09/12/2012 03:19 pm ET Updated Sep 13, 2012

This Hood Of Ours, Occupy Detroit's Older Cousin, Brings Optimistic Activism To Neighborhood Streets

Arguably Detroit's first Occupy group, the nonprofit This Hood of Ours has been setting up tents to draw attention to city problems since last summer, back when Occupy Wall Street was little more than a link on a few activists' websites.

While the Occupy Movement is known for protesting the power of big banks and transnational corporations, This Hood of Ours is much more neighborhood-focused.

For much of the last year, the organization has been involved in an extensive campaign to beautify and unify the Barton-McFarlane neighborhood on Detroit's west side. Barton-McFarlane, near the intersection of West Chicago and Appoline on Detroit's west side, like much of the city has faced struggles with unemployment, foreclosures, crime and illegal dumping.

Working with residents and local stakeholders, members of the group have cleaned up several neighborhood lots, boarded up vacant houses, planted a community garden, put up a basketball hoop and dug a community fire pit. They've also sponsored regular free public meals and held community film nights -- projecting movies onto the sides of abandoned buildings.

Jasahn Larsosa, one of the group's founders, said he believes these activities ultimately play a part in more far-reaching changes. "We stay active out here," he said. "The more traffic we have, the more people we're able to talk to about re-imagining the possibilities about the world we're in."

This Hood of Ours was founded three years ago by Larsosa with his brother Johanahn Larsosa and Amy J. Hollaway, a former YMCA executive. They now have offices in Ohio and Indiana, as well as Michigan. Prior to their neighborhood work in Barton-McFarlane, they also conducted a pilot program in Anderson, Ind., that concluded in 2010.

The group's mission is to strengthen communities, clean up neighborhoods, promote positive growth opportunities for youth, and empower local people and organizations. It consults with community members to identify neighborhood issues and works with them to develop solutions to these concerns.

To add some dramatic flair, Hood of Ours also started camping out in tents to highlight its presence. When Occupy Detroit started using the same tactic last fall, Larsosa participated in the local Occupy camp at Grand Circus Park.

Eventually the two groups forged a working relationship that has involved sharing resources, such as lawn and movie equipment, and supporting each other's efforts. This cooperation has included holding Occupy Detroit general assemblies in Barton-McFarlane and even hosting a base camp for visitors to the recent Midwest Occupy gathering there.

Like Occupy Detroit, This Hood of Ours also was involved in the foreclosure struggle. It has been working with a group called the Housing Is A Human Right Coalition to move people into foreclosed homes. So far it has occupied about five homes in Barton-McFarlane. Larsosa defends the effort as an act of common sense.

"We've given billions of dollars to banks ... and have helped them get out of trouble. They don't have the right to evict people," he said. "We'd rather stabilize the community by putting people in these [homes]. They're viable. Why do we have to wait out until they're burned out gutted and useless?"

But Joanne Robinson, who has lived in the neighborhood around 40 years, doesn't appreciate the group welcoming squatters into the neighborhood and is skeptical of the group's accomplishments.

"I don't see what they're doing to be beneficial at this point," she said, "because I've not seen them doing anything other than to clear some space, gather people around entertainment and not really deal with facilitating the occupants that exist on this particular block."

Theo Broughton works with This Hood of Ours, lives in the neighborhood and is a co-founder of Hood Research, a group that analyzes neighborhood issues in Detroit.

"I think that what he is doing is energizing the people in the neighborhood," she said of Larsosa. "When someone comes along who has a positive attitude, it serves to give people hope that things will get better, and it helps them to understand that they have to become a part of the process that makes things get better."

This Hood of Ours recently wrapped up its work in Barton-McFarlane and has since moved onto a new campaign on Detroit's east side. Kerry Sanders, the president of the Barton-McFarlane Neighborhood Association, said he isn't sure Hood of Ours achieved everything it hoped for, but said it made a significant impact in the community.

"When you combine the wisdom of some of the older people such as myself, with the enthusiasm, work ethic and energy of the young people in This Hood of Ours, it's a formidable force," he said. "We can do a lot of things when we work together."