Work, reimagined: Detroit gets creative
How residents of Detroit, America’s most famously down and out city, are building livelihoods that also rebuild their communities.
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“Today we need to combine learning with work, political struggle, community service, and even play.” Those words, painted across the center of a mural on the back of an empty building in Detroit’s Cass Corridor, come from the school’s namesake, 96-year-old philosopher, writer, and activist Grace Lee Boggs.Skip to next paragraph
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Two years ago (in the pages of YES! Magazine), Julia Putnam, who will be the Boggs Educational Center’s first principal, wrote of the new school: “We will provide a response to Grace’s observation that ‘the reason why so many young people drop out from inner-city schools is because they are voting with their feet against an educational system that sorts, tracks, tests, and rejects or certifies them like products of a factory. They are crying out for another kind of education that gives them opportunities to exercise their creative energies because it values them as whole human beings.’”
Julia and her partners want to convey to their students that they don't have to wait until they’re older to contribute to society.
“You can do it right now, at six, at eight, at 10, at 12, whatever. I think kids are way more impressive and way more cool, and way more fun to be around, when they feel of use,” she told me.
The big difference between most other schools and the Boggs Educational paradigm is that theirs is not a standards-based education model. Their objective isn’t necessarily to prepare students for the global workforce. It’s much deeper, and likely more practical.
“I wouldn't say that I'm not worried about jobs in that I don't think people need them, and need to make a living. I certainly want every student that we have in our school to be a success. But for some students that means starting a plumbing business. It doesn't mean being a lawyer or doctor or engineer. It means doing something very specific, very local,” Julia said.
Speaking at a recent panel, Boggs asked her audience, “What image do you have in your mind about Detroit? Do you see only empty lots and abandoned buildings, and trash all over the place? Or do you see the empty lots as we who live there see them – as opportunities? To grow food for the community, to become more self-reliant, to begin anew, to bring the neighbor back into the ‘hood?”
And therein lies the possible future for Detroit, a place where people are undergoing, slowly but deliberately, a revolution of values: reimagining the meanings of work, of wealth, of community. It’s cultural evolution – or, as Boggs titles it in her most recent book, the next American revolution.
• Zak Rosen wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Zak is an independent public radio producer. This story was based on his recent documentary, Work in Progress. You can listen to it here.
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IN PICTURES: Detroit retooled