Grassroots Community Organizing in Detroit for Changing Times

Taught by U-M Lecturer, Diana Seales with assistance from Craig Regester, U-M Lecturer

How do you teach undergraduate students about community organizing in Detroit effectively without leaving your home? Not very easily, of course; but, if you ask the 15 students who participated in Diana Seales’s class this past spring over Zoom, most would say it absolutely is possible! Every Wednesday morning for the past seven weeks, the class gathered over the Zoom platform to develop tools for their own personal organizer’s “toolbox”. Students were introduced to readings and texts including Bergmann and Montgomery’s Joyful Militancy: Building Thriving Resistance in Toxic Times, wonderful people including Detroit organizers Kim Sherrobbi and Adela Nieves, and engaged in active discussion chats.

In between synchronous full-class gatherings, students self-divided into teams and joined in partnership with current Detroit community organizing efforts in response to the Covid-19 crisis. Some of the invaluable organizations students were able to engage with (yes, through Zoom!), included: We the People of Detroit, Frontline Detroit, General Baker Institute, Covid-313 Community Coalition, Detroit PAL, Movement Generation, and others. While there were definite challenges and constraints to fully realizing “community organizing” work solely via digital platforms, many students were able to make meaningful contributions and, most importantly, they started new relationships with fabulous and deeply committed Detroit community activists. Some of these contributions included: 

  • Raising nearly $500 to support We the People of Detroit’s water donations for their emergency distribution campaign;

  • Creating an inventory for the General Baker Institute to map how their new organizational home at 15798 Livernois Avenue fits into the larger food access geography of that community in NW Detroit;

  • Developing an online list of critical community resources to distribute through the weekly town halls organized by the Covid-313 Community Coalition

Students should keep an eye out for this class when it is next offered during the upcoming fall 2020 semester. Detroit is a movement city, full of brilliant, experienced and talented community organizers; even with the new limitations imposed by Covid-19, there are ample opportunities to become engaged in important community efforts through this class.

Detroit Art in Times of Crisis

Taught by U-M Lecturer Darcy Brandel, with assistance from Marion Van Dam.

Darcy Brandel adapted the class she usually teaches for Semester in Detroit (“Detroit Artist as Activist”) to address the complexities of the current moment in “Detroit Art in Times of Crisis”. Throughout the course, students were asked to explore the question: How can art help us heal, decrease anxiety, generate interconnection, and build stronger, more resilient communities?  Each week, students submitted a piece of creative expression alongside their reflections tying together the week’s reading, viewing, and listening materials. Together, they engaged with complex discussions surrounding how art can be used to bear witness to injustice, as well as to build community. Students examined how poetry can humanize, and explored how art presents us with unanswerable questions. The class culminated in an “exhibition” of students’ final projects, which ranged from original music compositions to collages to books of poems. You can explore two students' final projects here:

Other Highlights:

  • Rose Gorman of the Tuxedo Project challenged students to think about what it means to “be well”, a question students continued to explore in their creative assignments throughout the semester
  • Frank Rashid of the Institute for Detroit Studies helped students deconstruct dominant narratives about Detroit and recognize how Detroit’s literary artists humanize and celebrate the resilience of the city and its people
  • Many students incorporated the current national uprising against racism and police brutality into their final projects, enabling space for them to individually and collectively process their reactions and feelings about this revolutionary moment