Cass Tech students design bench for a unique way to connect

DETROIT, Mich. (WXYZ) – We want to shed light on three generations of women making their mark individually in Detroit.

First a deceased grandmother who became a motivational speaker, her daughter who founded an organization to help build self-esteem among African American girls, and finally a granddaughter who used art to help bring peace to society during the pandemic.

This is the late Patricia Harris Johnson, a beloved Detroit Public Schools counselor. Not only did she go to school for hair care founded by the first black female millionaire Madam CJ Walker, she also started a business and became a motivational speaker.

“I would get so many people who would come to me and tell me how much she affected their lives,” said daughter Sheri Crawley.

That legacy passed on to her daughter Sheri Crawley.

“It really made me wonder what people would tell my daughter about their mother,” Crawley said.

Sheri, the mother of two daughters who grew up in Detroit, found that they struggled with their identity in their suburban school. Then she got an idea after a birthday party in a doll shop and every little girl chose a white doll.

“I reached out for the only black doll that was an option at all, and she was a slave,” Crawley said.

It was 2010. That same year, Sheri says CNN’s Anderson Cooper re-enacted the 1942 test of skin tone bias. It struck a nerve in her, and so did the way her husband greeted her daughters.

“I could hear him waking them up in the morning with the confirmation, ‘Good morning my beautiful brown girl,'” Crawley said.

With that came the founding of “Pretty Brown Girl”, the mission to encourage girls to celebrate brown shades around the world. Twelve years later, it is now a national organization with an after-school program.

Now a third generation is embarking on its own mission. 15-year-old Aliya Crawley, a sophomore at Cass Tech, was recently one of 12 finalists in an art competition under COVID.

“The mission was to create something that connects people together in a time when physical togetherness is not possible,” said Aliya Crawley.

She wanted to help others struggling with isolation and loneliness during the pandemic. She sketched her idea on paper, then a digital sketch and finally this 3D model of what she calls the “reflection section.”

“A person can sit here and a person would sit here and they would be able to see their reflection in the mirror,” Aliya explained.

“There are two opposites benches where you can see yourself in a mirror and you can see not only yourself but the person sitting across from you. She wants to add music and meditation.

She was to give a presentation at the College of Creative Studies in front of judges and a packed room, and she won.

“She was shaking it,” said the proud mother Crawley.

“There was a leader from Rocket Mortgage who was also on the panel who came to us afterwards and said we have tons of open space in Detroit,” Crawley said.

“What did you say to people to sell them on your idea?” asked WXYZ’s Carolyn Clifford.

“I would say the reflection section is a multifaceted bench where you can connect with others in a safe way,” Aliya said.

Now she hopes the next step will be a company that believes in her idea and will help with materials financing, labor and distribution.

“I would love to see the reflection section in almost any open space, a park, a campus, a place where people can connect and find peace,” Aliya said.

A peace that comes from the strength that is instilled in her from both her grandmother and mother and now.

“What do you think of your legacy?” asked Clifford.

“I came from all these amazing women and it’s like a push to be a great woman myself,” Aliya said.

The next step for Aliya is to find a company that will help her with materials and labor costs to bring her reflection section to reality with a prototype of her bench.

Luckily, she got in touch with two designers at Donut Shop who helped make her idea a reality. Ian Klipa and Jake Saphier stepped forward and made their first Reflection Bench. A dream come true for Aliya.

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