Before arriving in Detroit, I remember reflecting on my last semester at Duke and feeling a bit disappointed in myself. I noticed that I had become a bit more complacent than normal; I was content relaxing in my dorm and finishing a season of Netflix instead of feeling motivated to go out and explore things I was normally passionate about. I had heard criticism about “voluntourism” and wanted to ensure that I did my best to involve myself in the community. I vowed to go out and explore Detroit whenever I could. I went to “Detroit Demo Day”, an event where local entrepreneurs and companies pitched to an audience to win their share of over one million dollars. Numerous social entrepreneurs, influencers and community members were in the audience; I knew that fully immersing myself in the event would help me understand Detroit in an authentic manner. Dan Gilbert (the founder of Quicken Loans) spoke at the event, and I was extremely intrigued by the ways in which audience members reacted to what he had to say. Gilbert made it a point to endorse funding for public schools in Detroit. Many audience members in my general vicinity lauded Gilbert, but many started began jeering at Gilbert. I was confused; did these people not support the public education system or was there more I was missing? Many of my colleagues at DFA were surrounding me and I felt comfortable asking them about the general dynamic in the room. They explained that a majority of people in the audience felt that Gilbert and Quicken Loans were contributing to the revitalization of Detroit, but others felt that they also contributed to gentrification (and thus rising rental costs for people of lower socioeconomic class), monopolized real estate and weren’t helping those who needed it the most. These sentiments echoed what has come to be a recurring theme in what I learn about Detroit; the city’s narrative changes depending on who you ask about it. I’m glad I took the time to pay attention at the event and ask those around me (many of whom had lived in the city their entire lives) about the various dynamics I observed in the auditorium. I can’t make any sort of definitive statement about Detroit and its future; I’m learning more and more about the city but not coming to any sort of “conclusion” about it. I think that’s part of the beauty of exploring a completely new place. I tend to generalize and compartmentalize what I observe and make blanket statements. One thing I’m certain about is that the culture of unity, selflessness and resilience here is unlike anything I’ve observed before. I’m not sure whether Detroit is in the process of revitalization or whether what’s taking place is unfair to certain demographics or necessary for the community as a whole. I’m confident that by taking the time to observe my surroundings and speak to those who have been here far longer than me, I’m understanding Detroit in a more authentic manner. To me, that means refraining from drawing conclusions about a place I am constantly learning more about.
An example of the culture of selflessness in Detroit.