I didn’t spend my spring break in the most tropical locale, or one unfamiliar to me: I spent my spring break in Detroit.
There’s a sort of transparent barrier that separates Detroit from the suburbs. Even though I’ve lived so close to the city my whole life (just a 30-minute drive away), I would only go to the city if I had an actual reason to do so — a concert, a sports game, a volunteer event. Despite Detroit being a mere 45-minute drive away from campus, it seems like it’s a completely different world: one that, for some, seems to be a ghost town rife with poverty, crime and hopelessness. Students have to make a concerted effort to go to the city, let alone engage with its issues. Such a cognitive and, in a way, physical distance from the city, breeds grave misconceptions about the city. These misconceptions make us, as University of Michigan students, feel like we need to drop in and help them.
My Spring Break trip to Detroit through University of Michigan Hillel’s Alternative Spring Break program was an immersive, service-oriented one. I, along with eight others, worked with several different organizations that deal with loads of different issues plaguing the city, from food justice to land and water rights. We worked especially closely with children in its broken school system, running in-school and after-school programming for elementary and middle school students.
At the end of the week, we recognized that we did not fix anything. And I believe that this realization made our trip much more meaningful than it would have been otherwise.
Yes, we did tremendous amounts of work over the course of the week. Yes, we learned a lot about the issues pressing a city so close but yet so far from our campus. But these issues run so deeply in Detroit’s history, and are so ingrained in its society, that we recognized the work we did during that week just barely scraped the surface, if it even did at all.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do service in Detroit. We just need to remember to do so mindfully.
At a university as prestigious and competitive as our own, service and volunteerism are often taken as a resume booster, something that can make a student look like an upstanding citizen to a future graduate school admissions officer or employer. Service turns into a sort of obligation as opposed to a genuine effort. It becomes a rote, mindless activity, a task to be completed in an hour and left at that, rather than one meant to challenge beliefs or seek what is actually important in the world.
Perhaps the reason this is the case is because we’re rarely ever forced to consider the implications of the service we do as students. There’s an unsaid assumption that sacrificing our free time to do community service can only do good, when in reality such is not the case.
There’s often a pretense to service that we are helping those who do not have the means to help themselves. To think the people of Detroit do not have the power to help themselves is a grave misconception. The people of Detroit started to make tangible change in ways that suit their communities well through countless different grassroots movements long before the city’s “revitalization” was covered by the media. And who knows their community better than those who live there?
One of the reasons I love Detroit is because I learn something new every time I go there. It gives me perspective on injustice that I could never ascertain from a classroom or a discussion on campus, because many students or faculty here have never had to deal with the types injustices Detroiters face on a daily basis.
During our trip, we constantly talked about what it meant for us to come to the city to do service for a week, and at some places, for no longer than a couple of hours. We listened to Detroiters from all walks of life — teachers, pastors, students, politicians who deal with the city’s issues on a daily basis — speak of their own experiences in the city. How are we to make any progress without building relationships with those directly affected by the issues we so much desire to fix?
We need to stop going into places looking for opportunities to make them better. We need to stop looking at cities like Detroit as places, but rather as communities full of people. We need to stop acting without listening first.
That means we need to stop looking at ourselves as saviors but instead as allies — allies who are ready to offer their unrelenting support for whatever cause we are passionate about. Once we support what the people truly want, maybe then we will see the injustices subside.
Together, and only together, will we be able to fix injustice.
Rebecca Tarnopol can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.