photo of an art piece made up of an old boat stuffed with stuffed animals, the side of the boat reads: NOAH

“That’s a 20th century question”: Wrestling with transformative organizing in Detroit

Our trip to Detroit was brief and intense. Our first morning, we drove to a diner on the east side of the city. At our host’s recommendation we stayed off the highways and drove through residential communities on our way across the city. For two people coming out of DC – where the real estate market is booming and displacement has turned Chocolate City into the Latte City – the number of vacant and ivy-engulfed buildings of all sizes was astonishing. We later learned roughly 30% of the city’s land is vacant or abandoned – and that the city could be fully fed if just 20% of that land were farmed.

We got lunch at Rose’s Fine Foods, along a stretch of somewhat desolate freeway, which used to be a black diner and now has more of a hipster aesthetic, but pays its workers $15/hr. We sat at the counter, and struck up a conversation with a man sitting next to us. After a few minutes of small talk, Sam told him we’re community organizers, and asked if he was involved in local politics at all. The cook behind the counter looked over and chuckled.

It turned out we were talking to George Cushingberry, the president pro tempore of the Detroit City Council. He told us about his days fighting police brutality in the civil rights movement, and said one of his top priorities now is expanding literacy, without which people can’t move ahead in life. He was very friendly and charismatic, but we started to get a sense he had lost his radical edge. He said “there is no water crisis,” because people can just come to his office to get their problems solved (to which an organizer friend later rolled her eyes). Without much caveat, he talked about how “some gentrification” is needed in Detroit (of course some development would be helpful, but does it have to include displacement?). And one of his touted accomplishments was helping create the QLine, a streetcar that every local organizer we met there strongly criticized (as organizers and low-income folks universally do regarding DC’s streetcar, an inefficient and expensive transit tool that brought nothing but hyper-displacing development to H St NE).

A brief rant: Detroit’s 3.3-mile QLine was named after investor and QLine Board Vice Chairman Dan Gilbert’s bank, Quicken Loans. Gilbert (of Lebron James – Comic Sans letter fame) has acquired more than 95 properties near the QLine’s route, which is confined to an already developing neighborhood and does nothing to improve transit equity in the expansive city. Studies are inconclusive on whether a streetcar alone even boosts economic development, which is usually its poorly disguised raison d’etre. Additionally, Gilbert positioned Quicken Loans to be the automatic lender for homes residents acquire through Detroit’s Rehabbed and Ready program, in which the Detroit Land Bank is renovating and auctioning off homes in less economically prosperous neighborhoods. His fingerprints are everywhere in efforts to profit from middle-upper class Rust Belt economic development.

Our next stop was the Heidelberg Project, an abstract outdoor art installation created by Tyree Guyton. We chatted philosophically with the artist Tyree and his comrade Stick Man (an elderly man who makes canes) about how this art project is a living model of how community can redevelop and sustain itself from the inside out. (The photo of Noah’s Arc at the top is from the Heidelberg Project). They were particularly proud that the persistence of their art work on the block had helped push gang and drug activity elsewhere – despite a major arson attack on the art years back.

In the afternoon we chatted with our awesome host Rabbi Alana Alpert. Alana moved to Detroit to serve as both a rabbi and a community organizer with Congregation T’chiyah. It is an incredible (and rare) thing for a congregation to put their money where their mouth is and hire a rabbi to lead the congregation into community organizing.

As part of this charge Alana founded Detroit Jews for Justice – similar to NYC’s JFREJ, DC’s JUFJ, and Twin Cities’ JCA (and other great organizations we’re probably missing), DJJ organizes the Jewish community in Detroit to fight for justice alongside directly affected communities. We talked with Alana about the tension between being the organizer and rabbi for her congregation. We picked her brain about how the model that she, DJJ, and T’chiyah are pioneering is working. And asked her what it’s been like as an outsider moving to Detroit. Because of her experience with congregational organizing, Katie was particularly interested in the connection between a new organization, DJJ, that is geared toward organizing unconnected, “unchurched” millennial and a formal congregation. Later, we got to catch up with Eleanor, DJJ’s organizer, and learn about their current campaigns and wrestle with the big questions of organizing a white community in Detroit. Many locals are wary of white people coming to organize there unless they’re focusing on bringing other white folks into organizing.

We had dinner with Sam’s friend from high school and her husband – she’s a social worker who helps parents understand the mental health needs of their children, and he’s a public school teacher who’s active in his union – they’re both awesome people. They introduced us to Detroit’s square style pizza from Buddy’s (delicious) and gave us a tour of their city Hamtramck, which is two square miles surrounded by the city of Detroit. Hamtramck is a multi-ethnic community with a rich immigrant history, and about double the population density of Detroit. The city is now majority Muslim and it’s the first City Council in the country where the majority of elected officials are Muslim. In Hamtramck you can hear both church bells and the call to prayer.

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(The Kowalski sausage factory in Hamtramck. Their slogan is: Kowalski means Kowality.)

Our last morning in Detroit we met Richard Feldman, a longtime community organizer and historian who is now a leader with the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership. We met at the site of the former Packard Automotive Plant and he gave us a tour of the city and a lot to think about.

Opened in 1905, at it’s height the Packard Plant employed 18,000 people in a 35 acre factory. Workers came from all over to work in the plant – primarily the South and Europe – as Rich said, not because they wanted to but because they had to. Standing outside the factory it’s possible to see why labor organizers at the time thought the socialist revolution could happen through organizing thousands of workers at these huge factories. GM was based in Flint in the 1930’s; in the face of death threats, the UAW organized its momentous 1937 sit-down strike there – not over wages, but over dignity, nepotism and workplace power. At the time, a supervisor could tell a worker to bring your sister over this weekend, and wash my car, or you won’t have a job Monday. So workers in the region flexed their muscles in a big way – but the Packard plant closed in 1955, the same year that the Montgomery Bus Boycott started, Disney World opened, and the first mall in the Detroit area opened in the suburbs. To Rich, this confluence of events marks both a transition of Americans from producers to consumers and the awakening of a new human consciousness. Now the Packard plant is a massive, vacant symbol of the gutting of Detroit’s economy and worker power. It was recently bought by a foreign investor, who has shown minimal enthusiasm about redeveloping it in partnership with local community input.

Rich brought us to the Packard Plant to show us that a collective of workers can organize great power in direct relation to the system as it is, and still be left totally dispossessed. In his view people must organize transformatively to build a new world with new values, regardless of what formal power structures are doing.

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(A small fraction of the old Packard Automotive Plant.)

Rich then took us to the GM plant, which is ten times bigger than the massive Packard plant, at 350 acres. Importantly he said, the Packard plant was unfenced, which was symbolic of its integration with its workers’ communities, but the GM plant is fenced and far removed from the road. When the GM plant was built, it was done against furious opposition from thousands of mostly Polish residents who would then be displaced, and it was the first time eminent domain was used for private interests (such use has since been ruled unconstitutional by the Michigan Supreme Court). Despite being much bigger than the Packard plant, the GM plant employed just a quarter of the employees Packard did, due to automation – and that was when it opened in 1985. Now the GM plant employees just 1,800 people, one-tenth the number Packard was employing.

Rich is part of the school of visionary organizing lead by Grace Lee Boggs and her husband James. When he found out that Katie had worked for the Industrial Areas Foundation, the oldest national network of community organizations founded by Saul Alinsky, Rich asserted that Alinsky is today’s Lenin and that organizers today are stuck with his paradigm of organizing the way that organizers of the 60s and 70s were stuck with the paradigm of socialist revolution. We had a good conversation, but at times it was almost like talking with a Zen Buddhist Koan or a parable. When Katie asked how their work would be impacted if the city was gentrified and the price of land went up, making urban gardening and community schools harder to sustain, he responded that that was a twentieth century question. He wrestles with the question, “What time is it on the clock of the world, and therefore what do we do?” And he told us about a series of conversations the Boggs Center had had years ago, starting with the question: “What is the purpose of education?” Those conversations led them to create the Boggs School, where kids wear shirts saying “We are solutionaries” on the front, and “Critical thinking is good and we are critical thinkers” on the back. He’s particularly proud that a local woman who had been a teenager during the formation of the school is now running it.

Rich and the Boggs Center want to see organizers and communities engage in visionary work that centers personal transformation and embodies alternatives for society because we are facing a global climate crisis that will destroy our existing way of life, including major loss of jobs to automation. He said, “Trump gave us an incredible gift of unveiling the crisis,” and posited three questions: 1) What do we do about work in an age of unemployment due to automation? 2) How do we address the spiritual crisis in our country? (Grace Lee Boggs writes that organizing should spur cultural change toward the three spiritual failings identified by MLK: militarism, materialism and racism). 3) How do we make democracy about more than Democrats and Republicans? (Rich told us about “democracy circle” discussion groups the Boggs Center is starting in the Detroit suburbs.)

He challenged us to envision meaningful work that is “post-job,” and meaningful lives in which we don’t have to work 40-50 hours per week (as was the case pre-Industrial Revolution). Most importantly he said the work is to change people’s values and mindsets so that they can begin to see themselves in this new vision and create another world amid the fall of capitalism and global climate crisis. For example, he said when he was working in a factory, men around him appreciated the women’s movement because they were personally transformed by it; they hadn’t wanted to commit domestic abuse and now had a push to stop doing it. He also pointed out the incredible cultural integrity and spirit fostered by antebellum black communities so that after the Civil War they were able to launch into Black Reconstruction. (In case anyone is interested in further reading: When we were at the Boggs center we picked up a copy of Grace Lee Bogg’s last book Next Great American Revolution, as well as a book from that school of thought called Emergent Strategy, to continue to learn about this school of organizing.)

As two organizers who have been engaged with political and community organizing that hopes to create a little more justice every day by working within existing structures, it was a challenging meeting and provoked many thoughts for us both. It’s true that when we look honestly at the forms of organizing and institutions that are organizing today we’re not comforted by any visions or solutions for global climate change or the disappearance of good jobs and work in the US. But at the same time, we’re not ready to cede the ground of building power and engaging within extremely flawed systems that have never been intended to work for poor people, the working class, people of color, and many women. Here are a few questions we’ve wrestling with since then:

  • Is it possible to do organizing work that is visionary at the same time that you build power within established systems?
  • How can we incorporate into our work and lives a focus on spiritual renewal and healing from the brokenness of capitalism?
  • How can we incorporate into our work a perspective that can lead to values change at the same time as system change?

We’re still wrestling with these ideas as we continue our travels – and we’re not alone! One of our friends in St Louis does social work with very low income residents, and wants to figure out how to integrate mental health care with political movements. Another friend in Milwaukee wants to start a center where people can come for yoga, dance, martial arts and more, to heal themselves physically and spiritually while organizing for collective political power.

Speaking of spiritual care, we wrapped up our Detroit whirlwind with a tour of the Motown Museum. Fun fact: Every Friday, Berry Gordy would hold a Motown-wide meeting, including listening to one new album. At the end of the listen, he’d ask: If you had one dollar left, would you rather buy a hot dog or this record?

What’s the equivalent question for engaging people in transformative, powerful political movements?

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