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In the final semester of my time at the University of Michigan, I had the pleasure of attending BLI’s Detroit Retreat. On our first day, we visited the Detroit Institute of the Arts. We not only received a detailed tour of the museum, but the BLI team has planned reflection activities for us. My favorite activity was facilitated by the director - Ram Mahalingam. He prompted us to think deeply about one piece of art that amused us, and one that challenged us. We then spent some time writing a poem about it. As someone who hasn’t practiced poetry in several years, this gave me the opportunity to reflect on not only my personal connection but also the experiences of the artist - their thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, and how uniquely clever they were given the historical context.
The next day, our group visited the Eastern Farmer’s Market in Detroit. We were encouraged to not only explore the market, but learn more about the stories of the vendors. I remember walking up to a man selling a variety of mustard flavors. I despised mustard, but he was handing out free samples, and I was hungry! I walked up to him and heard his story of selling at the Eastern Market for 10 years. We talked about how technology and COVID-19 negatively impacted the farmers' markets in Michigan, but how this year has seen a large increase in customers and vendors, both. I believe there’s a nostalgia for shopping back in person and eating organic farm-fresh food. I not only learned his story but also bought my first ever mustard at the market 3 weeks ago. Today, I can happily say that the bottle is completely empty.
On our final day, I had the honor of moderating a panel of food and land justice activists native to Detroit. This was one of the most impactful days not only in my time at Michigan but in my life. I was able to learn directly from the individuals impacted by organizations such as the Land Bank in Detroit and understand the social and political history of land inequity. Even though our volunteering opportunity with D-Town farms was canceled due to extreme weather, I was able to learn about the organization and their new co-op grocery store in Detroit. This will allow individuals from low socio-economic statuses to access healthy, organic foods at a low cost. I look forward to visiting D-Town farms with some of my BLI peers on our own over the summer, so we can learn more about their community gardens and food inclusivity.
As soon as I went back to my apartment in Ann Arbor, I started sharing my experience in Detroit with my friends. I shared pictures that I took on the streets of murals and the tote bag I purchased from Eastern Market. The next week, I convinced my roommates to come to the farmer’s market with me! Needless to say, Detroit Retreat was an enriching experience that I will never forget. I recommend it to every student that goes to the University of Michigan – BLI member or not!
Rashi Watwani is a senior majoring in Organizational Studies and a minor in Business. She has had previous experience in data analysis, research, and mentorship via various roles at the UCC, Newnan Advising, and UROP. Previously, Rashi has been involved in the BLI Capstone Experience and currently serves as the lead Peer Facilitator for ALA 175. Some of her passions include finance, podcasts, and trying out new foods!
During this weekend retreat, participants heard from community leaders from across the city who have made Detroit their home, learn how they contribute to their communities, and about their connection with peace leadership. The retreat featured leadership learning visits to iconic Detroit institutions, plus engaging speakers and activities to reflect on the experiences.
The Saturday panel was a student-led community conversation exploring the concepts of food and land justice within peace leadership while emphasizing its intersections between racial equity, housing justice, global instability, and food scarcity held at the UM Detroit Center and featured,
- Mykola Murskyj, the chair of the Ukrainian-American Crisis Response Committee of Michigan
- Rebecca Irby, Director of Programs & Services, New Detroit
- Donavan McKinney, National Political Director at Climate Power
- Tyson Gersh, Co-founder, and President of The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative
- Detra Iverson, Owner and operator of Love N Labor Farm and a member of the Detroit Food Policy Council.
One of my biggest takeaways is that I want to work locally. As an international studies major, I felt pressured to seek out international or national jobs, but I believe that I can have a greater impact on a local level. Therefore, I am seeking out post-grad jobs in my local community.
Leading is also about inspiring people, and in order to do that, you have to be open to different views, and most importantly, have a passion for the field you are leading. To implement them, I should strive to further expose myself to different views, so that I can inspire people as well.
I really enjoyed the social justice panel- it made me reconsider my career choices and the panelists gave a lot of insightful knowledge. My main takeaway is the importance of education, such as learning about local communities- I was surprised at what was/wasn’t accessible in Detroit. I will continue to try to be more involved in local politics and organizations.