What shall I tell my students?
ReImagining Work gathering
By Sara Perryman, teacher and writer
It’s late and I’m sitting in the Detroit Metro Airport waiting for a flight back home to New Jersey. I feel fired up. Inspired. Exhilarated, even. And I’m trying to imagine how I might translate this enthusiasm to my students back at Rutgers University.
Over the weekend, I attended the ReImagining Work gathering launched by the Boggs Center (among many others) and held at Focus:HOPE. It was packed. Over 300 people came together—of all ages and ethnicities—to share stories, brainstorm ideas, network, and collaborate. The project? Nothing less than a transformative vision for a sustainable economy as it takes shape in the rust-belt cities of the Midwest.
The realization that jobs will never return en masse to former industrial giants like Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Detroit has spawned a complete rethinking of the meaning of Work. Looking beyond Jobs to the creation of Work that is sustainable and satisfying requires radical transformation, both personal and political.
So, what do I tell my students?
I could start with Emmanuel Pratt and the Milwaukee Renaissance. As executive director of the Sweet Water Foundation, Pratt spoke about educational programming that links young people to their community through science, technology, arts, and environmental awareness. Intergenerational mentoring encourages students to learn about and participate in urban agriculture, aquaculture, and the ways they can effect change in their city.
I could tell them about Gar Alperovitz and the Cleveland Co-ops. The Evergreen Cooperative Laundry is a large-scale, worker-owned green business that is the first of ten enterprises aimed at reinventing the local economy. By starting a series of businesses that can support both the needs of the community, as well as the ‘anchor institutions’ already in place (universities, hospitals), the Cleveland model is especially promising for other working-class communities around the nation.
But, really, I want to talk about Detroit. Because here the possibility for something truly other than standard redevelopment paradigms and liberal reform is breathtaking. In contrast to the nowhere/anywhere logic of transnational capital (something airports strangely represent), this new economy is localized, specific, and grounded in the here/now of Detroit’s cutting edge thinkers and doers. Scarcity breeds innovation. And Detroit has become a hub of experimental activity that moves beyond Jobs and Job creation to concepts of Work that are community-based, life-affirming, and ecologically sound.
On the final day, Detroit Digital Justice Coalition, Urban Networks, D-Town Farm, Earthworks, Feedom Freedom, We Want Green Too, and a whole host of other organizations, artists, entrepreneurs, educators, and community activists came together in a break-out session titled “Detroit: Summer 2012.” Expressing both frustration and imaginative ideas—the heart of transformative politics—participants began the first of many conversations about next summer’s experimental “Democracy is more than voting” adventure. It will not be something to miss.
As I watch people streaming through the terminal, I think about my students. How can I help them see that learning is so much more than preparation for a job that may never actually arrive? How can I show them that revolutionary thinking is not simply a fantasy but a necessity as the old economy collapses and more and more people find themselves outside the current model without the possibility of return?
Watching this youtube of interviews from the gathering I ask myself: what does it mean to take inspiration from Detroit and the people who live here? It means getting my students to pay attention to what’s happening in Newark and Trenton and New Brunswick. It means taking the time to listen and help each student discover his/her own skills and abilities. It means finding out what’s happening in New Jersey, linking my students to those networks, and bring it back next summer to Detroit so that you all will be inspired too.