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In an open lot on Detroit’s Eastside, a small red and sky-blue refrigerator hums underneath a hand-made shelter. On this windy February afternoon, Alyssa Rogers, one of the cofounders of Detroit Community Fridge (DCF), pulls up to the lot, opens the trunk of her car, and lugs jars of peanut butter, soda cans, bagged cereal, and packets of instant rice to the fridge and its adjacent pantry space. There isn’t much fresh produce going in today, she laments, noting that fewer fruits and vegetables get donated during the harsh Michigan winter.
Rogers and Emily Eicher, students at Wayne State University, started DCF in August 2020 after learning about other successful community fridge programs around the country. Their work taps into Detroit’s extensive history of mutual care and community organizing. To avoid the expense of maintenance of using generators to power the fridges, Rogers and Eicher asked Ryan Yeargin, owner of Hats Galore & More, if they could set up the fridge in the vacant lot behind his store. Yeargin was eager to take part, Rogers tells me; his father, Robert, had prioritized making connections with the community when he ran the shop and would have loved supporting a project like this one. The DCF team typically stocks the five fridges they manage twice each week with donated food or food they buy themselves through community fundraising; some locations also distribute shoes and clothes. It’s hard to know exactly how many people use each fridge, Rogers and Eicher say—they certainly aren’t interested in surveilling who uses these sites—but they do know that the fridges and pantries almost always get emptied within twenty-four hours.
DCF joins a diverse ecosystem of mutual aid practices that has flourished in Detroit, where some 77 percent of residents are Black—the highest proportion of any major American city—and a third live in poverty (double the rate of New York and Los Angeles). “More and more ordinary people are feeling called to respond in their communities, creating bold and innovative ways to share resources and support vulnerable neighbors,” law professor and activist Dean Spade writes in his 2020 book, Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During this Crisis (and the next), about the practice that is growing in a number of places around the world. In Detroit, some groups pool resources to address fundamental needs like food security and warm clothing, while others work on more complex issues like processing trauma and creating nurturing communities. No matter their focus or scope, the mutual aid movement here is steeped in history and working to build the city that politicians and private actors have promised for decades but failed to deliver. The sentiment that “we will not be saved” is increasingly common. But with that belief tends to come the conviction that “we can save ourselves”—by creating new, collaborative systems that better serve everyone’s needs.
Understanding this work requires understanding the distinctive economic hardships, government mismanagement, and forces of racial capitalism that have made Detroit the city it is today.
Nearly two hundred years ago, Detroit was an oft-used, final stop on the Underground Railroad as thousands of escaped slaves crossed the Detroit River into Canada each year. Free Black people found refuge there too, gradually building Black enclaves, churches, and other organizations that practiced the city’s first formal systems of Black mutual aid. The first major influx of Black people into Detroit would come with the Great Migration of the early twentieth century, some years after the establishment of the Ford Motor Company in 1903 cemented Detroit’s status as the auto capital of the country. As detailed in Thomas J. Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (1996), Black people rushed to the Motor City for its alluring economic prospects as well as to escape the Jim Crow South; over the 1940s, Detroit’s Black population doubled to 300,000. Wartime industrial expansion stimulated significant job openings in highly sought-after manufacturing jobs, while labor unions and civil rights organizations fought to expose the hypocrisy of fighting for freedom abroad but allowing discrimination at home. The strategy worked. A 1944 report by the United Auto Workers union found that “a 44 percent advance in wartime employment brought with it an advance of 103 percent in the total number of Negroes employed.”
The postwar industrial boom wouldn’t last, however. Beginning in the 1950s, the auto industry responded to recessions and fluctuating consumer demand by shrinking workforces. Many plants were closed or relocated to cheaper cities. The forces of deindustrialization cost the workers of Detroit and other Rust Belt cities hundreds of thousands of jobs over the next several decades as manufacturers embraced cost-cutting measures like automation and overtime and were incentivized to move factories out of the city to avoid high property taxes and strong labor unions. The dangerous, entry-level jobs most available to Black workers tended to be the first ones eliminated, and factories moving to the wealthier suburbs made it difficult for poorer Black people to access those jobs. Sugrue writes that according to the 1960 census, 19.7 percent of Black auto workers were unemployed, compared to just 5.8 percent of white workers.
Detroit’s economy continued to languish over the rest of the twentieth century, while city and state governments overlooked direct opposition to deindustrialization, white flight, and racial inequality for band-aid solutions like industrial renewal, which meant demolishing and clearing condemned housing in the hope of attracting industrial plants to replace them. Industrial renewal was a significantly flawed policy choice, as it angered the current residents of those neighborhoods, and as Sugrue details, the “the city had no guarantee” in place with companies to fill the cleared land. Developing the land typically was a long, slow process that came without significant economic benefit for the city, signifying a failed “piecemeal attempt to solve an economic problem with far deeper roots.”
Meanwhile, two of the leading Detroit organizations fighting to increase employment opportunities for Black people, the Detroit Urban League (DUL) and the local branch of the NAACP, focused their efforts on improving conditions for highly educated, “skilled” white-collar workers and blue-collar workers who were already employed. Using public pressure, antidiscrimination lawsuits, and internal programing, the DUL and NAACP believed they could create breakthrough white-collar job opportunities for Black people; their success at the top would trickle down to the unemployed and “unskilled” workers, the organizations thought, as white employers would see the worthiness of Black employees more broadly. That didn’t happen. The gains that each reform organization made were mostly limited to creating a few tokenized positions for the Black elite, while “the city’s manufacturing base continued to atrophy.” For their part, federal programs like the Jobs Corps targeted individual skills development instead of structural economic conditions.
Detroit housing also remained heavily segregated as Black people were confined mostly to the east side of the city. (Some of those densely populated Black neighborhoods were permanently destroyed by highway construction that began in the ’40s, a process championed by Mayor Albert Cobo, who said of the harmful expansion, “That’s the price of progress.”) Tensions between Black Detroiters and the rest of the city reached a boiling point in the July 1967 Detroit Rebellion, when the state and federal government sent armed troops to quell a days-long, violent conflict between Black people and the Detroit Police Department that left 43 people dead and hundreds of properties destroyed.
When the U.S. economy collapsed in the 2008 financial crisis, Detroit was hit especially hard. Detroiters abandoned their homes in droves as they lost jobs and mortgage payments outpaced the plummeting value of their properties. Many fled the city altogether, leaving behind thousands of vacant homes.
Despite a bailout from the federal government that saved Chrysler and General Motors, Detroit’s finances continued to struggle under the weight of decades of mismanagement. In 2013, when the city declared bankruptcy, the federal and state governments looked to neoliberal fixes fueled by faith in the market. The Obama administration declined to bailout the city and instead offered grants for demolition and redevelopment of “blighted” areas and other fixes like improving and repairing public transportation that did little to change underlying structural issues. The Republican-controlled state government also enacted a controversial law allowing it to bring school districts and city governments under the control of (unelected) emergency managers, who used their sweeping powers to slash costs and treat cities like Detroit as struggling businesses. Even though Detroit quickly climbed out of its bankruptcy with an influx of corporate financing and downtown redevelopment, Detroiters have not experienced those improvements equally. According to a 2021 report from Detroit Future City, between 2010 and 2019, the median income increased by 60 percent for white people but only 8 percent for Black people. Now, gentrification and further redevelopment threaten to push Black people out of Detroit, and their life expectancies are currently seven years less than a white person’s in the same city.
It is in this environment that mutual aid projects have flourished. While variations have existed in Detroit since at least the early twentieth century, a cohort of the city’s younger organizers are motivated by their lived experiences to solve the problems created by government and private sector practices. Their efforts parallel national developments as people across the country turned to mutual aid projects in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the Motor City in particular, unemployment rates shot up to 48 percent in June 2020 before improving only to about 25 percent through July 2021. As businesses closed and government services shrank, community solidarity offered a path through an uncertain time, and maybe a model for the future. While the pandemic didn’t expose anything that many younger activists weren’t already aware of and frustrated with, seeing the growth of mutual aid networks and practices gave some a way into the work for the first time.
To Jewan Price, one of the leaders of Eastside Mutual Aid (EMA) and a student at Henry Ford Community College, it was always clear how much one’s life is affected by not having enough. Growing up in Detroit, Price could see “what can really happen when you don’t have resources available in your community or at your disposal.” Price is the oldest of eight siblings, and his family experienced bouts of homelessness growing up, often having to move from temporary place to place. “There were times we had to miss school for like half a year,” he remembers. EMA, which began its work in 2020, focuses on directly distributing resources to meet basic needs. Every Wednesday evening Price and other volunteers set up in the parking lot of the Rosa Parks Transit Center, offering clothes and homecooked food to mostly unhoused people. There are free books here too, ranging from a Nicholas Sparks romance novel to pamphlets on socialism and “Racism and the Death Penalty.”
Younger Black Detroiters like Price are used to providing for each other. “Black Detroiters are well aware that we will not be saved—whether that’s by suburban white folks, whether that’s by the motor industry, [or] the federal government,” says Myaia Holmes, the Executive Director of Metro Detroit Mutual Aid, a group that works with other aid organizations on capacity building, training, and support. “Every day, we have to make the effort to save each other.” The route to middle-class comfort several of her family members followed—escaping poverty by working for auto manufacturers—seems increasingly out of reach, she tells me: it is now far more the exception than the rule.
Skeptical of traditional bootstrapping narratives, it’s clear to these young Detroiters that something else must be done to make up for the failures of government and charity. “You realize when you start having conversations with your neighbors, that you can get a lot more done when you worry about [each other],” Rogers tells me. Their determination to embrace collectivity and reject individualism is a “direct response to the longstanding ideas of capitalism and American ideas of being very individualistic,” she adds. Building this sense of community is essential to meeting actual needs, rather than the ones traditional systems only imagine. “You don’t need all of these fancy words and collegiate dialect to ask, ‘yo, what do you need in your community?’” says Price. The key is to “figure it out together.”
In that spirit, EMA’s weekly distributions deliberately reject the model of charitable events, with sharply evident power imbalances between donors and recipients. Instead, organizers and attendees share in unloading cars and setting up folding tables and clothing racks. They laugh and catch up with each other as their small resource hub comes together, without regimented instructions or hierarchies. It remains clear enough that some here have means that others don’t, but there is also a palpable sense of collaborative community-building, of being partners in building something together. In a TikTok EMA posted last April explaining the group’s origin story and core philosophy, Kara Mason, another cofounder, helps prepare bags of snacks and other resources for the weekly distribution. “Mutual aid is not complex,” she says in voiceover. “If you see a need in your community, address it. If you can uplift your neighbor, do it.” To meet requests from the community, a weekly distribution I attended featured backpacks in addition to the usual food and clothing. One woman, Cynthia, cracks jokes as she browses, lightening the mood on this cold Detroit evening.
The city’s diverse mutual aid practices are not only led by younger people. A network of older Detroiters who stayed as others left, are invigorated by a conviction that there will always be more work to be done.
One such resident is Myrtle Thompson-Curtis, a cofounder of Feedom Freedom Growers on the Eastside. There is a short window of time each year when it is possible to start growing food, she tells me. The ground is usually frozen well past the start of spring, but waiting to plant seeds until the summer limits the crops one can grow. Thompson-Curtis shows me her solution: an indoor growth shelf. The wooden shelving stands high above her short stature, not quite a finished product; her son and other volunteers will soon install heating lamps and UV lights. After the late-spring thaw, the peppers and tomatoes grown here will join the watermelon, blueberries, okra, beans, and herbs in the Feedom Freedom garden next to Thompson-Curtis’s home.
In a city that lacks affordable, fresh, and healthy food stores, this garden and the others like it across Detroit are one step toward a solution. “Mama” Myrtle, as some call her, says between hearty giggles that their work in the Eastside community will always be grounded in this commitment to solving problems and creating something better. “I owe my children, grandchildren, and my family, and my community and my village across the world the same determination,” she explains. “It’s a determination not to be beaten back.”
Feedom Freedom’s mission is not purely to grow food. Through the experience of nurturing the garden and a variety of other programming, Myrtle and her husband Wayne Curtis, a former Black Panther, are working to engage, support, and heal with the rest of their Eastside community. Out of another property that the couple owns down the block they run music, arts and education programs for youth, a women’s quilting group, alternative medicine healing sessions, as well as hold meetings on various community concerns. A framed portrait of Breonna Taylor hangs on a ledge overlooking meetings on subjects like community safety and policing. “This house was created to fill the gap of what’s missing,” Thompson-Curtis tells me. The group’s name stems from the Curtis’s belief that achieving liberation requires feeding yourself—literally with healthy food, as well as spiritually, with information, creative expression, and connection to your community. Once a person begins taking that all in, “you are more connected with others, you become connected to the soil, to the planet,” Thompson-Curtis says. “That frees you to a radical revolution of values. Your values become not so materialistic. You see the divine in life and in humanity.”
The Curtises are members of an older cohort of Detroit organizers, activists, educators, who call themselves “solutionaries.” They approach their various mutual aid practices with a different perspective than Detroit’s younger organizers do. While still working toward the same goals as the younger cohort—filling the gaps of care themselves instead of waiting to be saved, creating and empowering community, furthering Black liberation—these older activists tie much of their work and philosophies directly to the past. Many have lived here for decades, directly bearing witness to the inequality and racism that has festered here. But they’ve also witnessed and linked arms with the people and movements that have fought to build a new Detroit at the same time. When I ask who has influenced their work, I hear familiar names: Dr. King, the Panthers, Angela Davis, Malcolm X (who had Detroit roots). But they are most inspired and inextricably linked to each other by the work of a pioneering couple who lived, worked, and struggled right on Detroit’s Eastside: James and Grace Lee Boggs.
“I am a factory worker, but I know more than just factory work,” James Boggs wrote in 1963. “I know the difference between what would sound right if one lived in a society of logical people, and what is right when you live in a society of real people with real differences.” Born in rural Alabama in 1919, Boggs migrated to Detroit after high school to become an autoworker. He was transformed by what he experienced working at the Chrysler Plant during and after World War II, as automation and racism threatened his and other Black workers’ livelihoods. “Jimmy could see that the replacement of workers by machines had a profound impact on who we were as people,” writes Shea Howell, a Detroit activist close with the Boggses. “No longer being able to define ourselves by our work . . . he saw the challenge of defining what it means to be a human being as the most urgent question we were facing.” James became a community organizer and activist, inspired by the Marxist theories he studied. In writings, speeches, and demonstrations, he fought and spoke out against the intertwining oppression of racism and capitalism.
Grace Lee was an influential revolutionary activist, writer, and thinker in her own right. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1915. After earning a PhD in philosophy at Bryn Mawr College, she struggled to find work in academia and moved to Chicago, where she worked as a librarian, lived in a poor, predominantly Black neighborhood on the Southside, and joined a neighborhood group protesting poor housing conditions. The experience was formative, leading her to work with the 1941 March on Washington Movement, organized by A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. (One outcome of the movement was Franklin Roosevelt’s creation of the Fair Employment Practice Committee that effectively banned racial discrimination in the defense industry and gave Black people access to attractive industrial jobs.) “I decided what I wanted to do for the rest of my life was to become a movement activist in the Black community,” Grace wrote in her autobiography, Living for Change (1998). “When the workers take their fate into their own hands,” she explained, “when they seize the power and begin their reconstruction of society, all of mankind will leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom.” “Grace has made more contributions to the Black struggle than most Black people have,” Angela Davis once said of her.
Grace met James in Detroit in 1952, and the couple were married a year later. Together they became leaders of the civil rights and Black Power movements in Detroit. The Boggses and their multiracial coalition of supporters and students understood that collective liberation “remains bound up with black liberation because one people feels the harshest shocks of economic earthquakes and has served as a kind of vanguard in its subjection to state cruelty,” as Tobi Haslett has written of present-day movements. In the epilogue to a new edition of his 2002 book Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, historian Robin D. G. Kelley notes that James and Grace encouraged people to think dialectically about these challenges and look to each other for the solutions in order to build a society that was grounded in “community development, values of cooperation, mutual aid, nonviolence, equality and love.”
An enduring piece of their legacy is a two-story house that stands on a grassy street corner on Detroit’s Eastside. The James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership blends in with the other brick homes on the block, but inside it is a hub of activity, community organizing, and collective care. Members—many of whom worked directly with the Boggses—regularly meet to address any number of community needs, from supporting and coordinating mutual aid organizations to hosting educational workshops and publishing the magazine Riverwise, which highlights local activism and explores local issues. Megan Douglass, a Riverwise editor and program director at the center, says the group’s work is all directed toward continuing James and Grace’s vision: “building mutual aid networks, trying to sustain them, figuring out where you can use whatever clout you may have, [to support them].” One of the most active members of the Boggs Center is Rich Feldman, a white man and retired autoworker who worked closely with the Boggses. He drives me around Detroit’s Eastside, pointing out the vacant lots that people hope to turn into low-income housing, gardens, and art installations that envision a new city. “Detroit is the expression of dying capitalism,” he reflects. “But it’s also where the future will be born.”
One of the Boggses’ foundational lessons for this group of activists and organizers has been the constancy of struggle. James and Grace believed a utopian society would likely never be achieved—that there will never be a point where this kind of liberatory work would no longer be needed. It came from their philosophy of dialectical thinking. As Grace put it in her biography, “in everything there is the duality of both the positive and the negative, that things are constantly changing, and that ideas that were once liberating can become fixations that distort reality.” That perspective may seem dispiriting, but to this group of leaders in Detroit, it is energizing. “[Our work is] not about arriving at any particular destination,” says Amanda Alexander, a board member at the Boggs Center and founder and executive director of the Detroit Justice Center (DJC), a nonprofit law firm that assists community land trusts and co-ops, advocates for abolitionist practices, and provides other legal services to the community. “It is—what are the practices we can be in that are going to put us in a better relationship with each other and the planet?”
The Boggses made special efforts to encourage other Detroiters to engage in those kinds of practices. In 1992, a year before James Boggs passed away, he and Grace started the Detroit Summer collective on the model of 1964’s Mississippi Freedom Summer campaign. Mississippi Freedom Summer famously worked to engage and register as many Black voters as possible, but also created Freedom Schools, which offered political education to Black youth and encouraged them to be active in their communities. In a similar fashion to the Freedom Schools, Detroit Summer’s year-round programming endeavors to “engage [children] in community-building activities with the same audacity with which the civil rights movement engaged them in desegregation activities,” Grace wrote in 2011. To her and James, it was clear that their organizing and mutual care work would fall flat without young people to carry it on. Over the past three decades Detroit Summer participants have practiced community and mutuality by planting community gardens in vacant lots, painting murals, rehabbing homes, and participating in workshops that explore the future of Detroit. The older cohort of mutual aid practitioners here have extended these lessons and built out their own programs to support the next generation of community leaders.
Kim Sherobbi does this work on the Westside block where she has lived most of her life. A retired elementary school teacher and Boggs Center board member, Sherobbi talks fondly of her mother’s involvement in neighborhood’s local block club and the work the group did to foster a positive sense of community. Sherobbi’s mother once lamented to her, “people don’t stay and build their community. They leave. And that’s a problem.” Kim only left briefly, to play college basketball in Texas, but has remained ever since. She now runs the Birwood House organization, a small-scale community center, out of the same house she grew up in. The organization hosts community meetings and educational programming and works to connect neighbors with resources. Its signature program, Community Lens, empowers local middle schoolers to critically observe and reimagine their community through the medium of photography. “The focus is on leadership development,” she says, and also “what’s going on in their community and how they can impact it.” The program also holds regular leadership workshops—on neighborhood stewardship, for example, and recycling. On a wall in Sherobbi’s home that’s been treated with an erasable, white-board-like paint, Community Lens students recently wrote definitions of what it means to feel powerful. “When I solve a problem,” reads one response. “When I’m in the boxing ring,” says another. They continue in a list down the wall: “Ability to make change.” “Having an idea supported.”
While they work in somewhat different spaces and with distinct styles, this older generation of organizers shares with the younger cohort a clear commitment to creating new systems of care. “I don’t care who the mayor of Detroit is,” explains Asandi Conner, the director of the Detroit Equity Action Lab, where she trains and works with young leaders of mutual aid groups, non-profits, and other organizations. “In terms of impacting my daily life, or my environment and my neighbors and my family? We have the capacity and the power within our neighborhood and our blocks and our community to facilitate that,” she says.
In this environment, there is pride in resourcefulness and gratitude for a community of others committed to filling the gaps of care. Last summer in Detroit, severe flooding—exacerbated by the city’s aging infrastructure—consumed the Curtis’ home and the Feedom Freedom garden as it rushed in from a nearby canal. “I can’t imagine it being worse than this,” Thompson-Curtis remembers thinking as she saw her car under water. “I realized how small I was as a human being.” It was the first and only time she has ever considered moving out of Detroit. But as the waters eventually receded, they rebuilt. She doesn’t usually like asking for help, but this time she had to. “My community showed up in a big way,” she says. They cleared the debris, built and acquired new garden equipment, and prepared the soil for a new harvest of resilient crops this summer.
In the forthcoming edition of Freedom Dreams, Kelley describes several of the people mentioned here and others working on mutual aid systems in Detroit as “maroon poets,” activists writing a new vision of self-sustainability, cooperation, and Black liberation. The “maroon” legacy has a rich history in itself, referring to the thousands of enslaved people throughout the Americas who fled bondage to build autonomous communities. By such practices of “marronage,” formerly enslaved people created lives that finally were lived on their own terms. For most marronage practitioners, it was a considered temporary measure, an intermediary step to true freedom. As Kelley sees it, forms of marronage endure today in the generative work of these Detroiters, as well as activists and artists like the Complex Movements, a Detroit based hip-hop collective that combines music performance, multi-media installations, local activism, and organizing workshops. The unifying principle between groups practicing a kind of modern marronage is that there is freedom to be found in the flight from oppressive systems and in the effort to create alternative ways of living.
This is not to say that movements for racial justice have always embraced marronage-like practices such as mutual aid or considered it an end in itself. There is a rich tradition of debate about whether mutual aid can serve political goals. In the 1960s the Black Panthers practiced mutual aid—offering everything from free breakfast programs and schooling to community health clinics. For them it was a “survival program,” a precursor to politics, or, as they explained it, “survival pending revolution.” As Huey Newton put it in 1970: “If the people are not here revolution cannot be achieved.”
Spade notes that mutual aid has also sometimes been misclassified as a charity project, indifferent to the state. That misreading echoes the conservative view that people should take care of their own communities and eschew government. But mutual aid, Spade explains, is really an entry point into movement building, ultimately a profound challenge to the state to provide for its citizens. In his 2015 book, Freedom as Marronage, political theorist Neil Roberts argues that the repeated, singular practices of marronage can in fact be transformative themselves.
The leaders of EMA are aware of criticisms of mutual aid, but they believe it is more important to listen to their community and meet the needs they describe. People sometimes have preconceived notions about “what’s best,” Price explains, “but when they get here [and talk to people], the community needs something completely different.” Marronage and mutual aid may not themselves the end goal, but they can help us get closer to it. “Without new visions we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down,” Kelley writes in Freedom Dreams. “We not only end up confused, rudderless, and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics but a process that can and must transform us.”
If there’s any place to usher in that transformation, it is Detroit. With its cross-generational and multiracial coalitions, its diverse ecosystem of community-centered practices, and its followers of James and Grace Lee Boggs, Detroit’s experiments in liberation exemplify the rejection of systems built on exploitation and racial hierarchy and the beginnings of a new society rooted in community and mutual care. “The key to liberation,” says Price, is “to make people understand, ‘I can do this.’ I can be self-sufficient, with my brother and my sister and my community.” And for that belief and understanding to grow, all it takes is for people to continue to listen to and help one another. “It’s mutual,” he smiles.
Nate File was a 2021-22 Black Voices in the Public Sphere fellow at Boston Review, where he writes about Black liberation and modern forms of marronage. He holds an MFA in journalism from NYU, where he studied long form reporting and writing. Previously, he has written for Philadelphia Magazine and Bedford & Bowery. You can find him on Twitter @Nate_file.
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