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I must have learned about SiD from an email or on a flyer -- or both. As a junior transfer about to be in my last year at UM, and with limited time and energy apart from coursework and some community organizing, initially I didn’t intend to apply. Would I be able to do the program and complete a major? I don’t have much time as a student on this campus; shouldn’t I stay here, and invest in making friends and trying to make some kind of impact here? These were some of my initial concerns. But something about the idea of the program stuck with me.
I’m deeply passionate about social justice, history, community organizing, and learning about both why things are the way they are and what people can do to improve them. I also, though, before Semester in Detroit, knew very (very) little about the city. If you know about systemic, structural injustice in one US city, chances are you will know at least some of the problems faced in another, as many of these issues reproduce themselves nationwide (and sometimes internationally). I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, and was familiar with redlining, media and outsider stereotypes, fear-mongering narratives of violence, battles for rent control and against discrimination, segregation, displacement, and gentrification. I had some awareness that these issues also played out in Detroit. However, if you ask any historian, or any resident of a place, they’ll tell you that historical, geographic, and contextual specificity are incredibly important, and that these forces shape the events, characters, triumphs, and injustices that transpire in a place.
I remember ‘preparing’ for my SiD interview -- doing a bit of embarrassing googling while working on an assignment: ‘history of Detroit’, ‘auto industry Detroit’, ‘economic collapse in Detroit’, ‘inequality and redlining in Detroit’ -- add in abandoned homes and the Red Wings, and two or three concert outings, and that about summed up my prior knowledge of and experiences in the city. I was scared that this might be a strike against me. ‘I should do all this research. Who am I to sign up for this program with so few previous ties to the city? What makes me qualified or worthy?’ But luckily, the heads of SiD did not deny or judge me.
Instead, I was given the opportunity to have this incredibly wonderful and unique experience. I am very, very glad that I did this program. It is without a doubt one of my favorite parts of my UofM experience. From the brilliant SiD Faculty Director, Dr. Stephen Ward, I learned a lot more about Detroit’s history -- through dynamic in-class discussions, documentary viewings, conversations with longtime resident activists, and field trips that were a wonderful opportunity to enrich our experience and make our learning come to life. I had invaluable experiences from my internship with Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib -- another dream opportunity I didn’t ever expect I’d have, one that doing this program made possible. I learned to do casework at constituent services offices, helped staff coffee hour events in which I interacted with residents and heard about issues they face. From the incredible and fiercely compassionate SiD faculty member, Diana Seales, I learned more about indigenous practices, culture, and activists around the city. I found my writing skills pushed and further developed, my confidence strengthened, and a great deal of personal healing and an immensely enjoyable outlet for creative expression in Darcy Brandel’s Artist as Activist creative writing course.
Perhaps most importantly, I found deep, meaningful, and life-giving friendships through Semester in Detroit. As a transfer student, I had missed out on the opportunity to form close friendships through dorm housing, and I also knew that Greek life was not for me. Living together with a cohort of students through this program, and particularly students taking the same courses and going through many similar experiences and challenges, was a rare and special experience. The program seems to attract students and faculty who are deeply compassionate, with curious and inquisitive minds, and who share a hunger to fight against the world’s injustices. I am forever connected with, appreciative of, and motivated by these wonderful individuals, all of whom I can now call my friends.
One of my favorite memories of the program is our end-of-semester showcase, when we shared personal, vulnerable words in front of our faculty, internship supervisors, Detroit community members, and friends and family. We celebrated our enriched knowledge, our creative achievements, our internship work, our shared struggles, and our close connections; our closeness physically embodied as we sat shoulder to shoulder, cheering each other on as we stood up and took the mic one at a time -- knowing that we would be supported.
This is an important time -- an important time to deepen our understandings of the world and take action. And I believe that Detroit, in particular, is incredibly important to pay attention to, and to fight for in this historical moment. Many of the most pressing national issues --- racial segregation, government divestment, environmental racism, and gentrification -- are coming to a head in Detroit as corporate billionaires attempt to take the city’s land and the reigns of its culture and industry decisionmaking, to try and remake the city into their overpriced, luxury-condo playground. Meanwhile, longtime residents and community activists are fighting to reclaim their blocks, infusing formerly abandoned homes with art spaces, podcasting hubs, centers for literature and creative expression, urban gardens and food co-ops. They’re fighting for the re-election of the first Palestinian-American woman in Congress. They’re organizing coalitions and demanding that politicians stop the pollutants that are endangering their homes and the water they drink and the air their children breathe.
If you are interested in learning more about the world, and trying to change it, Semester in Detroit is a powerful opportunity to do so. Go out, learn, reflect, think critically, get involved. And be grateful for those who helped show you the way, and those who came before you.
Dane Langhans (they/them) is a Senior in Political Science and participated in the Fall 2019 Semester in Detroit program. If you're a prospective student and want to connect with Dane, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.