Learning to Listen to Detroit: Lessons from Midwest Sprog
A few weeks ago, I lucky enough to be a part of one of the Sierra Student Coalition’s Summer Training Programs (affectionately called “Sprogs”) in Detroit, MI. As one of the co-directors of the program, I’d spent the past half year amidst a flurry of emails, conference calls, and elaborately color coded google docs trying to prepare for a week of training young people to be changemakers in their communities. This is a program that takes place every year across the country (for more info on the program check out ssc.sierraclub.org/sprog), but this was the Midwest’s very first urban Sprog.
While our counterparts in other regions are meeting up this summer in state parks and other natural landscapes, we headed to Detroit. As a director liable for the health, safety, and general well being of our participants I’ll admit this made me a bit nervous. An already challenging task had been handed to me with a whole new set of unimaginable parameters. Images of participants wandering off and getting lost or mugged, of parents worried parents and unknown dangers flashed before my eyes at the words “urban Sprog”. But to say “being in a city was well worth it” would be a gross understatement. The ways that being in Detroit affected the program and the overall Sprog experience for trainers and participants alike have been profound.
Throughout the week, interspersed with trainings on organizing skills like facilitation and campaign strategy we were fortunate to meet a few members of a community of people struggling to battle systems of oppression that have for so long put down, pushed back, and silenced the people of Detroit. These were people full to the brim with passion who spoke of problems that didn’t seem far off or unimaginable they were real and present and urgent. They shared with us their honest, righteous anger at unjust actions in the world but also their beautiful, loving joy for all that is good and hopeful.
I can’t speak for any of the other participants, trainers, or staff who I was blessed to learn beside but I can speak for myself- Detroit Sprog has taught me an insatiable hunger for listening, looking, feeling; a certain need to hear the stories of gentrification in Detroit, see the endless vacant buildings, and feel the air quality in my own lungs; an imperative to humbly leave room for a place to tell you it’s story. But also I’ve learned a newfound need for love and solidarity. All those people who shared their stories with us throughout the week weren’t standing by themselves. They called each other friends, co-workers, teachers. In Detroit we didn’t witness single David’s fighting Goliath, we witnessed a community, a movement. And I came to see the same within the small group of us working together to learn at Sprog and again the same amongst all of us working in the youth climate movement. I use the term “us” for a reason- because we all share something significant a bright fire, burning for change, and that makes us a real live community; a real live movement working together as friends, co-workers, teachers; working in solidarity and joy.
If we want to start making real change we need more and more of our trainings, tactics, and principles to reflect a humble honesty and openness for disadvantaged communities. We need to continue to learn to love the forgotten cities of our country. Because it is crucial that we look, listen, and feel for the people and the world that’s come before us, and that we learn from this how we too can be a loving movement for change and justice.