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Activist summer.

Jamez, a seventeen-year-old from Los Angeles, spent three weeks this summer vacationing in an unusual spot - Detroit. "When I told my friends I was taking off for Detroit," he laughs, "they looked at me like I was nuts. But I've learned things here that they wouldn't believe."

From June 27 to July 17, Jamez joined sixty-three youths, ages fourteen to twenty-five, to become part of Detroit Summer 1993.

The project, co-sponsored by the Detroit Greens, included labor and civil-rights leaders among its national endorsers. Unlike many neighborhood "paint-the-town" projects, Detroit Summer 1993 had no bank or corporate sponsorship. Instead, it was led by a committee of community activists - "volunteers from age fourteen to eighty-two," explains co-ordinator Michelle Brown. The project ran on a shoestring budget, accepting donations from individuals and in-kind support from community organizations. Most Detroit Summer participants lived with individual families.

Those who came were college students - recruited by graduates of Detroit Summer 1992 - former gang members trying to find alternatives, and youths without a clear focus. They came to Detroit to "learn how to live with people in today's world," as one volunteer explains.

Before arriving in Detroit, volunteers were asked to submit an essay explaining why they wanted to come to the city, what they hoped to learn, and what they could contribute. "Of course, no one was turned away," says Brown. "If anyone was willing to come to Detroit to work for three weeks for free, we took her. But we wanted participants who were thoughtful about what they were doing."

Together, volunteers worked in urban greenhouses, transformed vacant lots into parks, painted murals, designed and constructed giant puppets, performed community theater, and rehabilitated homes.

"The projects that Detroit Summer 1993 undertook were not simply symbolic," said community activist John Gruchala.

After gang members sprayed graffiti on a whitewashed wall where volunteers were preparing to make a mural, the participants could have simply painted the wall again, or given up. Instead, they met with gang members and persuaded them to help.

"It was an important experience for the volunteers," says Brown. "They realized that they could convince people to rethink how they wanted to live."

Participants also planted and tended a community garden that will feed more than thirty-five city families. Another garden will supply fresh vegetables to a city hospital. And a third garden, accessible to the handicapped, allows disabled people to plant and grow fresh vegetables.

To many, the highlight of the three weeks came in the form of "Intergenerational Dialogues" - opportunities to share experiences with veterans of union, civil-rights, and black-power movements. At one session, volunteers discussed why they decided to become "movement builders." Eighty-year-old unionist Freddy Paine described being mistreated by employers. Virakone Sisavanh, a former member from Fresno, relayed, in vivid detail, what it was like to watch his cousin, stabbed through the heart, die in a gang fight.

For Detroit Summer founder and long-time civil-rights activist Grace Boggs, the most important activities of the program occurred when youths learned to develop their own potential.

"Today's schools turn out fragmented individuals," she says. "Schools do not give our children what they need as human beings: a sense of community and the ability to solve problems. Detroit Summer makes up for that."

Co-founder James Boggs asked each volunteer, "What are you going to do to change the world, and to change yourself?"

As their three weeks ended, participants began to piece together answers.

Tracey Hollins, a Detroit teen who originally volunteered in order to "fill up the days since summers in Detroit are usually long and boring," was so inspired by what she learned that she has decided to help co-ordinate Detroit Summer 1994.

Chris Wellman-Shein, who graduated from college in California just a month before Detroit Summet began, traveled on a freight train to Detroit so that he could "be a part of this historic event." He plans to launch Oakland Summer in 1994.

In fact, similar projects are being planned for Los Angeles, Syracuse, and Pensacola, Florida.

When Grace and James Boggs initiated Detroit Summer, they hoped, as James says, "to start a little seed that would spread across the country. We wanted young people to understand two things. First, that one person can make a difference; and, second, that now is the time to act like citizens, not subjects."

"We're inspired by what we see," says Grace.
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Title Annotation:Detroit Summer 1993
Author:Colatosti, Camille
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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