It’s hard to imagine a more perfect metaphor for Detroit’s revival than jewelry brand Rebel Nell. The brand employs disadvantaged women from local shelters and teaches them to make beautiful necklaces, earrings, tie clips and other works of wearable art using pieces of graffiti — and all the while, they’re teaching the women financial literacy and empowering them for the future.
The idea for Rebel Nell was literally in founder Amy Peterson’s backyard. For many years, she lived in Detroit right next door to a women’s shelter.
“When I would walk my dog, I would have conversations with the residents of the shelter, primarily the women, and time and time again I was hearing these stories that were really tugging at my heartstrings,” she tells BUST.
“These were really incredible women who unfortunately fell into these situations, and a lot of what I was hearing wasn’t just about the physical or emotional abuse, but a lot of it had to do with the financial abuse that they had experienced and this was really my jumping off point. These were my neighbors, these were people I literally shared a yard with, and I just wanted to do something.”
Amy had a background in jewelry making, as did her business partner Diana Russell. The graffiti element to the jewelry came about in another perfectly Detroit way.
“I want running one day along the Dequindre Cut, it’s a greenway for bicycles and walkers, and it’s filled with graffiti and some beautiful, beautiful murals,” Amy said. “I saw some graffiti that had fallen on the ground, so I picked it up and was like, ‘Ah, I wonder if I can do something with this.’”
Many prototypes later, Rebel Nell was born. The name took a while to come up with, but Amy and Diana finally chose it as a tribute to a mutual hero of theirs, Eleanor Roosevelt, whose nickname was “Little Nell.” “She had a voice for the voiceless in a time when people weren’t even willing to entertain some of the topics she was talking about,” Amy says.
Then, it was time to get to work. “The secret to our sauce is really the relationship we have built with the shelter,” Amy says. The shelter recommends women who fit what Rebel Nell is looking for: “Someone who works great with others, is ready to change her situation in life and is willing to learn.” Then comes training, both in jewelry making and on how to manage personal finances.
Rebel Nell works with their employees on their financial literacy. Some of the women have never had a debit card, never deposited a check. A local bank sets them all up with their own accounts, and Rebel Nell pays them via direct deposit.
“Something so simple that we all take for granted is a little plastic debit card,” Amy says. “That is financial independence. Back with our first group of ladies back in the day, we had a debit card party. It’s just so symbolic of freedom.”
Eventually, some Rebel Nell employees move on – and that’s a good thing.
“We are programmed to be a transitional opportunity. Our goal is not to make all these women jewelry makers for the rest of their lives. It’s a system that enables them to come in and get their lives so they’re working again – get them financially able, get them housing, sort out whatever issues they may have, get them resources for life, wellness, business education,” Amy says. “We’re just the stabilization point, and from there they’re able to explore what their real dream is.”
Many of the women have similar goals for their dream jobs. “It’s interesting, all of them want to have some part of their aspirations helping others,” Amy says.
It makes sense — that’s exactly what they learned at Rebel Nell.
Photos courtesy Rebel Nell. Learn more at rebelnell.com.
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