By Grace Lee Boggs

Michigan Citizen, April 12-18, 2009

Last week Rich Feldman and I had a fascinating conversation at the Boggs Center with 14 University of Michigan students who are participating in the university's "One Semester in Detroit" (SID) program.

Since the 1990s thousands of university students all over the country have been involved in "service learning" projects that take them into neighboring cities for a few hours each week or during Alternative Spring Break. However, SID goes beyond service learning because it has been created by young people who, like so many of their peers, have begun to think seriously about how to live the kind of lives after graduation that can make a difference at this critical juncture in the history not only of our country but of Planet Earth.

Recognizing that Detroit's deindustrialization and devastation, its vacant lots and abandoned factories provide the space and place to begin anew, these students have helped to design a program that makes it possible for them to live in the city for a semester, not only studying but interning 16 hours a week with various community organizations, and also meeting with historic UAW activists like Dave Moore, Quill Pettway and General Baker.

Their goal is to see Detroit through the eyes and hearts of those who live here AND those who have struggled and are struggling for change.

All the members of this semester's group are women, mostly coming from conservative backgrounds in western Michigan, with only one student, an African American, from Detroit and one, an Arab American, from Dearborn.

After they told us what they had been doing, e.g. teaching, working with MOCAD (Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit) or Alternatives for Girls, Rich and I shared our experiences as decades-long activists in Detroit.

Rich recalled his anti-Vietnam war activism as a UofM student in the 1970s. his many years of work and union activism at the Ford Truck plant, and his recognition in the 1980s that the time had come to create a New American Dream, based not on a higher standard of living but on a higher quality of life and a new concept of citizenship.

I told them that a turning point for me was recognizing that the breakdown of law and order in 1967 was not just a "riot" but a "rebellion" or righteous uprising. However, it was still not a "revolution" which involves a huge evolution in critical consciousness, creativity and social responsibility.

I also emphasized the importance of being willing to struggle over different solutions for critical problems. For example, in 1988 when we opposed Mayor Coleman Young's proposal for a Casino industry to provide the jobs no longer provided by the auto industry, he called us "naysayers" and demanded to know our alternative.

In response, we founded Detroit Summer as a multicultural intergenerational youth program/movement to rebuild, redefine and respirit Detroit from the ground up, beginning with planting community gardens and painting public murals.

They wanted to know how activists maintain their commitment. I explained that since reality is constantly changing, activists need to struggle against what the historian Barbara Tuchman calls "woodenheadness," which "assesses a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions, while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs."

It was clear from our discussion that living, studying, working in community organizations and meeting with activists since January has matured these students and inspired some to think of committing themselves to settling in Detroit and helping to make it a 21st century post-industrial city of hope.

This was especially reflected in the way that they discussed how to deal with the disapproval which they anticipated from their mostly conservative parents. As one young woman put it, "You may not be able to change the minds of people who disagree with you. But you can create space for them to change and also create something for them to change to."

That, I believe, is the core of organizing in this period. It is what the Zapatista are doing and what makes Detroit a City of Hope.

On Wednesday, April 22, from 2-4 p.m. the SID students will be sharing their experience in the Ann Arbor room of the University of Michigan Detroit Center, 3663 Woodward Ave. at MLK Boulevard.

Make Sure to Check out These Websites!

Boggs Center Website

Boggs Center Blog

Boggs Center Youtube Channel

The Michigan Citizen

Detroit: City of Hope has a new website!! DCOH has recently designed a new website and a new logo. In addition to these new efforts, there are several accompanying T-Shirts to help spread the word about this organization, and, more importantly, inform others about creating sustainable communities. The website can be accessed here.

FLYP, too, is a breath of hope. You can find it at

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