Summer in the city

Jun 27, 2001 at 12:00 am

The word “intellectual" can carry a lot of negative baggage, conjuring up images of ivory-tower pretension and tweedy removal from the workaday struggles of common folk.

Forget about that.

When I tell you that the kids at Detroit Summer are intellectuals, it is in the context of everything that is good about the word. It is about being thoughtful, full of thoughts about everything from the local ramifications of global free-trade policies to the role hip hop can play in lighting the fire of social revolution to the way riding atop a truckload of cow dung can be a peak experience.

Think about it.

One decade ago, after Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs and a handful of others had been leading marches through the streets of Detroit’s poorest neighborhoods for years in an attempt to drive crack dealers out of business, they began growing weary, not of the struggle, but of the constant complaint that teenagers just didn’t care about their community anymore.

They didn’t believe it, and in typical fashion set out to prove the naysayers wrong. To prove their point, they drew inspiration from the civil rights movement. In 1964, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee called upon young people from across the country to come to Mississippi to participate in what was dubbed “Freedom Summer” and help win voting rights for African-Americans there.

In 1992 the call went out to young people around the world: Come to Detroit and help rebuild society from the ground up, one neighborhood at a time.

And come they did. They came to paint murals and plant community gardens and rehabilitate dilapidated homes.

When the group of young people, ages 14 to 25, gathered for the first time in 1992 for an opening ceremony at First Unitarian-Universalist Church on Cass Avenue, Jimmy Boggs told the 60 or so youth volunteers who signed on that there weren’t going to be any “easy-ass victories.”

Julia Pointer was there, and those words left an indelible impression.

Jimmy Boggs, who died a year later, said something else that day that profoundly affected Pointer, then a 15-year-old Detroit high-school student.

“He said that us being there proved that we cared, and that all those people who said young people didn’t care were wrong,” said Pointer. “And he said how proud he was of all us. That blew me away. I knew that what I chose to do was going to affect people. It was going to give them hope.”

And so she kept coming back to participate in Detroit Summer, year after year, the experiences indelibly shaping her.

“Detroit Summer,” she explained, “has made me who I am.” A decade later, when Pointer began teaching English to 11th- and 12th-graders at Detroit’s Central High School, she reached back to the words of Jimmy Boggs in an attempt to connect with her students, and to inspire them. But she didn’t tell them that she was proud of them, or that their mere presence in school was proving people wrong.

“I said, ‘All of you who are looking for cheap-ass victories … they’re not going to be had in my class.’”

Life of its own

Shea Howell has been there from the beginning. As one of the co-founders of Detroit Summer, she has helped guide the program for 10 years now, struggling along on a budget that has never exceeded $35,000 a year.

That first summer back in ’92 produced an outpouring of volunteers. About 60 young people showed up. There were former gang members from California who had been reformed into peace makers and a group of students from Dartmouth College rubbing shoulders with kids who had never seen much beyond life in Detroit’s inner city.

“It was,” recalls Howell, “quite an eclectic group.”

Looking back, the longtime activist sees that this area’s history of embracing progressive causes provided fertile ground for something as visionary as Detroit Summer to take root. From the labor movement of the 1930s and ’40s to the black power and civil rights struggles of the ’60s and ’70s, this city has long been a place that fostered social activism.

“When I first came here in 1973, Detroit was one of the most radical places in the country,” observes Howell. “You had the sense that this was a place where people were thinking and acting in profoundly different ways.”

By the early 1990s, however, “You had the feeling that there was an erosion of that progressive spirit,” says Howell.

Detroit Summer, in large part, was an attempt to rekindle that spirit.

Six months after being conceived in January 1992, the first Detroit Summer had been transformed into a reality.

“That first summer was like going up to the edge of a cliff and jumping off, having no idea whether you’d be able to make it to the other side,” says Howell. “But it worked.”

And has continued to work, though it has often been a struggle. “There’s been times when we’ve had less than $300 in the bank and our credit cards were all maxed out and we’d think, ‘Oh shit, how are we going to do this?’”

But someone would always come through.

“It is amazing what you can do,” she says, “with almost nothing but determination and courage.”

When people involved describe it, they frequently describe Detroit Summer as a “program-slash-movement.”

The reason, explains Grace Lee Boggs, is that programs can end, but movements take on a life of their own and keep on going.

And so it’s been with this movement. Each year there are some 30 to 60 young volunteers donating their time and energy to rebuilding neighborhoods.

This year is no different, with an impressive list of projects on the agenda. Volunteers will help rehabilitate a pair of homes, one of which will be used to provide transitional housing for unwed mothers. In conjunction with the housing rehab are plans to create a community “art park.” Volunteers will also create a mural for the Cass Corridor Food Co-op and labor in community gardens. A project involving the repair and “recycling” of bicycles for community use will be ongoing.

All that, however, is only part of the program.

Pop bottles and haikus

On the Thursday prior to Detroit Summer’s official kickoff ceremony on June 24, about 10 members of the group’s leadership team gathered at their Cass Corridor meeting place.

They sit in a circle around Paul Landry who is conducting a seminar on people with disabilities. Landry, an employment adviser for the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Metropolitan Detroit, offers insights about what it’s like dealing with both a serious affliction and society’s prevailing attitudes toward people with disabilities.

Such programs are an integral part of the Detroit Summer experience. Once the program is fully under way, there will be frequent “dialogs” such as this. Some will be restricted to those 25 and younger, while others, termed “intergenerational” will be open to all ages.

Topics will range from police brutality to the differences between urban and suburban youths.

During the seminar on disabilities, Landry opens the discussion to questions.

“How do you deal with people who alienate themselves from society out of fear of rejection?” asks a 15-year-old girl.

“Don’t force anything on them,” replies Landry. “Have respect for them. Listen to them.”

“How do we address the needs of a disabled individual without being offensive, without seeming like we are trying to coddle them?” asks another of the youth leaders.

“Ask yourself how do you want to be treated. Ask yourself how do you want to be respected,” says Landry.

Around the circle heads nod in understanding.

Afterward, they discuss plans for a scavenger hunt that will take place on the first official day of Detroit Summer. It’s an event intended to be both fun and purposeful, explains Andrea Jones.

For one thing, searching for pop bottles and strangers who will offer up an impromptu haiku is a good way to orient newcomers to an unfamiliar urban setting. And working in small groups helps promote teamwork.

At 20 years old, Jones is participating in her eighth Detroit Summer. “I started tagging along with my sister (Julia Pointer) and kind of was adopted by this family. I grew up with Detroit Summer. It’s like my church. It is what I came to believe in.”

Now a student at Oakland University majoring in communications, Jones radiates enthusiasm as she explains what Detroit Summer is all about.

“It’s a place where young people can find their voice, and find their confidence,” she says. “It is a place where you have a chance to be a part of something positive, a chance to fight for something meaningful. To fight for a cause.”

And what’s the cause?

“The cause is community. What we do isn’t just painting murals and planting gardens. What we do is help restore hope in people who have lost it somewhere along the way.”

A few days later, while conducting the opening ceremonies for the 2001 program, she tells the audience one more thing about Detroit Summer.

“It teaches you,” she explains, “to intellectualize your experiences.”

That is evident during the conversation about the scavenger hunt, which pinballs from Faygo pop to police brutality to cultural inclusivity to the Nike corporation and apparel sweatshops.

Afterward I ask Jones whether there is one peak Detroit Summer experience that stands out.

“I can tell you about a thousand different experiences,” she says.

Pressed to offer up one that holds particular significance, she pauses for a while, then flashes a radiant smile as she recalls a trip to retrieve a truckload of manure to use as garden fertilizer.

“There were about six of us, riding in the back on top of this big pile of manure,” she says. “We were sitting up there waving at people, looking at the expressions on their faces as we passed by, just having the time of our lives.”

We laugh at the telling, and decide that the story could serve as an apt metaphor for Detroit Summer itself.

Think about it.

For more information about Detroit Summer, phone 313-832-2904.

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]