By Sara Perryman, writer and filmmaker
A Community Conversation on Neighborhoods Day, Saturday, August 6, gave me a strong sense of the profound changes taking place in Detroit. The conversation took place at Yusef Shakur’s Urban Networks Bookstore and the topic was “Our Young People Are Hurting… How Can We Help?”
Julia Putnam, of the Boggs Educational Center, opened the discussion by asking participants “When was the first time you truly felt like an adult?” This altered the normally paternalistic relationship between ‘grown-ups’ and ‘kids’ because everyone, even those who had not ‘technically’ reached adulthood, was challenged to remember or imagine that moment.
Yusef, a returning citizen, began with a very personal story that inspired others to talk with courage, honesty, and vulnerability. As the diverse participants—ethnically, socially and by age—shared individual experiences of joy, fear, and mistrust, a collective feeling emerged that by sharing our own pains and mistakes, we can better understand and support young people to work through their own suffering and discover new ways to solve problems.
The most consistent theme was the ongoing culture of fear that keeps all of us (neighbors, co-workers, family members, etc.) from really talking to one another, working through or accepting differences, creating safe spaces for creative problem-solving.
Julia Putnam and Roger Walker shared a story of their first encounter with one another that illustrated how powerful and transformative overcoming this fear can be. While waiting for Yusef at the bookstore, Julia was approached by Roger asking for a ride to an appointment. Not knowing him, Julia felt hesitant, fearing that by taking this risk, the possible consequences for her and her family could be enormous. Roger meant her no harm, but understood and was hurt by the fear on Julia’s face. At the same time, he felt affirmed that she made the decision to trust him.
The persistent stereotypes of black masculinity, the ongoing tensions between racial and ethnic communities in Detroit and beyond, and the very real fears of sexual violence that women experience on a daily basis, prevent people from taking the risks required for true community transformation. Yet, sharing our misgivings about others, especially young people, and finding a willingness to risk trust in the face of possible violence, can radically transform how we see and experience the world around us.
This kind of risk-taking builds community one small step at a time. For example, sharing a meal, greeting a stranger, helping our elders, listening with patience. Conversations are forms of community action out of which relationships develop. They also help us to better understand practical ways to assist youth in gaining access to the immediate services they need.
Just talking together in small groups, we create meaningful dialogue and facilitate situations where people learn to do for themselves, as well as for each other. By sharing skills and talents in a non-hierarchical format, whether by navigating bureaucracy, filling out forms, seeing a health care provider, nurturing a seedling, fixing a bicycle, or opening an email account, we build relationships of mutual respect where all forms of knowledge are valued and supported.
By the end of the gathering, I was reminded of an observation by Grace Lee Boggs: “The most important thing about conversations is that each one is unique. When you engage in a conversation, you never know what’s going to come out of your mouth or somebody else’s.”
In conversations we grow our souls and contribute to the soul-nurturing of the young people around us.