I am a social justice organizer who enjoys introducing conferences and other social justice initiatives to my great city, Detroit. However, it’s more than just organizing. It’s a responsibility that I find as difficult as I find rewarding.
Detroit is a city that is over 80% black. It is a city that was disinvested in for many decades and, in many neighborhoods, is still disinvested in. It’s a city that has suffered under a half century of propaganda assault. Because of this systematic propaganda assault, many folks who travel to Detroit have preconceived negative notions about the mostly-black city. Even well-meaning people succumb to this bias.
This makes bringing conferences or any diverse gathering into the city challenging. A lot of black residents are skeptical of whites who enter the city because of the sordid history of white flight and the racial tension that still permeates the fabric of the city and the United States. The tension that had the perception of bubbling under the surface has been unearthed with the emergence of the Detroit “comeback narrative” and the “Make America Great” call to the country from the current administration. The comeback narrative has reinforced the perception that black residents are less than and incapable of caring for where they live.
As a student of history and the present, as well as a poet and visionary organizer, I am cognizant of the type of environment I am inviting conference participants into. It’s an undertaking which sometimes presents quagmires that aren’t sorted out before a conference leaves the city.
Nonetheless, I have made a commitment to analyze the conference invitations that I am approached with, to engage other organizers with similar interests in the city around the invitation, to invite panelists, artists and presenters who live in, love on, and have a historical analysis of Detroit to present, and to challenge the dominant narrative that still haunts this great city. This is a task that holds even greater significance as we approach the 50th anniversary of the Detroit Rebellion. The Rebellion was a response to police brutality and racism in 1967. Identifying it as a riot minimizes the righteous indignation exercised by a community that was living under constant violence and profound neglect. The lack of reference to the 1943 race riot is also telling and contributes to a lopsided narrative around Detroit history.
During the week of June 1st – 4th, the Pedagogy and Theatre of Oppressed Conference was held in Detroit. I accepted an invitation from my neighbor and comrade Reg Flowers several months prior to join the planning team because I am an artist who believes in Toni Cade Bambara’s challenge to artists to “make revolution irresistible,” and I believe art, education, and theatre centered on Paule Freire’s and Augusto Boal’s ideologies are good opportunities to do just that.
I had also worked with Reg in the past and had grown to admire him and his work, as well as his compassion for humanity.
The conference was not without challenges, but there were moments of reflection and transformation throughout that encourage me to continue to analyze and accept some of the invitations I receive to co-organize and expose Detroiters to new conference experiences that are rooted and invested in social and environmental justice. It is also an opportunity to engage visitors to Detroit in a new, more humane way of seeing my city by sharing with them the brilliance and innovation of the residents who loved on Detroit when she was left for dead, and still love on Detroit today.
Of course there are many conferences held in Detroit. Some conferences are organized by kick-ass organizers with similar commitments, others are facilitated in ways that reinforce harmful stereotypes and narratives. I am grateful that the PTO Conference succeeded in challenging those harms while planting seeds of humanity in its participants.
The reflection below from Pedagogy & Theatre of Oppressed, Inc. board member Rebecca Struch is a touching reflection and why it was worth it to expose diverse voices to Detroit.
I am still processing the many gifts of my time in Detroit at the 22nd Annual Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed Conference. My heart expanded with our collective commitment to create a better world through theatre, education, and community leadership. Building on the historical legacy of the Cass Corridor Commons (Shea Howell taught me the Parlor Room was the first place in the city where black and white folks could gather together to read), we spent our days laughing, crying, questioning, disagreeing, dreaming, and scheming—all in an effort to lay siege to systems of oppression that seek to destroy our communities from within. We will not be fooled. Detroiters have taught me the power of true intersectional organizing.
We can’t talk about education without talking about water shutoffs. We can’t talk about school closings without talking about emergency management and the intimate relationship between racism and capitalism. We can’t build a revolutionary movement without ensuring access to healthy foods. Detroit is where it’s going down, y’all. Watch, listen, and support in any way you can.
I know I intend to carry the seeds of my new knowledge into all the work I do back home. It seems to me that cultural resistance—something so economically “useless” as community-engaged theatre—is the best hope we have for mocking and dismantling neoliberalism and the structural oppression that supports it. Liberation is ours to create. We must. We will. #wagelove #resist
Rebecca’s reflections are significant in recapturing the spirit of Detroiters who never stopped loving Detroit. It’s easy to find value in the “comeback” areas of Detroit. It’s more significant if your love for Detroit encompasses the full scope of her being and survival when the rest of the world turned its back on her.
I am committed to nurturing an understanding of the city that raised me, but never at her expense. If you come to Detroit, try not to bring the seeds of propaganda with you.
Join us for the FREE premiere of DETROITERS on July 22nd at 6pm. Detroit’s story is still being told.
Detroit Film Theatre
5200 Woodward Ave.
Detroit, MI 48202