“If you could change something in the world, what would you change?”
This is the first question optiMize asks U-M students like Sohair Holman, whose nonprofit, the Safe and Sound Project, aims to change the lives of Detroit residents, one home at a time.
Though Holman is a biomolecular science major with plans to become a cardiothoracic surgeon, her project focuses on socioeconomic change rather than medicine.
Eager to find a way to improve inhumane living conditions for families living below the poverty line in Detroit, Holman applied for the optiMize social innovation challenge in her first semester as a Wolverine. The program allows students to experience their own self-directed projects for social change, social justice, and sustainability.
Finding that many families struggle to holistically fix housing issues because of financial constraints, challenges with grant parameters, and systemic housing inequity, Holman plans to take a more comprehensive approach.
The Safe and Sound Project will include health and safety improvements and inspections for drafts, mold, sewage, roofing, flooring, and more. This way, families won’t feel as if there’s one pressing project or bill after another.
But Holman sees this issue as much bigger than a home improvement project.
“Housing is not only just a place to lay your head . . . One of the things I wanted is for kids to feel comfortable inviting friends over to being at home — not wanting to be at school, someone else’s house, or on the streets. And that will make a difference in their education, in their home life, and the way in which they go about life after school or after they get out of that house,” she says.
First started in 2012, the student-led optiMize social innovation challenge has been an official U-M program within LSA since 2015. Students are encouraged to apply to optiMize whether they have a fully formed plan, an early idea, or simply want to be in an environment of entrepreneurship and social change.
“We are trying to cast the widest net, to get students to believe in themselves and their ideas, that they have value, that they can contribute and create positive change,” says Jeni Olney, the interim director for social innovation.
All students who apply participate in a 13-week social innovation program where they learn everything from value propositioning and stakeholder engagement to prototyping and budget planning before preparing to pitch their idea. The program also offers a wide network of mentors to help in nearly any industry or segment of project development.
“They help you through the process of making sure that you’re conducting a project that will actually go out to the world and help. They helped me believe in myself and believe that I could actually accomplish something as big as having my own nonprofit my first year, after having a small idea and then bringing it out to the world, which a lot of people don’t get to do at 19,” Holman says.
Holman earned $7,000 pitching her project and was accepted into optiMize’s eight-week funded fellowship where she will continue to attend workshops while working on her personal goals and objectives for the Safe and Sound Project.
For her, this means fundraising to begin work and helping her first Detroit families this summer.
Katherine Fiorillo is the editor of Michigan Alum.