by Adam Diamond
For three weeks this summer, dozens of lucky people got a glimpse of the future. Detroit Summer, a project partially sponsored by the Greens, brought youth from Detroit and around the country to work on community development projects to rebuild and transform the city.
For the last twenty five years Detroit has experienced a slow economic decline as people and jobs abandoned the city. The destruction of cohesive communities has led to an increasingly desperate situation. In the absence of meaningful employment, many have turned to drug dealing to make ends meet. The principles of the market come to prevail over all else as everything, including life, become commodities. Kids grow up doubting whether they will actually make it to adulthood. They see their friends gunned down in the inner city war zone. Downtown is practically a ghost town at night because no one dares to venture out. Boarded up businesses, burnt out homes, and empty office buildings dot the whole city.
Coleman Young, the mayor of Detroit, has responded to this severe crisis by looking to huge corporations and big real estate developers for the city's salvation. In his first few years he made tremendous progress in changing the police force from what was essentially a white occupying army to one com.posed of police officers who live in and reflect the diversity of the city. He, however, has been unable to make much headway in creating a solid economic base for the city. The high-paying industrial jobs have vanished. Capitalizing on his past victories, he has been re-elected a record four times and is increasingly insensitive to the residents of the city he is supposed to be helping. His idea of community development is to entice multinational corporations with tax breaks - refusing to admit that the day when the Big Three car companies provided plenty of well paying jobs is over.
The spirit of Detroit Summer emerged out of the need for a new vision of how we should structure our economy, society, culture, and polity. The old large-scale industrial-based economies are neither desirable nor possible. Automation, foreign competition and the relocation of factories to Third World countries have slashed the number U.S. auto industry jobs, hitting Detroit especially hard.
Detroit Summer's projects were geared towards revitalizing communities through grassroots efforts - to create cooperative economic structures that build community rather than destroy it. People were invited to Detroit to inspire them to go out and do their part to further this vision. The importance of personal relationships in organizing for change was heavily emphasized.
The projects included an anti-gang organizing project, painting houses for low-income people, and building parks in vacant lots. The project I worked on surveyed people who fish along the Detroit River. The purpose was to find out how much they knew about the dangers of eating fish laden with PCBs and mercury. After the survey is completed, a health risk message will be put out to persuade people to protect their health and help them find alternative food sources. Instead of being passive observers of the political scene, the interviewees will have the opportunity to join forces with each other and take collective action around their common concerns about fish and the river.
Detroit Summer's small community improvements had an effect far beyond this summer because participants gained the know-how and inspiration to revitalize their own communities. Just being in the city of Detroit was an eye opening experience that made me more aware of the severe inequalities in the United States. Wealthy, predominantly white suburbs border a poor, black inner city in which 1/3 of the population is on public assistance; the two populations hardly ever interact with each other. Many of the participants were from suburban Detroit and they had hardly ever been into the city. People were able to see it for themselves and get beyond the negative image of Detroit portrayed in the media.
In addition to the work projects there were a variety of seminars, marches, and work.shops that emphasized past and present struggles to rebuild the city of Detroit along more humane and sustainable principles. We went on crack marches where 50-100 people march in a neighborhood to drive out the local drug dealers and show that they care about their community. Surprisingly, this has been a very successful technique and has lowered the overall crime rate in the neighborhoods where it has been done. As the government has been unwilling or unable to make the changes that are needed, people have no choice but to take more direct action.
After three intense weeks of thinking about what it means to create social change and experiencing all that Detroit has to offer, the last day of the program was spent in a How to Build an Ideal Community workshop. The purpose was to come up with a model of where we would like to be in forty years and how we can reach this vision. The experiences people had and the knowledge gained from their three weeks in Detroit made for a very creative and productive discussion in which no limits were placed on the imagination, a fitting conclusion to an exhilarating project.
by Greg Bryant
January 28, 2014
RAIN published this story about the first Detroit Summer, the youth-led grassroots revitalization movement nurtured by Grace Lee Boggs, Michelle Brown. It's part of a long story in Detroit, about people working to take back a city, colonized and then abandoned by governments and corporations.
We must always keep in mind community projects that worked. Although the group took a year to launch a charter school, they shaven't posted since their twentieth anniversary, Detroit Summer isn't really a retired project: the group launched a charter school in 2013. Still, everyone's looking forward to their return. All eyes are on Detroit as a Movement City.
The piece at left was the impression of a young, visiting Green participant in 1992.
"Restore the neighbor to the hood."
-- Grace Lee Boggs
"We are the leaders we've been looking for."
-- Grace Lee Boggs