coach three people.

Realistically, there wasn’t time to train and coach even one. Fortunately, Jones was smooth from the start.

“We asked a lot of her,” Caloghiris says. “Walk. Pick up hard hats. Duck under cranes. You don’t realize how hard it is until you actually do it.”

Now, much as United Way has readjusted, Jones is thinking about strolling a new path.

A former New Yorker, born and still officially named Charyse Bailey, she came to Detroit in 2004 for “a man and music.”

The man is past tense, but music is very much in her present.

She’s tall, 5-foot-11, and deep-voiced, and she says it took time to adjust to both of those things. Her confidence grew on stage, expanded when she received a Kresge Artist Fellowship in 2016, and widened again as she hit her cues for the cameras.

Is 39 too old to become an actress? Maybe. But the anthem is all about effort and hope and trying to soar, just like United Way.

Or, come to think of it, United Airlines.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn