On the road

I’m writing this post in a hotel room in Los Angeles, where I’ll be working with the young artists of the LA Opera for the next few weeks. It’s great to return to this city, but my heart’s in Michigan – not just in Ann Arbor, but all over the state.

Last week I was on a bus with the Michigan Road Scholars, a group of UMich faculty and staff who travel the state talking to community leaders and learning about some of the issues and projects they’re addressing. It was a mind-blowing week, one I’m still processing. What stays with me is the passion and dedication of the people I met. Geeks all, they are in the trenches, many working in the areas of greatest need. We listened to the superintendent of the Grand Rapids schools, to a former lawyer who started a group that works with the Detroit Public Schools, the woman who started the Hispanic Development Corporation out of her living room. We also spent a great hour with the woman who’s researching the effect of changing weather patterns on the Michigan cherry crop. We went to a Cadillac factory, a boat-building school, a culinary school. We spoke with legislators and heard some ghost stories.

It was incredible.

The problems that face Michigan are shared, in many respects, by other American states. Financial troubles: there isn’t enough money anywhere. Income inequality and lack of connection between classes: in many locations, the wealthy people who desire the service economy don’t want those workers living near them. Global warming: a huge challenge to farmers. The gifts and problems of automation: that auto factory had far fewer workers than the old days, but the workers benefitted from the robots in the factory in so many ways (better ergonomics, quieter and safer factory floor). We heard so many stories about how people are working to figure these things out.

And then there’s Detroit. If you’ve picked up any publication in the last two years, you’ve read about the renaissance taking place downtown. And that’s real. But there are miles and miles of this once vibrant city that will never come back. It’s impossible to get a sense of it if you’ve never driven through it, and it’s impossible for someone like me to get a sense of what can be done. And yet people are doing the work, battling impossible odds and systems so deeply dysfunctional that they boggle the mind. I met people whose drive, dedication, and strength put most of us to shame.

The things that led to Detroit’s current situation are deeply malevolent. One fascinating thing about the week was learning history and stories about the city; the roots of the greed and racism that strangled this city were planted at its founding. And I’m struck by the conventional wisdom that it’s the failure of the auto industry that decimated Detroit. That certainly knocked it down, but the great majority of population and home loss happened after 2000, driven by the predatory lending of the country’s major banks.

Everywhere in Detroit, we saw the results and the insurmountable problems, caused by immeasurable, unforgivable lack of ethics and compassion.

And everywhere, we saw people who were trying to do and sometimes achieving the impossible. Behaving with integrity and compassion. And all of them were in the streets, looking people in the face, doing real, true, daily, connective work.

I’m still not sure what to do with all these experiences. Thanks for reading about them.


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