Rebel Nell

04.11.1411:43 AM ET

Two Women Repurpose Graffiti To Empower Women in Detroit

This ambitious duo creates jobs for women and invigorates the Motor City in the process.

In 2011, more than 19,000 homeless individuals were living in Detroit, according to the Homeless Action Network of Detroit. Of those, 40 percent were women and 85 percent were unemployed. Two women are taking advantage of the city’s own overlooked resources to help change that.

Amy Peterson lives next door to a Detroit homeless shelter. She spent time speaking with the residents, particularly the women, and learned their stories. Many shared similar, painful backgrounds: a history of abusive relationships, some work experience but no financial independence since their partner had controlled the money. In order to find safety, they had to leave their homes, leave everything behind and seek shelter. The women explained to her that, in doing so, they often had to give up their jobs and, due to the recession and lack of education, were unable to find new employment.  

“These are women that just need someone to believe in them,” said Amy. “And I wanted to be that someone.”

This wasn’t the first time that Amy had felt driven to help others. When she was a law student in Boston, she taught herself jewelry making, a skill she used to start a small business and help pay for her education. Deeply affected by seeing the film Hotel Rwanda she reached out to a friend who was involved both in the film and with the International Fund for Rwanda (IFFR) relief organization.  Short on funds but eager to help, she and her friend created an awareness pin for the IFFR to help raise money.

Working closely with a Rwandan art specialist to ensure cultural sensitivity, she produced the pin in four nights and had a quantity ready for the Academy Awards, where attendees proudly wore them. The sales of the pin raised more than $5,000 for the Rwandan relief effort. “I was very proud of this accomplishment and knew that my hard work made a difference in some way,” said Amy. “I have been yearning for that ever since. I only regret that I didn’t travel to Rwanda to see what kind of impact it did have. I wanted to see the change.”

In Detroit, eight years later, with the homeless shelter she had her chance. 

Recognizing that short-term housing for the homeless is a band-aid on the larger problem of unemployment, Amy and her business partner Diana Russell decided to find a way to employ some of the women so they could get on the road to financial independence. The partners knew they wanted to do this by creating some type of Detroit-centric jewelry, but weren't sure exactly what. One afternoon while running in an area surrounded by walls of graffiti, Amy noticed that some paint chips had fallen to the ground. The layers of paint caught her eye and she brought them home. She called Diana to her house and shortly the idea of graffiti jewelry—and the company “Rebel Nell”—was born. As the company describes it “the graffiti, just like Detroit, looks a little rough on the surface but is made up of beautiful layers just like the intricate layers of people, ideas and history that make up the city.”

Rebel Nell originally planned to hire one woman from the shelter and Amy and Diana worked with the staff and caseworkers to identity someone who would truly take advantage of the opportunity. Since the goal of the company is to help the women fully transition to a life of independence, Rebel Nell (in addition to providing on-the-job training) partners with other organizations to teach financial management, how to establish credit as well as business education and other life skills that will pave the way for personal success. They also offer interest-free micro loans to help the women repair their credit.

After interviewing eight women, they were drawn to three. All three women demonstrated a tremendous amount of drive and a desire to change their lives as well as individual strengths, like problem-solving, sense of humor, and creativity. Amy and Diana agreed that they would make it work and hired all three women, each of whom is still working at Rebel Nell. The company creates a virtuous cycle: the more revenue Rebel Nell generates, the more jobs it can create for disadvantaged women in Detroit.

Rebel Nell jewelry includes rings, necklaces, earrings, cufflinks and range in price from $65-165. Each piece is unique, both because of the individual graffiti paint, which is collected only after it has naturally fallen off of the walls, and because they are handmade.

The pendants are the company’s signature pieces and each woman has the creative freedom to design them from scratch, as a reflection of herself and her personality. Adding to the specific connection with Detroit, each piece of graffiti is identified by a silver tag that identifies where it was found.

 “We have seen the confidence of the women increase tremendously by allowing them to give their creative input into each piece,” said Amy. “There is nothing better than seeing their faces light up when someone purchases a piece that they made from start to finish. It provides them with a tremendous sense of accomplishment.”

As for the first few designs, made from the chips found during Amy’s run: “The first pieces of jewelry were really rough,” she said. “We have showed the women our first pieces and they all laughed. We keep them in the shop. They serve as great reminders of how far we have come in a year. "