Education and Evolution in Detroit - Greg Smith

Education and Evolution  in Detroit

Gregory Smith


           Superstorm Sandy’s impact on coastal communities next to the Atlantic has provided a national object lesson regarding the challenges all people, regardless of where they live, will be facing in coming decades.  Projected changes in the climate, the global economy, and the availability of natural resources will have a profound impact on human wellbeing and security.  Cities like Detroit have been experiencing the economic dislocation associated with some of these changes for many years.  And Detroit is not alone.  The depopulation and impoverishment of its once thriving neighborhoods is being replicated in places like Pittsburg and St. Louis to say nothing of rural communities throughout the entire country.  Much will depend on how human beings respond to this fundamental transformation of environmental and economic conditions.

           Relief efforts in Rockaway Beach, featured on a Democracy Now broadcast a week after Sandy, demonstrate two possible responses.  In one instance, FEMA was distributing bottled water and packaged meals to residents forced to wait for several hours in slow moving lines.  FEMA staff had also set up a generator that allowed people to recharge cell phones if they were willing to wait for another hour or two.  Although more helpful than the emergency agency’s efforts in post-Katrina New Orleans, residents complained bitterly to Mayor Bloomberg about the inadequacy of governmental aid.  In contrast, a few blocks away, a group of Rockaway citizens had created a drop-off center for food, clothing, and other items to share with people whose lives had been more disrupted than their own.  There were no lines but rather a steady stream of donors and recipients finding what they required to get through a difficult time.  This group had also devised a system for connecting volunteers with people who needed help cleaning up their homes.  Some of the group’s members had participated in the Occupy Movement a year ago.

Both the extent of the damage and the intractability of problems like rising oceans and stronger hurricanes associated with climate change place serious constraints on political and economic institutions ill-prepared to adapt to altered circumstances.  The same thing could be said about the challenge of adapting to economic globalization or diminished and thus more expensive resources.  Until political and corporate elites are willing to relinquish the perspectives that sustain their power and privilege, successful adaptations to these challenges seem much more likely to arise from the collective effort and creativity of people in the locales most directly affected by changing circumstances.  A central question for those concerned about making a transition to this transformed world in as peaceful and effective way as possible is how to prepare more people to step forward like the volunteer organizers in Rockaway Beach.

At heart, this is an educational concern.  The difficulty is that schools designed to perpetuate the economic and political institutions that arose in response to earlier conditions are unlikely to take on this task.  This then necessitates the design of new educational experiences.  Much can be learned from Detroit about what this process might look like.   When Grace and Jimmy Boggs started Detroit Summer in the 1990s, their aim was to involve young people in the creation of what Martin Luther King, Jr. called a beloved community.  They hoped that some of the spirit of the Freedom Summer movement from the 1960s could be ignited in teenagers no longer as certain as those early Civil Rights activists about the contribution they might make to improved living conditions for themselves, their loved ones, and their neighbors.   

As one of the early participants in Detroit Summer as well as one of the founders of the present-day Boggs Educational Center, Julia Putnam has noted that the goal of Detroit Summer was to “rebuild, revitalize, and respirit” the city.  She and other young people were invited to plant gardens, renovate houses, paint murals, and engage in conversations with their elders, conversations that sparked an awareness of their own intellectual potential and capacity to serve.  Twenty years later, Julia is still motivated by the inspiration and sense of empowerment she gained from becoming a person capable of affecting the conditions of her life.  The same can be said of Ilana Weaver, the hip-hop artist also known as Invincible, whose politically-themed songs and organizing efforts continue to reflect lessons she learned as a teenager while working to effect positive change in her city.

           Detroit Summer is an early manifestation of an educational approach that is coming to be called place- and community-based education.  Place- and community-based educators seek to diminish the boundary between what children are asked to learn in school or elsewhere and the rest of their lives by investigating their own communities and becoming the creators rather than only consumers of knowledge.  One of the most effective ways to achieve this end is to involve children and young people in projects that give them opportunities to give back to others in practical, artistic, and intellectual ways.  The aim of this approach is to confirm and deepen the connection young people naturally feel to others and the places where they live with the expectation that they will become citizens willing to participate in the care and protection of their home communities.  This is what Julia Putnam and Ilana Weaver do now.  Both of these women are demonstrating in their own city the kind of commitment and imagination seen in the post-Superstorm Sandy volunteers in Rockaway Beach.

           More formal educational institutions in Detroit have adopted this approach, as well.  The Catherine Ferguson Academy has for more than twenty years been introducing pregnant and mothering teens to the possibilities of urban agriculture.  Under the leadership of principal Asenath Andrews, young women are given access to healthy foods and the skills required to produce such resources, themselves.  In addition, they have the opportunity to learn how to market what they’ve grown and gain some of the skills needed to create small businesses.  The Nsoroma Institute also provides its students with the chance to encounter learning opportunities that both affirm their own and their family’s identities as African Americans and that engage them in efforts to improve and strengthen their neighborhoods.  Located in a section of Detroit hard hit with housing foreclosures and abandoned homes, students from the school have adopted a park no longer maintained by the city.  There they have created an extensive garden with raised vegetable beds.  Influenced by concerns about food justice, work in the garden is complemented by lessons about food security and the need to provide Detroit residents with more access to healthy produce.  In these schools children and young people are gaining a sense of their own ability to, as former Nsoroma principal Malik Yakini says, move beyond dependency and mimicry to self-reliance. 

           I am hopeful that the new Boggs Educational Center will provide more students with similar experiences capable of helping them become human beings motivated by a deep compassion for others coupled to a commitment to environmental stewardship.  Teachers at this new school will have an extensive collection of partners able to show children what translating these goals into practical action can look like.  From small businesses like the Avalon Bakery to the Hub Bicycle Shop, from the city’s extensive community gardens to its well-supported Eastern Market, from the Fighting for Justice Program to the Allied Media Project, students will be able to see what the creation of new institutions better able to serve human needs entails and begin to imagine themselves as the creators of such institutions.  From experiences like these will emerge the local leaders required to adapt to the new conditions and challenges of the 21st century.  Adapting to these conditions will demand courage, intelligence, and resilience—exactly the qualities that are so in evidence among people in Detroit who have already embarked on this journey.  May they and their new schools be models for us all.