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Vanguard CDC

2785 East Grand Blvd.
Detroit, Michigan 48211

Khalilah Gaston

By Amanda Lewan
January 31, 2014

Detroit's North End is home to a diverse community. Young and old Detroiters with a myriad of backgrounds fill the homes that line Woodward and streets like Oakland Avenue.
Khalilah Gaston is one of these Detroiters, a North End resident and a community organizer hoping to lead the change she sees in her neighborhood. Khalilah loves everything from shopping at their Oakland Avenue Farmers' Market to working on initiatives to help keep the neighborhood safe.
"When I talk about safety strategies for the park, those are strategies that are going to affect my daughter," says Khalilah. "I love that I live and work in the neighborhood. For me, personally, it makes it impactful."
The North End has experienced many changes in the twenty years that the Vanguard Community Development Coporation has been operating within it, but Khalilah joined to help steer the organization’s course. Vanguard’s vision is to create sustainable communities that empower the residents and business owners to get involved.
Khalilah’s interest in community development grew from the years she spent working as a realtor. She had never heard of the possibility of a career in urban planning and development. She studied Sports Management at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, finished her real estate licensing, and during many trips to Detroit she began to notice the city’s vast, unique neighborhoods.
When she later joined a five-year project focused on organizational and program evaluations, she began to engage and collaborate with Detroit’s neighborhood organizations and community groups. With her new community focus, she went back to graduate school, obtaining a Master’s in Urban Planning from the University of Michigan.
Her work since then has included developing and leading initiatives for the State of Michigan, the Downtown Detroit Partnership, and other organizations focused on economic and real estate development. She now leads Vanguard CDC in its twentieth year, a year she says will require revamping and restructuring.
"We were founded in 1994 and as the neighborhoods have changed, our work has to change," she says. "We took a lot of time this summer to evaluate all of our programming and launched Vanguard 2.0."
This re-launch now has the community organization focusing on childhood education, neighborhood improvement, and real estate development, and has also positioned Vanguard CDC to serve more as a convener for other neighborhood groups.
The group has also helped create over 200 new residential places in their neighborhood, and is working on the Restore North End project to help preserve and restore homes in their area. The program launches this spring.
Khalilah sees these changes as helping to better grow community development for the North End, a position she says is often overlooked in the city.
"The status of community development in the city is exciting and challenging," Khalilah says. "From my perspective a large part of community development should empower residents and build leaders in the community. It should be inclusive. It shouldn’t be based on race or income, but include all aspects of individuals and the community."
Moving to the North End, she says, was one of the best decisions her family has made. Though she describes her work as "a tough road to walk," she’s helping continue to grow a neighborhood she loves. 

All photos by Doug Coombe. 

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