I settled on Detroit with the hope that a 9-5 internship would help me gain some valuable work experience, since most international programs are less structured. Surprisingly, my challenges, triumphs, and lessons had less to do with the experience of being an intern and more to do with the process of trying to understand a city with a history and set of challenges wildly different than anything I have ever seen. Here are some of the main things I took away from that process:
Brand matters: In a place like Detroit, the “brand” of the city can be so important to its residents that they link the core of their identity to it. To be born and raised in Detroit comes with its challenges, but also carries significance that endows these people with a tremendous amount of pride. Despite attempts of outsiders/corporations to exploit this brand, it will always be clear who the true Detroiters are.
Place matters: Detroit at the present time has a lot of concrete, a lot of blight, and not much green space. Fortunately, there are lots of people doing great work to increase and improve green spaces in the city. This summer I saw how the environment that people are surrounded by drastically affects their mood and quality of life. In this sense, environmental justice, urban planning, and design all come together to bring home that point that EVERYONE deserves access to great public space.
People matter: For decades, historians, newscasters, and common citizens have analyzed the decline of Detroit, and all too often they place the blame on the city’s black population or system of government. I won’t try answer the question of Detroit’s decline, but I will say that through all I’ve read and experienced the main cause of Detroit’s decline is that it lost touch with the most fundamental and important component of the city: the ability to use proximity to connect people and their ideas and talents. When all the jobs were concentrated in a few companies hiring mostly unskilled workers, how could it go any other way? The glory days of American manufacturing are not coming back, but I think that this should be celebrated, not bemoaned. Detroit has a tremendous opportunity to reinvent itself as a city for people forming connections through their ideas and talent, where the production line of the 20th century gives way to the (largely tech-based) innovation of the 21st. I might be biased as a computer science major, and I recognize that it is much easier for a Duke student to make these sort of statements than the average American. Still, this truth remains: cities are not grounded in buildings, roads, stadiums or companies, but in people and their ideas, talents, and connections.
To add a final thought about my Duke Engage experience, I feel lucky to have had this opportunity to enter a situation that I probably would have never found myself in otherwise. Engage is not without its flaws, but it creates some special opportunities for growth, and it’s impossible to know what you’ll get out of it until you’re on the other side. To anyone reading this and considering Engage in the future, I encourage you to take advantage of the fact that you’ll be getting a stipend to travel somewhere new, have fun, and learn some really valuable lessons. Just remember that once your plane touches down in Thailand, Uganda or Detroit, the rest is up to you.
Thanks to Matt Nash and Katherine Black, the other seven members of our group, and the people of Detroit and the CEDC. In the patchwork of classes, relationships, jobs, and activities that have made up my Duke experience so far, this summer in Detroit was a very important piece.