Detroit Summer: The Youth Program that Inspired Many Activists to Make Detroit a Movement City

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To many longtime Detroit-based activists, urban farming and other community-based programs are a prime example of why they see Detroit not as Ground Zero for the recession but as a movement city — a place that uses crisis as an opportunity to nurture sustainability and community-building. When many of the Detroit-based activists and organizers are asked how they first got involved in their communities, they often mention Detroit Summer, a youth program started in 1992. We speak with Michelle Brown, who is sometimes called “the mother of Detroit Summer,” and a member of the Detroit Summer mural project. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: To many longtime Detroit-based activists, urban farming and other community-based programs are a prime example of why they see Detroit not as ground zero for the recession but as a movement city, a place that uses crisis as an opportunity to nurture sustainability and community building. And when we ask how many of the activists and organizers here how they first got involved in their communities, so often they say Detroit Summer.

Detroit Summer is a youth program started in 1992. Organizer, philosopher Grace Lee Boggs co-founded it along with Michelle Brown, sometimes called “the mother of Detroit Summer.” I met her inside Avalon Bakery, a local community bakery in downtown Detroit where she works. I asked Michelle Brown to talk about, well, how she founded Detroit Summer.

    MICHELLE BROWN: Detroit Summer is the — what is it? Let’s be the tie that binds. All of us, back in 1991, we decided — you know, in fact, it was really great. We were talking about what can we be that our city might be, my children might see? And it was James and Grace Boggs. All of us had been involved in some level of community activism. And I actually recall leaving the International Women’s Festival. As Grace was going in, she said, “We’re talking about doing something in this city. You know, come.” And I went that week. The year before, we had had a people’s convention, where all types of people who believe in Detroit were going to hang in here doing it. And we sort of came to, and that weekend, with Rich and all of us and Grace and Jimmy, and we talked about — we talked about it. And we just sort of had this vision of what we could be that our children might see. And I would say that, in Detroit, Detroit Summer has really been the focus behind most community-based organizations, and even government, recognizing that it is imperative that you hear the voice, the involvement, the vision of young people.

    AMY GOODMAN: So it’s been nineteen years.

    MICHELLE BROWN: Mm-hmm, and it’s really and truly a legacy of what we can be and empowering youth. And from the time when we started it and we were looking and were saying that many people crossed the street when they saw, you know, young people, to where now we embrace our youth, and we help them build the world that will be good for all of us. So it’s just great. It’s the best thing. I would say, if you put on my tombstone, what was the thing you wanted to put? Put “Detroit Summer.”

AMY GOODMAN: Michelle Brown, known as “the mother of Detroit Summer,” speaking to us at Avalon Bakery here in Detroit. This year, Detroit Summer has launched a mural project with the theme “Another Detroit Is Happening.” We headed over to the headquarters of the mural project and spoke with one of the young people there about Detroit Summer and why he first got involved.

    JOHN: I’m John. I’m twenty years old. I’m with Detroit Summer and the Live Arts Media Project, where I started when I was six, because it was 1996 and I came with my older sister and my second-oldest sister as basically like daycare, because she was watching us for the summer. So, basically, she got involved mainly because it was like community gardens. It’s like a really cool thing for youth to do in the city, that like was not just sitting around, hanging out. And basically, like, we started coming to community dinners that we used to hold at the First Unitarian Church up the street and, like, having like inter-generational dialogues. Basically, like, keep coming back to the — basically we just kept coming back because we felt like, one, it was awesome, but two, it was like — like they truly value, like, youth voices. There was so much more of that.

    Like, Detroit Summer is youth-led, in terms of basically like have coordinators who are making the structures, but like all the content is driven by the youth. Now, this year, I’m one of the three people coordinating the program for the summer, and in all year round. And it’s just like — it’s kind of like generating youth leadership by that way, but also like generate like also generating youth leadership by basically art and creativity, because, I mean, that’s kind of like the one thing Detroit has the most of, because we don’t have a lot of stuff that people will realize, but we do have basically that draw and that creativity, because we are basically — you have to, like, find something out of nothing, and we have to, like, take the opportunity that’s in crisis. That’s kind of like one of the big — that’s like the major theme in Detroit Summer.

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