This Saturday, hundreds of University students will travel 35 miles to Detroit to do good deeds. They will create community gardens and help build new homes. They’ll clean up streets and make neighborhoods. It’s all part of the Detroit Project, one of the campus’s strongest student organizations.
Each day we are bombarded with more bad news about the big city next door. Detroit suffers from some of the country’s highest unemployment rates and lowest graduation rates, and it is the most segregated city of its size anywhere in America. Detroit may only be a short way down I-94, but we all know it is a world away from Ann Arbor.
Some students participate in Detroit Day and do little else throughout the rest of the year. But for most members of the organization, Detroit Day is the culmination of a year of hard work. Its weekly projects include tutoring, mentoring and other services that simply would not exist otherwise. By all respects, the Detroit Project lives up to its promise to “address social issues, raise awareness and break stereotypes about Detroit.”
Still, we can do more.
Stamped boldly on the front page of the Detroit Free Press two weeks ago were the haunting words of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick: “No one is coming to save us.” The words are as haunting as they are true. Student organizations like the Detroit Project are engaged in vital work that needs to continue. But if we are serious about our commitment to Detroit and its residents, we need to find a way to organize the communities to allow residents to do for themselves.
Students who are dedicated to the values of service and the spirit of volunteerism should consider the power of community organizing to create lasting change. For inspiration, look no farther than to presidential candidate Barack Obama, who spent years as a community organizer on the southside of Chicago. Obama wrote in “Why Organize? Problems and Promise in the Inner City,” “This means bringing together churches, block clubs, parent groups and any other institutions in a given community to pay dues, hire organizers, conduct research, develop leadership, hold rallies and education campaigns, and begin drawing up plans on a whole range of issues – jobs, education, crime, etc. Once such a vehicle is formed, it holds the power to make politicians, agencies and corporations more responsive to community needs.”
There is a certain simplicity and beauty to service work. If people are hungry and we can feed them, we should do it. If neighborhood schools cannot produce literate youth but University students can, we should provide tutoring. But the limitations of service are just as real as the benefits. Service does not always demand that we ask anyone why people are hungry or why the schools in these neighborhoods are failing. And it does not necessarily demand that we challenge the very structures that help generate such inequality and injustice in the first place.
It was community organizing that was largely responsible for the Civil Rights Movement and for the anti-war marches and rallies of the Vietnam era. Rosa Parks was not simply a domestic worker with tired feet. Her refusal to give up her seat on the bus was a direct action by a woman who had been trained in acts of non-violent resistance by community organizations that existed long before the first bus boycott began and Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream.
Service work is important and must continue. But student groups should also be involved in identifying and developing leaders within Detroit’s communities. Organizing is, after all, not about issues but relationships. Organized communities do not have to trumpet the long list of resources they do not possess, hoping the media notices just how bereft they are and that someone takes action. Instead, they can rely on the resources they have.
The struggle to improve the lives of Detroit’s people can only succeed if it utilizes the city’s most valuable and untapped resource: its people. A successful community organizer in Texas, Ernesto Cort