Upon the conclusion of this week (that paradoxically allowed days to fly by while the minutes within them seemed to tick reluctantly), I have an entire collection of memories, thoughts, and information to process. However, my immediate desire to remember is derived from those stories that etched their way into my permanent recollection by making me feel something. These are the stories that overwhelmed me in the best possible definition of the word because I couldn't remember Detroit more meaningfully, more passionately in any other form...
Capuchin Soup Kitchen and Earthwork Urban Farm
Priscilla showed Tonya and me a photo of her son. He gazed back at us through the edges of the photograph. She spoke of the day he got his license, the day he told her he got a job on top of going to school just to help her pay the rent, the day he was racially profiled and blamed for crime at a store he had frequented since the age of 10. Michael: now boy of 16, varsity jacket, big smile, dreams, hopes, aspirations, memories, tendencies, things that kept him up at night. But none of these things mattered when he was shot; the only thing that mattered then was the color of his skin. She spoke of the day her son was killed by the police.
I cannot begin to imagine the constant pain of having to worry about the fatal reality attached to your child each time he walked out the door. Only then to have this thin grasp on hope for basic safety and security shattered in an instant, devastated in a single phone call.
"But I just saw him, he was just here," she said.
Michael was killed after a typical Friday night basketball game at his own high school by someone whose job it was supposed to be to enforce justice. Priscilla was forced to wait in her car at the crime scene and then again wait endlessly in a hospital waiting room simply to be told that her son was not the boy on the operating table, but the boy that had died upon impact of the bullet.
The thing is, a listener could just leave the conversation in a state of contemplative sadness, reminded of the viciously real threat that unequally exists for only some lives. While Priscilla leaves the conversation broken-hearted, forever scarred by a system that allows a teenage boy to die attending a basketball game. No mother should have to tell this story.
First, she drew a house. A house with crooked windows and a lopsided foundation, resting visually unstable on the scribbled grass below. She said it was falling down; I asked why and she didn't say. Silently, she began to draw a single stick figure standing on the front lawn. I smiled, easily fooled by the veil of the beautiful naivety and innocence we tend to see cloaking children.
"Are you going to draw yourself in?" I asked.
"No. Because the police are coming and I don't want to get hurt," was Jasmine's immediate response.
My heart sank as any trace of the innocence of her drawing faded into oblivion and another figure appeared on the page to handcuff the first.
"He's angry," she said. "This makes me feel lonely."
By the age of 6, this little girl from Flint, Michigan had more to teach the world in a single drawing than many could explain in their lifetime of experience. As a society, I think we have the unfortunate tendency of assuming that children know less than they do. When, really, Jasmine's fears tell us more than some would like to accept or even acknowledge about the reality of this country. This little girl could be, conversely, what the system is afraid of because she is unfiltered, inexorable proof that something is systematically wrong. When only six years of life has taught a black child fear and isolation, the justice system has failed them.
"He has his hands up," she explained to me. "But he's sad because he's going to jail."
Her voice was so soft and matter-of-fact. Because this is her reality- an absoluteness and authenticity so clear that anyone attempting to deny inequality can simply ask the children to explain it to them.
It is not my job to tell anyone else's story, but it is valid to acknowledge the truth that so many stories like Priscilla's and Jasmine's remain unheard by the world. Lost, omitted, altered, and hidden in the streets and homes of the city many outsiders consider a ghost town. But this is no ghost town of 700,000 souls. Every broken window and every broken heart shatters the silence whether or not we are there or willing to hear it. We cannot dare assume the emptiness of this city when so many are still here picking up the pieces. Picking up the pieces even with bleeding fingers; these people are strong.
As we have learned, the success stories of Detroit are so often derived from the instances of neighborhoods and communities uniting for change. This could mean the creation of community gardens, giving the church parking lot space for water and food distribution, recycling materials to make art, or simply knowing every person on the block. But each situation demonstrates that despite everything they might be facing, people are stronger together. After this trip to Detroit, that is what community development means to me.