Real Communities Detroit Learning Journey Wrap Up

I am writing this blog post from my office in Atlanta after an invigorating and provocative week of learning in Detroit, Michigan. You can read the blog I wrote while we were in Detroit here: Good Morning From Detroit!

Detroit is a place of incredible possibility that many fail to see, but if you choose to take the ABCD perspective of ‘glass half full’ vs ‘glass half empty’ you will quickly see that Detroit is overflowing with possibility, innovation, and the beginning of a completely different way of imagining community, work, education, and food.

It is hard to sum up all we saw and learned, but I want to share a few highlights of our trip with you:

Feedom-Freedom Growers

Feedom-Freedom Growers had modest beginnings in 2008 as a small garden bed in a lot across the street from the location of the current garden that spans multiple lots. Through the efforts of Myrtle Thompson and Wayne Curtis, the garden is not just a place that provides healthy, locally grown produce and economic opportunities in the neighborhood, but it also serves as an entry point for community engagement and community conversations. Just like those involved in food justice work as a part of Real Communities in Georgia, they too see the many opportunities for engagement that exist in gardening and food.

Myrtle and her son give us a tour of the Feedom-Freedom Growers Garden


Myrtle gave us a tour of the garden and was very open with us about what has and hasn’t worked for them and what their dreams for the future are. We were particularly interested to hear about their engagement of youth, as well as their use of community conversations around topics even broader than food justice.

Group photo with Myrtle at Feedom-Freedom


Potluck at the Boggs Center

The Boggs Center was founded in 1995 by friends and associates of James Boggs (1919 -1993) and Grace Lee Boggs (1915 - ) to honor and continue their legacy as movement activists and theoreticians. They aim to help grassroots activists develop themselves into visionary leaders and critical thinkers who can devise proactive strategies for re-building and re-spiriting our cities and rural communities from the ground up, demonstrate the power of ideas in changing ourselves and our reality, and demystify leadership.

The Boggs Center was the first successful contact I made when I began planning the trip to Detroit. Rich Feldman, a board member, was incredibly welcoming and helpful and connected me with most of the people we spent time with on our trip.

One of the major highlights of the trip was a potluck hosted at the Boggs Center. It was attended by a number of people involved in various types of community building work in Detroit. We were able to share about our work in Georgia, learn more about what folks are up to in Detroit, take part in conversations about inclusion and social justice work, and eat some delicious homemade food.

One of the people in attendance was a young man with disabilities who was joined by his mother and two people who are a part of his support team. After we shared a bit about Real Communities and our work in Georgia, we heard from his mother. She shared that she was impressed with the grassroots nature of our work and thought it sounded great; however, she expressed a concern I have heard from several people who have been in the DD world for a longtime. She worries that anytime something is organic and successful and involves folks with disabilities, it often gets formalized, turned into a ‘program,’ and then everything good and natural about it disappears. This is a really valid concern and one that I try to keep at the forefront of my mind as Real Communities develops and spreads. The human service system mentality is very difficult to escape. It tricks us into thinking that certain populations of people are somehow so dramatically different that you need ‘special’ training or a fancy degree to work with them. To me and many of the folks involved with Real Communities, this mentality seems absurd, yet the bulk of systems and services that folks with DD are involved in reinforce this idea. In Real Communities, we are learning a lot about what happens when you create intentional spaces for folks with and without disabilities to come together around something they are all mutually passionate about and begin to know each other, build trust, and interdependency and recognize the contributions of everyone involved. We have seen some really beautiful things happen via Real Communities, but it’s far from accidental. It takes a lot of intention, thoughtfulness, and strategy on the part of the Community Builders and others involved to protect the organic nature of this work.

Yusef Shakur

Yusef Shakur was born and raised in Detroit and is a father, author, leader, bookstore/café owner, community organizer/activist, educator and public speaker. Shakur captures the essence of what life was like for a misguided, gang banging teenage boy who was raised by an alcohol addicted mother and an incarcerated father. After serving 9 years in prison, Shakur became instrumental in making significant contributions to the betterment of his community. These contributions derive from his personal commitment to “Restore the Neighbor Back to the ‘Hood.”

Yusef invited us to spend time with him at his bookstore/café The Urban Network. He shared with us about his experiences working in the community where he was raised. I was particularly interested in his work with people who have been incarcerated and are returning back to their communities. I think we can learn a lot from folks doing this type of work and see how it might inform some the work we are doing in Georgia to support folks with disabilities who are also coming out of institutional settings.

Yusef is also the author of two books: Window 2 My Soul and My Soul Looks Back both of which I purchased from his store and look forward to reading.

Earthworks Urban Farm

Earthworks Urban Farm was founded in 2007 as a project of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. They currently have around 7 gardens spread over 20 or so lots within 2 block of their headquarters. In addition to the farm itself (the first to be certified organic in Detroit!), they also have youth programs and the Earthworks Agricultural Training program (E.A.T.). E.A.T. provides the training necessary for participants to have more economic opportunities and even helps people start their own businesses. Some businesses that have come out of E.A.T. include an herbal tea business and a seedling business.

Upon our arrival at Earthworks, we were greeted by Shane, who gave us an awesome and engaging tour of just a small portion of what Earthworks is up to. He explained that Earthworks is dedicated to the work of food justice. Shane’s framing of their work in this context before the tour, was very helpful and interesting to us as we think about how we frame our food justice work in Georgia.

Shane gives us a tour of Earthworks


Following our tour, we met with Shane and some of the other members of the Earthworks crew to learn more about their work, share with them about ours, and see what we could learn from each other. We were all impressed with the size and scope of all Earthworks does. It would be really great to see something like this in Georgia. It’s really exciting to think what started as a small-scale garden project in a soup kitchen became a massive operation that is also helping people start their own businesses.

Johnny in the Earthworks Hoop House



Matrix Theatre Company

Our last morning in Detroit, we met with Meagan and Laura from the Matrix Theatre Company. Matrix is a social justice theatre company. They do a lot of original productions and are well known for their puppetry, specifically their ‘Puppet Heroes’ series. One of these impressive puppet heroes is a Justin Dart puppet. Justin Dart was a disability activist and advocate known as the ‘Father of the Americans with Disabilities Act.’ Sadly, the Justin Dart puppet was in storage during our visit, but we did get to see some of their other puppets.

Cesar Chavez Hero Puppet


Matrix also has a number of youth theatre programs and have begun working intentionally around the inclusion of youth with and without disabilities together in these programs over the last couple of years. They recruit youth from the Detroit public school systems and work to support these youth in classes together. Since we have many youth involved in Real Communities and have recently begun to organize an Inclusive Youth Consortium to support youth-serving programs and organizations around inclusion, we were really interested in hearing about the experiences of Matrix in this arena. As expected, youth have been pretty good at working together and figuring out how to support each other across disability lines. The adults tend to be the more challenging part!

A few final thoughts and reflections:

I really loved our time in Detroit and feel that we only scratched the surface of all that is happening in the city. On the plane ride home, I began reading the newest book by Grace Lee Boggs The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century. Published last year when Grace was 95 years old, she reflects on all she has learned in her 70+ years of community building. Grace is particularly interested in what she calls ‘Visionary’ work, which is based on creating alternative and sustainable methods of building stronger communities. Instead of focusing on what we want others to do, visionary work focuses on what we can create for ourselves that will be sustained despite economic fluctuations and the numerous other uncertainties of the times in which we live. In the book’s first chapter she writes:

“Instead of putting our organizational energies into begging Ford and General Motors to stay in Detroit – or begging the government to keep them afloat – so they can continue to exploit us, we need to go beyond traditional capitalism. Creating new forms of community based institutions (e.g., co-ops, small businesses, and community developmental corporations) will give us ownership and control over the way we make our living, while helping us to ensure that the well-being of the community and the environment is part of our bottom line.

Instead of buying all our food from the store, we need to be planting community and school gardens and creating farmers’ markets that will not only provide us with healthier food but also enable us to raise our children in a nurturing relationship with the Earth.

Instead of trying to bully young people to remain in classrooms isolated from the community and structured to prepare them to become cogs in the existing economic system, we need to recognize 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 because it was created for the age of industrialization. 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.

This kind of organizing takes a lot of patience because changing people and people changing themselves requires time. Because it usually involves only small groups of people, it lacks the drama and visibility of angry masses making demands on the power structure. So it doesn’t seem practical to those who think of changes only in terms of quick fixes, huge masses, and charismatic leaders”

Through Real Communities, we are exploring similar ideas. How do we support folks with developmental disabilities to have fulfilling lives in the community doing things that truly matter to them with their peers and community members with and without disabilities? How do we think about supporting folks as Georgia’s waiting list for waivers continues to grow, state institutions close, people move into typical communities, and government funded programs tighten their belts? This approach is far from quick and it isn’t always glamorous, but what we are learning in Georgia (and what was constantly reinforced by every conversation we had in Detroit) is that transformative and sustainable change comes at the grassroots level from those directly impacted, taking control of their own lives and the life of their neighborhoods and communities. Services, programs, and industry can’t and don’t make a good life. What makes a good life is being valued and celebrated for who we are and the contributions we make, being loved, and having mutually fulfilling relationships.

Coming back from Detroit, we are more aware than ever that we are not alone in this great undertaking. I can’t wait to go back for another visit!