Dispatch from Detroit: Part 1

The Boiled Down Juice explores concepts of community tradition, community action, and creative living, among many other things. You can follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for reading! 

In our ongoing effort to explore the concepts behind emergent locally-based economies, sustainability initiatives, and democratic action, we’re exploring conferences, discussions, and various forms of action taking place around the nation that are addressing the economic crisis on a local scale while also building theories and best practices for stronger local futures. Most importantly, these ideas look at the big picture of a more sustainable life for all.

At their core, these concepts are placed-based and human-scaled. They tend to be small scale, work with local strengths and engage with a deep awareness of local history and possibility, striving to be fundamentally democratic in their guiding principles. They share a great deal of overlap with topics of cultural sustainability and place-based studies and take into account the land, the people, and the relationship between the two.  They strive to acknowledge deep layers of  racism and work to build a new, more just, way.

Readers may find these ideas inspiring or perhaps even impossible, but we hope our ongoing discussions will be educational, honest, and open to dialog.

Last week posted about Detroit 2012 Conference and introduced our newest writer and contributor, Acadia Roher of Little Rock.  She recently sent this dispatch from her time at the Conference.  She mentions Grace Lee Boggs, one of the key figures behind the Detroit conference. To learn more about her work, go here.   She also mentions the concept of “New Work,” a concept articulated by Frithjof Bergmann who founded the Center for New Work in Flint, Michigan in 1981, which is about moving toward an new approach to work that is both personally meaningful and community-based.

We look forward to hearing more from Acadia and her thoughts on how these concepts can be applied in other communities to meet those needs. All images in this post by Matthew Baker.

Packard Plant Tour.


We hadn’t expected to see Grace Lee Boggs so soon, but there she was at the small discussion circle of our first session, “Deepening the Conversation of New Work and New Culture.” Her friend,  the philosopher Frithjof Bergmann, was by her side fielding questions about New Work.  Grace Lee listened with quiet intensity for the majority of the time, only speaking when the conversation needed grounding or synthesis.  She had an excellent ability to center the group.  New Work was developed in Flint, Michigan after auto factory closures put thousands of people out of work.  They needed a completely new concept of employment that did not hinge on unreliable multinational corporations that leave communities in the dust in search of ever-cheaper labor.  Bergmann talked about the potential of high tech to allow communities to produce things for themselves and thus become self-reliant and autonomous. One particularly poignant story he told came from his work with a small factory in Austria. When Bergmann asked why they resisted growing their business to more than 50 employees, one worker responded, “because you can’t eat together unless you are small.”

The “small is beautiful” concept has been touched upon often throughout Detroit 2012.  For example, one participant imagined a country that is no longer broken up into massive states, but instead operates on smaller units at the local level that are reliant on strong relationships among community members.  A provocative idea that came up in the “Re-imagining Democracy” session was that a large section of Detroit’s east side should declare itself an autonomous zone (the People’s Republic of Southeast Detroit) and begin providing its own energy, food, security, and waste management rather than succumbing to displacement under the city’s “forced shrinkage” plan which would relocate and/or cut off services to thousands of Detroit’s poorest families.  Many of the projects we’ve visited in the past few days have been located on the east side, some on streets where the unemployment rate is 100%.  Conference participants seemed enthralled by the idea of an independent, dual-power institution in Detroit like the People’s Republic that would incorporate the concepts of New Work and help Americans to envision a new way of operating.

Reimagining Education with Grace Lee Boggs front and center.

In the back of my head, I continuously question how these concepts are relevant to Central Arkansas.  Many Detroiters are engaging with the ideas and practices of New Work out of necessity.  In Little Rock, at least with the group I’ve been working with, we would be seeking a new way by choice.  Little Rock is not in the same danger as Detroit, which teeters on the edge of financial ruin and chaos.  Just in the five days we have been here, three city departments have been shut down (over a hundred people will lose their jobs), the Michigan governor has announced plans to send in bulldozers and the state police to raze abandoned homes across the city, the crown jewel art museum has reported it may shut its doors, and public hearings were held to discuss the city’s plan to sell thousands of acres of inner city land at fire sale prices to a businessman for large-scale agriculture– land that has not been offered for sale to the many neighborhood residents who are already utilizing it for farming, art, playgrounds, and other community space.

On top of that, the unemployment rate hovers around 30% and the state of Michigan recently placed Detroit under the control of a governor-appointed Emergency Manager who has little accountability to the people.  This city is in the kind of crisis that most Little Rockers can hardly imagine.  Our new friends here in Detroit talk about uncertainty on a timescale of months, weeks, even days.

Despite the dire circumstances, the organizers, activists, and citizens we have met this week are immensely hopeful.  Grace Lee refers to community building and joyous local resiliency as an “idea whose time has come.”  She smiles often and is a clear source of inspiration for the change agents of Detroit, most of whom refer to her as “Mama Grace.”  Detroit 2012 has been a perfect reminder that the unique struggles of our time offer opportunities that have not existed at any other point in history.  We must shift our thinking to fully capture the promise of this moment.  As Rick Feldman put it in his historical social justice tour of Detroit, our American past as producers for the world has evaporated and we are now the biggest consumers in the world, but in order to reclaim our humanity we must learn what it means to be citizens. I encourage you all to deeply consider the meaning of citizenship over the next few days.

Written by Acadia Roher. 2012.

We’d love to hear from you.  What are your thoughts?

Rick and Charity.















Heidelberg Project.















Reimagining Democracy.


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