The Creation of a New Way of Living
Interview with Shea Howell
Mark Valdez: Tell me about how you came to live in Detroit.
Shea Howell: In the early 1970s I was part of something called the National Alliance Against Racism and Political Repression, which was an organization founded by Angela Davis. They held a conference in Detroit; this was shortly after Angela Davis had been acquitted of murder and had just gotten off the FBI’s Most Wanted List. She was viewed by much of America as a very radical, dangerous person. And during the conference in Detroit, the mayor, the city council welcomed her, gave her the keys to the city, and celebrated her as an American Hero. I thought any city with that vision is a city I want to be a part of. The short answer I often give is, “I came to Detroit because of Angela Davis and I stayed because of Grace and Jim Boggs.”
Mark: Who are Grace and Jim Boggs?
Shea: Jim and Grace have been active in the radical movement, really, since the thirties and forties, and they were involved in the definition of Black Power and the emergence of Black Power in the city of Detroit and became critical thinkers about the distinction between rebellion and revolution and they wrote about it in a book called Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century. In the latter part of the twentieth century they were holding study groups around that book, and I became involved in their work through a study group of revolution and evolution and began to work with them very consistently ever since.
Mark: Beyond the Boggs, what’s kept you here?
Shea: I think Detroit is a movement city. It’s a city where there is a sense that people working together can create a better life in the present and for the future. That’s a pervasive feeling in Detroit. I think the second thing is that one of the gifts of Detroit is that you recognize we are living in a very unusual time in human history. For large chunks of humanity, people have lived very much as their foreparents have lived. But on occasion there are these sharp breaks with the past…the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture or from agriculture to industry…there are moments when the past evolves and shifts into a very new place. And I think we are living in the midst of one of those kinds of changes. This is very unusual in human history and requires a completely different way of thinking about who we are and where we’re going. Detroit clearly demonstrates the end of the Industrial Age and the beginning of something new. So being in Detroit means you get to be part of the creation of a very new way of living for human beings.
I think it’s part of what it means to be living someplace where you have the capacity to create newness in a way where the only real limitation is your imagination; you can imagine all kinds of things because so much doesn’t work anymore.
Mark: In my visits to Detroit, I leave inspired by what’s going on there.
Shea: I think it’s part of what it means to be living someplace where you have the capacity to create newness in a way where the only real limitation is your imagination; you can imagine all kinds of things because so much doesn’t work anymore. There is a kind of freedom that has come because of the disappearance of industrial society. It has created a space for people to raise questions that other people have not even had to begin to contemplate. So there is this feeling in Detroit that you’re part of a new future, that you’re part of what’s emerging that is completely undefined. And you’re right we don’t have words for it because we have no idea where this will take us. So we have artists who are building windmills with the idea of creating energy so that their homes can be heated with and lit by local wind power. And they’re not just creating a functional windmill, but they’re creating a beautiful windmill. And they’re not just creating a functional, beautiful windmill, they’re trying to do it with things they have been able to find within a one mile area. This idea that you can create something that is useful, that is beautiful, that is ecologically sound, and that is essential for community is—well, you can feel it on the streets, you can feel it from people you talk with.
Mark: During my first trip to Detroit, about seven years ago, I was driving through the city, and it kind of broke my heart. It was winter, cold, I just saw a lot of empty buildings. It felt heavy and heartbreaking. Then fast-forward seven years and it felt like this whole other place, like a whole new city. People we talk to acknowledge that there are still a lot of problems, but there is an undeniable optimism and pride.
Shea: I think its important to understand that there has been a lot of pain in this process, and a lot of devastation and a lot of lives and hopes destroyed. I think it’s important to acknowledge how deep the transformation is in people, to move from that level of despair to some kind of vision. And to really have made a choice on the part of many people in Detroit that rather than be completely taken over by the destruction, that we begin to create something new. I think a kind of metaphor for that is the emergence of SOSAD (Save Our Sons And Daughters). That organization came about in response to the killing of children. Parents who lost their children to gun violence came together to say we have to do something. The capacity to acknowledge that kind of pain and then to move from that pain to create a better way is the metaphor that makes Detroit so special.
Mark: I was reading an article you wrote about Corica Jefferson, a local resident, raising chickens in her yard. Animal Control came in and “raided” her house. In your article you write, “At the heart of this controversy are two competing ideas about what kind of city we are creating.” What are the two competing ideas?
Shea: I think one of the things that has been so life affirming about the transformation of Detroit has been the ability of people to call upon deep cultural memory from the south, and to recognize that the abandonment of land by industry has been an opening for opportunity for people who want to raise their own food, who want to have their own chickens. The capacity to create a city where the division between town and country was fundamental to the industrial era…that division can be challenged now in Detroit. You can have industrial production with new technologies and agriculture right next to each other. That has been articulated as “a city that feeds itself, frees itself.” It is possible these days to create locally grown, healthy food, and that vision was part of what was being enacted when Mrs. Jefferson was raising her chickens. She has been supporting herself for over five years by selling the eggs from the chickens. She had also been providing a place where kids in the community could see life emerging and being cared for. She was and is part of the work that, particularly, women are doing in the creation of agriculture in the city. That vision is one of self-sufficiency, local production, healthy food…a city that is able to determine its own destiny because it can provide everything it needs. In contrast to that you have the casino—spectacle party-city where, essentially, corporate interests want a playground and a service center for people who will work in their large corporate structures. That tends to be a whiter city, it tends to be a concentrated wealth city, and it tends to be a city where people are not producing for need but they are producing to serve others. Those are very different visions about what kind of city we’ll become. I think, and the people I work with think, that urban agriculture is at the heart of a much healthier, more productive city.
Mark: How has the city reconciled its complex history around racial tensions?
Shea: That’s a complicated question in that the language of race is a blunt instrument to talk about transformation in the ways that it’s happening. The reality is that much of the flight, particularly in the last twenty years, has been middle-class African American flight. The scenario you sometimes get: there was a riot, white people left, Detroit became all black…that’s the kind of narrative that’s out there. That simplistic scenario is so wrong on so many levels. One of the things is that when we talk about race, we have to also talk about class. More than that, we have to talk about what values people are embracing. Would I want Clarence Thomas to be the Mayor of Detroit? I don’t think so! There is a question of class, of what values people represent and whose interests they serve. Having said that, a second thing to think about, in the mainstream narrative you might hear is that maybe Detroit isn’t a welcoming place for these white people. That, somehow or another, it’s this African American population that’s grumpy about white people coming in. If you look historically, there is absolutely no basis for that. All across the country, African American communities have welcomed just about everybody. I think about Hastings Street in Detroit, which was Jewish and African American. A large part of the Jewish community was not welcomed in Dearborn or Bloomfield. And neither were African Americans.
Mark: I’m not so much thinking about exclusion as I am about holding an awareness that at a certain point, the African American community in Detroit was left alone to solve the city’s problems.
Shea: Yes it was. It was abandoned by the white power structure, abandoned by resources, abandoned by surrounding neighborhoods…and that created a space for an emerging, flourishing culture that has raised profoundly new questions. It also created a restricted space, with limited resources and limited access to power and larger decisions. In that space, and I think this is what most people react to about the White-European entry into the city, is that frequently, that are cast by the media as the saviors of Detroit, as though people haven’t been recreating Detroit for the last fifty years, as though people have been doing nothing but waiting for the young white people to come back again. The absence of the recognition of what has been created to make an inviting space for those young people is partly where the tension comes. I put that on the young people who aren’t acknowledging their history or the history of the city, but who also fall into believing the dominant media hype rather than looking more deeply at what has been going on. There have been some efforts to address that directly. The 5e Gallery, for example, has written a declaration for young artists coming in to say, look, if you’re going to come into this city, stop saying this is your blank canvas, and here are some things you need to do to make yourself a respected and authentically part of the city. Part of that is you need to acknowledge what people achieved with so little.
In that space, and I think this is what most people react to about the White-European entry into the city, is that frequently, that are cast by the media as the saviors of Detroit, as though people haven’t been recreating Detroit for the last fifty years, as though people have been doing nothing but waiting for the young white people to come back again.
Mark: Among your work you helped to created Detroit Summer. Tell me about that program.
Shea: Detroit Summer began twenty years ago this summer in response to work we were doing in the community where older people were saying, “What’s the point? If we build something up these young folks will tear it down.” What we tried to do was say, "Actually we don’t know if young people want to be a part of rebuilding the city or not. Why don’t we ask them?” We put out a call to community groups to say, do you want to be a part of asking young people, both in the city and around the country, if they want to become engaged with rebuilding the city. About sixty organizations came together and issued this call. That first summer, about a hundred people came together to create urban gardens, to create murals, to work in housing rehab, to meet with people who had been part of the various movements in Detroit to share ideas and to talk and to learn. From that we’ve continued every summer, and of course, now they are going year-round, with the idea that young people are not the problem of the city. Their creative energy and imagination is a part of the solution of creating a new city. And they’re doing it right now! Detroit Summer was one of the first organizations that said young people are our answer, not our problem.
Mark: Shea, thank you so much for talking with me and for the work you’re doing.
Shea: My pleasure. Thank you.