To me, those questions are the lead-in to my definition of a successful DukeEngage spent in Detroit. “Civic Engagement”, “service”, and all the other lofty, humanitarian goals so well pronounced as a part of DukeEngage are what we hoped we signed up for. But I question how much good our individual internships are actually providing in the name of service to Detroit.
We’ve come up on three weeks in the city. I’m proud to be a part of an organization whose purpose is to create “strong, connected, and powerful” young leaders in Detroit who glean skills enough to take them further in the world of entrepreneurship. The Detroit Food Academy runs a yearlong after-school program at 10 different schools, with eight of them at 9-12th Grade institutions and the two of them being at elementary schools. Over the summer, the DFA hosts about 30 “interns” chosen from its after-school programs to become “food entrepreneurs” who create innovative value-added food products to be sold at the local farmers’ markets in town. Via their “re-purposed profit system”, the proceeds from these products go into funding the DFA’s programs and interns. Of course, the significance of these sales is nominal. Most of the DFA’s funding comes from multi-thousand dollar grants and private donations. But the slow movement toward financial self-sustainability definitely helps sell the DFA’s mission to patrons eating their yummy “Mitten Bites”.
Seeing kids like Hassan or Brandy working the farmers’ market stalls for a not-too-shabby $12.50 an hour is encouraging. The DFA offers its students skills and, for a lucky few, employment. But I also wonder about the DFA’s choice of partner schools. Most of them are either charter schools, college preparatory “academies”, or even backed by the local catholic organizations. That means they are largely serving schools that already have significantly more support and success than the baseline public schools in the area. The Detroit Public Schools (DPS) has been fraught with multiple openings, closings, and consolidations due to budget cuts and a decrease in student residents. Students being shuffled to new neighborhoods, and new schools are in need of the most help. And it would be my hope in the future to see DFA’s activism located at the schools whose students are the most in need.
Though I do love the work of DFA, I’ve been pretty disappointed in my role placement largely because I feel that I can’t adequately serve them in the capacity they’d like. Sitting 8 hours a day in a cubby working on new graphic designs to help sell their products and extend their market reach, for one, hasn’t permitted me to see the cool work with the kids they’ve been doing. While, long-term, my contributions could be seen as providing even more income for the DFA’s programming (ie. market reach and cool designs = people buy more stuff), actually “contributing” to the DFA’s chest of usable designs is difficult. Lack of programs like Photoshop/Illustrator, then the fact that I‘ve never dabbled with them before has proved to be a significant disadvantage in being able to truly contribute to their needs. Though one could look to this as a “learning opportunity” to learn a new skill, becoming proficient enough in something like Illustrator to create what they need is not likely to happen anytime soon. Not expecting that this would be a part (or the entirety) of my role is frustrating, mostly because I wish I could serve them better. But hopefully the next few weeks will diversify in the types of projects I am set out to complete!
So is the DFA really serving Detroit? I guess you could say yes. Are the things that it could do better? Definitely, but so could every other non-profit and business in the city. Detroit has been dealt a difficult hand. The wealth of persons and organizations hoping to bring it back on its feet is encouraging. I just hope that the help moves out from the Downtown/Midtown strip to the neighborhoods that are still reeling from bankruptcy, lack of healthy food access, blighted lots, and poverty.