You arrive. And that sweet, sweet relief also tastes of something else — victory. While the scenic views down below were nice, here you can look without a stray tree or ridgeline blocking your view. The vexed remarks you had snapped between yourselves and the profanities shouted out to the wind as your muscles protested the last mile turn into the butt of jokes and the reason for shared memories. And, after a swig of victory Jack coupled with a good lunch, you look back down the trail you scrambled up — knowing, now, that you can finish that latter half better than you did the first.
Summiting. That’s what this blog post is about. The moment of climax where you both relish in conquering the climb and have now the altitude, history, and stable footing from which to reflect on everything that had passed before. Four weeks in Detroit are now up. It has been tough. The novelty of the first week, where we spent sunny days weaving among the Art Deco towers and fitting five to a couch for the nightly film, churned into the routine of real life. My eyes, who were once graced with a nativity about the systemic hurt and reasons for blight, lost their virginity after continued conversations with locals who have fought years on end to bring the rumble of hope back to Motor City.
Frustration and cynicism poised themselves as the most sincere threats to my passion. Work at the Detroit Food Academy, something for which I had nothing but excitement on week one, grew increasingly difficult as I reached into thin air for skills I didn’t have to finish projects that were as new to me as the F150s we saw rolling out of the Rouge Plant. The disparity of distance between the trailhead and each project’s peak felt immense. In some rather pouty fashions, I debilitated myself from taking those baby steps whose very action might have spurred a better command of the new adventures. The palette of attempting, whose different hues and expressions might have assisted in painting the first draft for these projects (even if it would be far from perfect), was intimidating to pick up. Sometimes I think us Duke students have a hard time failing. Being incapable is not what we’re used to. So we avoid situations where our ignorance or foolishness is easily discerned. This is a trait I picked up on. And now, I’m trying to rid myself of it. One stumble at a time. But I’ll get to that after cynicism.
Critical Thought is sometimes accompanied by its cousin, Cynicism. But where critical thought leads to informed actions, cynicism mulls a topic cyclically around in your head until you’re too disheartened to act at all. Coming in to Detroit, I knew I was privileged to have friends and friends of friends who would chisel away at my outsider naiveties. Long-term residents, a weatherman, pastors, a local professor, even my boss — the list was diverse and their wisdom valuable. But it strained me. Rather than adjust my actions and my speech to be more effective, more sensitive, more aware, I simply avoided acting altogether. I was scared that I would only end up adding to the count of young, giddy, privileged white folk who, in the name of “service”, perpetuate the divides of race and class that are already too prevalent in Detroit. What I should have remembered is that, generally, grace abounds for those who seek earnestly and act consciously. Already, I was seeking to be a counterexample. I am no saint for doing so. Being humble and being informed are your basic duties as an outsider hoping to effect positive change. But I should have allowed myself to be encouraged, not discouraged, by these pruning conversations and the awareness they were cultivating within me.
So where am I now? Hiking up the mountain of Detroit has been hard. But I feel like I’m at that summit. I am at a place of better understanding, more appreciation, more excitement to make the latter half even more memorable, and better adjusted to the curves of the trail.
This past week was the big turnaround. After a cacophony of venting and reconsiderations and sleep and resolved personal issues, I jumped into Monday’s work agenda with the same ferocity as puberty making its way through an adolescent’s body. Everything changed, including attitude, posture, confidence, contentment, and the ability to take risks (and adjust accordingly). I’d like to make a shout-out to my favorite Spoken Word poet/rapper, Watsky, for showing me the light. As he spits — “This life’s our greatest project // The journey’s all an art // … Because I might just cry if I don’t keep it moving // I focus on what I can make and not what just got ruined”. Now, he has quite the existential tone (I liken him to a modern day Kierkegaard or Camus — both of whom I adore), but it’s that sort of shake and will to get up again that we all need — even if we’re behind a glowing screen designing the DFA’s next big label. The duct tape is on the blisters, and the hike has resumed.
One of the most recent conversations I've had was with Jim Perkinson, a longtime Detroit activist and professor at the Ecumenical Theological Seminary down the street in Midtown. He offered powerful words that shook my inaction into action — even if that action is bumbling along at first gear.
His first encouragement was this: The People of Color in Detroit should always be the reference point for Detroit’s comeback. As I wrote in some of my earlier blogs, there is quite the divide between the wealthy corridor of Downtown/Midtown and the rest of Detroit. The Motor City is, in fact, the largest African American minority majority in the United States, with nearly 83% of the city’s population being black. Median income for the city hovers just above $25,000 (half of the national median) and most of those at or below the poverty level are minorities. These numbers aren’t very well reflected when I walk through the well-kept, whiter sections of town. But it’s the reality of systemic racism and impoverishment that pains this city more than bankruptcy (though, to add insult to injury, bankruptcy put those suffering families in even worse predicaments). And it is this reality that Jim Perkinson is fighting to change by doing things such as protesting the water shut-offs and attending District meetings for policy change. The brevity of DukeEngage does make it hard to fight like Jim, but this added perspective deepens my capacity to work in a manner that might at least skirmish against these systemic ills.
His second encouragement focused on community: “True life is lived when done in meaningful community”. This statement was a bit more of a life philosophy. But I want to say I put his words into play. Good progress at work meant mental space freed from angst and frustration, and happy moods with which to join the rest of the Engage crew in some of the best fun we’ve had this summer. Tuesday took us into Mexican Town and a whole lot of revelry after chowing down yummy food. On Thursday, we had an authenticity activity where we shared the parts of own narratives that, layered behind lack of appropriate time and daily routine and coping cover-ups, we often don’t share with those around us. One by one, those who I considered good friends became like brothers and sisters. Tears shed, laughs chortled, and we moved on with a deeper love for everyone on this trip.
The cherry on top for this summit was the Fourth of July Weekend. Ben Heuser’s parents, both Duke alumni, invited us all over to the town of Manchester to enjoy the best of the Midwest. Their home is situated among the farmlands fifteen minutes west of Ann Arbor. Rolling hills of soy, corn, and wheat greeted us as we passed red barn after red barn until arriving at the house. Protruding out of their verdant lawn was a sign we all grew fond off — “Kville Midwest”. Yup. These were true Duke Alumni. Quick work was made of the three tents we had to set up, and off to the rest of the weekend we flew.
More fireworks were shot off in the little town of Manchester and around the adjacent Pleasant Lake than I had ever seen in my life. For one, California has strict rules about these flying balls of pyrotechnic glory — since anything and everything can burn in our drought-ridden chaparrals. But, more-importantly, every neighbor also took it upon him- or herself to one-up the next around the lake. From one house came the poppers, from the next came the mortars, and then there was the raft full of fireworks, and finally the last neighbor (who just happens to manage the pyrotechnics of at Detroit Tigers stadium) set off his volley. Quite the Fourth of July.
When we weren’t watching fireworks, we embraced our leisurely weekend in other ways. One of Ben’s relative’s has a small farm, so we met the ducks and goats and chickens and pigs who make the magic happen. His grandma was kind enough to let us use the kayaks and paddle boat to sail around the local lake. And, what can be better than the never-ending eats of a Midwestern family gathering. The sort of hospitality we were shown by the Heusers was impeccable. I hope to one day be as good of hosts as them.
So this week has been my summit. I’ve learned what it is like to climb this peak, and have readied myself to return down with new insight and appreciation. Detroit is an epic city. Four weeks are up, and four are left in front of me. There is still much to do and an incessant amount to see. And the way down is always faster. I can’t wait. My hiking boots are back on.