Merry Christmas from Detroit, y’all. It’s been a hell of a
year, hasn’t it? I hope this letter finds you healthy and joyful and warm.
As most of you know, I moved to Detroit in February from my
home of 25 years, Milwaukee. The decision was borne of a need to take the next
step of walking the talk, to become a student once again. and to leave in large
part my accumulations of comfort, resources, and status. I felt Detroit had
something to teach me, and I have not been wrong, although many of the lessons
have been friggin’ hard!
In February, I moved in as house manager for Capuchin Corps Volunteers Detroit. I lived
with 3 volunteers, ranging from early 20s to mid 50s in age, who were spending
a year working at local social service nonprofits. My job, in exchange for
housing, was to organize the house repairs and renovation. As I became
integrated into the house and community, the Cap Corps House on the east side
of Detroit, increasingly became a gathering place. We hosted drum circles,
neighborhood meetings, visiting poets and filmmakers, international
Couchsurfers, Allied Media Conference and Detroit 2013 attenders, and returning
citizens, with abundant food for all. To tell you the truth, it was a bit much
at times! But it revealed how much so many of us longed for beloved community,
a place of welcome, and meaningful friendship in “liberated territory.” And
showed us what was possible.
Several of us in the house knew we would be moving out in
August when our terms ended with Cap Corps. We all longed to continue living in
community and wondered what this might mean. Detroit has no shortage of
beautiful, well-built housing from the early 20thcentury. Sadly, too
many are empty and dilapidated. Grace intervened, and through a series of
events, 7 community members ended up moving into a turn of the century, 3-story
gem down the street from the Cap Corps House.
In August, we started up New Work Field Street Collective,
with the purpose of “meeting mutual needs by embracing neighborly
interdependence through self-sustaining industries.”
What does this all mean? When I moved to Detroit, I became
active at the Boggs Center, founded by
Grace Lee and Jimmy Boggs, and down the block from the Cap Corps House. I
joined the New Work committee, exploring the concepts of New Work/New Culture/New Economy.
In a post-industrial, post-capitalist and post-socialist, post-oil, post-JOBS
era, how do we survive and thrive? The jobs aren’t coming back, y’all, in case
you haven’t noticed. Our house, NWFSC, is the beginning of an answer to the
question. Here, we have several enterprises: New Work Leathercrafting, Homespun
Hustle (sewing, knitting, quilting…), Food2Gather (meals, food preservation,
carry-out), Healing House (yoga, Capoeira, meditation, massage), and more to
come. In the coming year we plan to engage in developing alternative energy for
our neighborhood and beyond.
What this means on the ground is that we’ve been struggling
to fix up an old house, and we’ve only had heat and hot water for a few weeks!
Still, no shower, and only 5 radiators installed so far in a 4000+ square foor
building. Nevertheless, we’ve made amazing progress (I will spare you the
gritty details!) and most days, we embrace this immense challenge.
Meanwhile, yoga, thank God, continues to sustain me on every
level. Simultaneous with all this, we opened Iyengar Yoga Detroit, a regional
center for comprehensive study. We began offering classes in September and we
are growing daily. This week, we begin construction on our rope wall! You are
most welcome to make a tax-deductible
contribution to our development.
What does all this outer activity mean for my inner life?
It’s been another year of recognizing privilege, and calling it out,
dismantling it, leveraging, or transforming it for communal good. It’s been a
year of working through complicated social dynamics as we create a multiracial,
multicultural, multigenerational household. In this past year, I’ve been in
more uncomfortable situations than in my last 10 years in Milwaukee. My learning
curve has been steep in my 50th year! And that is a good place to
be. At this growth edge, I hope to stay vital, relevant, and useful for decades
It seems my children (Meiko—27, Katja—25, Malachi—22) and I
are all asking the same questions: what does it mean to be human in the 21st
century? How do we live sustainably and harmoniously and joyfully? I am deeply
blessed to be sharing housing with Meiko! We relate to each other as adult
roommates, but also enjoy the mother/daughter bond. And our food! Mmmmm. She is
developing her food enterprise, giving massages and helping to run a healing
center, and apprenticing with me as an Iyengar Yoga teacher.
Katja is living in a treehouse in the rainforest on the Big
Island of Hawaii. She is growing vegetables, making jewelry, subbing at the
local Waldorf School, and taking care of a slew of cats and a dog. Malachi
graduated from Occidental College this year, and living in Los Angeles. His
radical social justice heart is leading him toward law school. Needless to say,
my children have as much, if not more, to teach me than I have to teach them.
They amaze me and I am deeply honored to know them.
May your coming year be full of the light of learning and
love. May you thrive in this era of major transition and develop your own “new
work.” May we remember, on this holy day, that Jesus came as a revolutionary,
to liberate us all from oppression. May we all create beloved community in the
coming year, wherever we are. Do not hesitate to contact me, firstname.lastname@example.org,
313 454 1401.
Since July when I last blogged, ten of us have come together
to create New Work Field Street Collective, in which we embody the principles
of New Work/New Culture/New Economy. We strive to produce as much as what we
need as possible under our own roof and eventually support ourselves and our communities through
self-sustaining cottage industries,
That’s the plan, right? What this means in actuality is that
in August, we moved into a huge, stunning turn-of-the-20th century
house without water, electricity, or heat, with peeling paint and crumbling
plaster. We have asbestos covered pipes, we have old lead paint, we have mold
in the basement. Everything that could have been stripped from the house had
been taken by plunderers during its vacancy: pipes, radiators, light fixtures and bulbs, wiring cut in
every room. Even the doorknobs were stolen.
Over the course of months, we finally have electricity,
running water, one working toilet, and a kitchen sink. Friends and friends of
friends have donated a refrigerator (never mind that the door doesn’t quite
seal), a stove (even though only one burner ignites, we can light 2 of the
remaining 3 with a match), and we have raised money for a boiler and radiators
to be installed soon.
In practically any other city, what I am doing would be considered
outrageous. Exposed asbestos, lead paint, carrying buckets of water from the
neighbor’s spigot, huddling by the space heater for warmth. But in Detroit, I
have tons of company. Practically everyone I know has lived like this, if
they’re not still. Some folks have chosen to live without central heat or
running water. Some have absolutely no choice. I get no pity here, it’s just
not that big a deal.
I have been in survival mode since August, and I have
limited energy for yoga practice, Korean language study, blogging, songwriting,
meditation, or any of my other self-sustaining practices. As long as I had to
make appointments for bowel movements, showers, and internet, depending on the
generosity of my neighbors, I couldn’t concentrate on anything else. I
understand just a bit more what the experience of the marginalized in our
society must be. At the same time I recognize that the way I am living is
similar to how humans have lived for millenia, and still how much of the world
No matter. I still have wild greens growing in the alley for
smoothies. We’ve discovered a slew of untended apple trees in our neighborhood,
and one glorious Bartlett pear tree. We wake to the smell of apple crisp, and
use the dehydrator as a heat source as it dries apple chips. We have several
musicians in the house and more in the neighborhood, a living room full of
musical instruments, and spontaneous drumming and jamming circles on any given
day. We have poets and emcees and visual artists and chefs. We have former gang
members and Black Panthers-cum-community organizers, connecting folks and
groups. We have gallons of home-brewed kombucha: since our main oven doesn’t
work, we use its pilot light for fermentation. We have beautful hand-craftedleather belts,soft reusable cloth menstrual pads, and our first Field Street Quilt. We have food for months, including dozens of quarts of jams, apple
sauce, tomatoes, and much more.
Last night was a breakthrough: I took my first hot bath in
my own house. Not because we have hot water and a tub! That would be so 20th
century. No, it happened because I scrounged up a round plastic basin I found
covered with basement grime, cleaned it up, and boiled up a kettle of water.
Thanks to my years of yoga and supple hip flexors, I was able to squeeze
myself, knees to chest, into the steaming water for the best bath ever in my
entire life. Upstairs, Crystal, recovering from a death-defying car accident,
lay in bed strumming ukulele. In the living room, Ty improvised on his
accordion. Listening to strains of Beirut, “Let it Be” and “Here Comes the
Sun,” as I scrubbed the callouses off my feet, it was once again, pure magic in
the New Work House.
"We are at a stage in human history that is as
monumental as changing from a hunter/gatherer society to an agricultural
society and from an agricultural society to an industrial society. Where we're
headed now will be different because we have exhausted planetary space and
human space for us to continue to look at things through the Cartesian
measurement of material things. We need to face the way we used the world for
our gains, pleasures, satisfactions. This is the way we evolve to a higher
stage of humanity. And unless we want to live in terror for the rest of our
lives, we need to change our view about acquiring things. We have the
opportunity to take a great leap forward in these very challenging times. We
need to change our institutions and ourselves. We need to seize opportunities.
We need to launch our imaginations beyond the thinking of the past. We need to
discern who we are and expand on our humanness and sacredness. That's how we
change the world, which happens because WE will be the change."
Grace Lee Boggs, 98, a long-time Detroit political and
labor activist, author, and philosopher
DETROIT: 6 WORD POSTCARDS
39 cent blueberries
spontaneous houseful sharing
monday morning email
urban sheer dark
cycling pothole patches
It was almost exactly a year ago when the idea of moving to
Detroit swept over me. After 25 years in Milwaukee, I began entertaining the
notion of a major life change. Feeling a need for a sabbatical, after years of
full time yoga teaching, mentoring, writing, and community organizing, Detroit
called to me as a place I could be more student than teacher, a place that had
much to teach me. The vision unfolded within minutes. Almost immediately I
began telling people, and the vision started to become reality. A friend lined
up rent-free housing for me as house manager in an intentional community, I
connected with Iyengar Yoga teachers and community organizers, and off I went,
back in February of this year.
“Why Detroit?” many asked, followed by, “In the suburbs,
right?” or “Downtown?” Actually I live in the heart of Detroit’s near east
side, an area of grand, early 20th century houses, formerly occupied
by executives and professionals, but now riddled with empty, crumbling houses
and lots. Detroit is about 85% African American, and my neighborhood is almost
I love my neighborhood, where folks wave hello even through
car windows, elders sit on front porches for hours watching the comings and
goings, and kids set up basketball hoops in the street. We had a block party
like I have never seen, complete with a DJ and a Soul Train line where grandmas
danced with grandbabies.
The mainstream media embedded in racism/white supremacy
would have us believe Detroit is dangerous, no place for a 50 year old Korean
American lady. In fact, for months my neighbors had no idea what to make of
me—that little Chinese lady, or man, or whatever, down the street. But as I got
to know more and more of my neighbors, and invited them to the yoga class at my
house, as well as potlucks, drum circles, and more, they started to open up.
The house has become a gathering place: for neighborhood teens, the
ex-offenders at the halfway house around the corner, block club meetings,
artists, and organizers.
But Detroit needn’t be romanticized. Like Harambee/Riverwest
where I lived in Milwaukee, I sometimes hear gunshots. My neighbor’s car was stolen.
We’ve had a few things go missing from our house. Shit happens, and wherever
desperation and disparities of privilege exist, so does potential for distrust,
resentment, and harm. In my neighborhood, multi-generational poverty exists
side by side with middle class Chrysler retirees, with a smattering of drug
So why am I here?
Like tens of thousands of Wisconsinites, I participated in
the demonstrations for union rights in 2011. Our numbers grew, but those in
power still managed to plow over us with their corporate agenda of
privatization. We tried to effect change through the state house and senate,
then through the courts, and finally staged a recall of Governor Walker, only
to see him re-elected, largely due to a media co-opted by big money and a
miseducated public manipulated into resignation.
At this point I began an email conversation with some
organizers in Detroit, wondering what they might have to advise about
resistance and social change in Wisconsin. A group of us started a study group
at People’s Books Cooperative on Grace Lee Boggs’ book, NEXT AMERICAN
REVOLUTION: SUSTAINABLE ACTIVISM FOR THE 21ST CENTURY.
We took to heart Grace’s recommendation of 90% pro-action,
and only 10% re-action. Instead of our habit of resistance, we started to
imagine a future of our own creation, not at the mercy of governments and
So what is happening in Detroit? On one hand, it’s as dire
as it’s ever been. Most recently the city declared bankruptcy. The people’s
vote was nullified when, against the wishes of the citizens, the governor began
appointing emergency managers in just about every majority Black city in
Michigan, including Detroit.
Gentrification and land grabs are not the answer, as houses
and lots get purchased by investors from New York City to Singapore, long-time
residents get displaced, and wealth is concentrated in fewer hands.
How do we respond? At the Boggs Center, down the street from
where I live, we have a project we call New Work/New Culture/New Economy. We
are building a post-capitalist, post-oil, post-industrial, post-jobs life and
culture. We strive not only to make a living, but to make a life, embracing
true sustainability with the earth and all its inhabitants.
Based on these principles, we are building a housing
cooperative on our street. The Island View Housing Co-op embraces neighborly
interdependence by meeting mutual needs through self-sustaining industries. We
plan to sustain ourselves through a variety of cottage industries ranging from
“Homespun Hustle”—sewing, knitting, quilting, and more, made from repurposed
materials; to a leathercraft studio where we will ultimately make our own shoes
from old tires; to a holistic healing center featuring yoga, massage, and
meditation. We plan to meet our basic needs through our own hands, using
capitalism’s cast-offs, and teaching everyone interested how to make their own.
Ultimately we hope to grow and preserve our own food, use renewable energy, and
use digital fabrication to manufacture things we need instead of purchasing
On paper, Detroit’s unemployment rate hovers around 20-25%,
but word on the street is that it’s more like 50%. If you walk down my block,
you will meet neighbors right and left who are home at any given hour, because
they have no job to report to. Detroit is a city of survivors. They’ve survived
25 generations of chattel slavery, capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy,
leaving Alabama and Mississippi for factory jobs, only to have those jobs, and
their houses, pulled out from under them,
Detroit often feels like it’s outside the USA, and more like
a non-industrialized country, which it is, after 50 years of deliberate
deindustrialization. People have a different sense of time and obligation. It
could take you 30 minutes to walk one block, because there are so many
neighbors to check up on and chat with. Detroit is a front porch city rather
than a back deck town.
The stars are brighter in Detroit because there are fewer
streetlights. People are friendlier because without a job they are indebted to,
they have more time on their hands. All this time and not much money means you
have time to cultivate relationships, and you become more resourceful and
creative. Instead of going shopping for something, you’re more likely to borrow
it. Instead of buying services, you ask folks for favors. Instead of
perpetuating the delusion of rugged independence, we see that we are clearly
dependent on each other.
Detroiters comment that when they visit other cities, they
feel like they’re in a bubble about to pop, but nobody else seems to notice or
mind. Thus we go around in our cars burning disappearing fossil fuels, go
grocery shopping for food packaged and shipped across nations, and go to jobs
that are part of a dying economic system.
“Every victory brings a new set of contradictions,” comments
Grace Lee Boggs. So the spanking new Detroit Whole Foods, while creating some
jobs and providing a source of healthy food, also displaces mom and pop shops,
hauls in overpackaged and overpriced food from thousands of miles away, and
reinforces a caste system that undermines food justice.
Dialectical thinking is part of the Detroit ethic. That is,
every negative brings a positive. Every truth is composed of contradictions.
Within in the contradiction lies the helical potential for growth and change.
Daily, we ask ourselves: “what contradictions are we willing to wrestle with?”
And what contradictions are we no longer able to uphold? Gopal Dayaneni, a
speaker at this year’s Allied Media Conference, an international gathering of
activists, organizers, and visionaries held annually in Detroit, commented
“Contradictions are inevitable; hypocrisy is unacceptable.” I propose that when
we recognize our own hypocrisy, living that contradiction becomes unacceptable,
and we find we must change.
Grace points out that we need to “grow our souls.” We need
to increase our capacity for change. As you can see I’m wearing my
revolution/evolution tshirt. The gist of this is that social change is based on
personal evolution. In the USA we cannot create a revolution by overthrowing
our government, which is far too large and entrenched in power, and held in
place by multinational corporations. Instead society changes because WE change.
I recently posed a question to Grace: “How do we overcome
our fear?” Fear of change, fear of survival, fear of interdependence, and
whatever fears are holding us back from commiting to this next stage of human
development. Grace answered, “Even greater than our fear of survival is fear of
our own meaninglessness.” More than we need food and shelter, we need purpose
and meaning in our lives.
Charles Eisenstein, who wrote what I consider a seminal
book, SACRED ECONOMICS, points out that we each came here with a magnificent
gift to share. Our task in our lifetime is to realize and manifest that
magnificent gift. Yet, our society has created a growing class of people
separated from their gifts, and told repeatedly that they are expendable.
Grace recently commented in light of the appalling Trayvon
Martin/George Zimmerman verdict, that African Americans, and especially young
Black men, have been seen as outsiders. Increasingly due to high unemployment,
defacto segregated schools, alienation from mainstream economics, and other
variations of apartheid, young Trayvon was perceived as a threatening outsider
who needed to be banished.
Grace went on to comment that as New Work proliferates,
those who have been excluded from mainstream society can create greater
meaning, interconnection, and security, by being able to meet their own and
their community’s needs. Instead of being dependent on a job which may never
materialize, or which they may acquire, but at the detriment of their souls,
those who have been outsiders can place themselves at the center by becoming
creators, and not consumers.
As Grace points out in the reading today, we need to admit
we’ve abused the earth and its peoples. “And unless we want to live in terror
for the rest of our lives [think of the fear that drove George Zimmerman], we
need to change our view about acquiring things.” The antidote to consumption is
creation. The antidote to violence is interconnection. The antidote to fear is
community. “Beloved community,” Grace says, “is the essence of the next
“The jobs aren’t coming back,” is a mantra in Detroit. We
are in the declining days of capitalism, when the primary source of revenue is
no longer manufacturing, but debt. Even if you’re secure now, it doesn’t mean
that your children and grandchildren will be. What does sustainability mean in
the post-oil, post-industrial, post-jobs 21st century? Do you want
to be toward the front end of the curve of revolution/evolution, or dragged
along on the tail-end?
For people of color and the poor, who have always felt like outsiders,
none of this is surprising or particularly upsetting. Just as the circumstances
of Trayvon Martin’s murder and Zimmerman’s verdict represented just one more
incident of centuries of white supremacy, many people of color and poor folks
may feel like the system never served us anyway. Good riddance to the false
securities sold to us. But for people who have benefited from capitalism for
generations, and who enjoy the comforts and perqs, this sermon may be hard to
As I grow my soul, I have been shedding middle class
privileges one by one. My car and bicycle are now shared among a group of
friends and roommates. I’ve slashed my grocery budget from about $150/month to
about $50/month. I may never buy organic food again, which is not to say I
won’t find some in a dumpster or grow it myself. I may never pay for a hotel
room again and instead surf on couches everywhere I go. I can’t remember the
last time I shopped for clothes, and instead wear funky hand-me-downs or sew
what I need from repurposed materials. Recently I made the promise to myself
that I will never purchase sweatshop underwear again. What’s the alternative?
Sew it myself from old tshirts!
The revolution is made by our own hands, from the cast-offs
of capitalism. We have time to create, because we have thrown off the shackles
of jobs to embrace our true human work.
No change is possible without inner evolution. I ask you to
consider with me what it would take for everyone in the community, which
includes the inner city, to have their basic needs of shelter, food, and safety
met, and to experience a sense of interconnection and purpose. Capitalism may
be based on vertical growth and stratification, but New Work requires
horizontal growth and democratization. Instead of charity, solidarity. Instead
of service, mutual interdependence.
Detroit writer and activist Adrienne Maree Brown says we
need “Joy powerful enough to provide authentic resistance in the face of
hopelessness.” Joy, inspired by lifelong learning, generated by friendship and
interdependence, and sustained by continual giving and receiving, is our
When we refuse to participate in structures that rely on
oppression and exploitation—systems of capitalism, patriarchy, and white
supremacy—we make ourselves vulnerable. We have to ask for help. We place
ourselves at the mercy of our communities and of strangers. But like the stars
shining brighter in Detroit because of streetlights the city refuses to turn
on, we can shine our own inner light by defying systems that oppress us, while
growing stronger through interdependence. After all, this is what makes our
struggle sacred. This is what it means to grow our souls.
Look within yourself to ask:
What holds you back from living your magnificent gift?
What contradictions are you no longer willing to uphold?
In what ways will you replace consumption with creation and
How will you generate joy powerful enough to resist despair?
I’ve asked my friends Jessica Vega Gonzalez and KT Rusch to
perform a song KT wrote. Let’s use this as a closing prayer and take a few
minutes to listen deeply and open our hearts to the reassurance of the chorus,
“Be still, and know that I am here.”
tonight, rage hurl righteous fury stand on your front porch under the detroit slivered moon yell the child's name at the top of your lungs TRAYVON TRAYVON TRAYVON until the neighbors wake up and the tears break through the rage
tomorrow, maybe you will pick yourself up build rebuild tucking brick harvesting kale mending frayed elbows and knees maybe remembering your freedom was never granted from above but always always from below
cry yourself to sleep cry yourself awake trayvon grows in power with each tear you shed burns brighter with each act of defiance as he pulls you to your feet stand up, people keep going jump to your feet and fight