"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 all Black.
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 dealers.
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 institutions.
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 them.
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 American revolution.”
“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 swallow.
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 resistance.
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 interdependence?
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.”