(This blog is from the Summer of 2016.)
About this time a year ago, I didn’t have to explain myself to everyone who asked about my summer plans. I was getting ready to go to Geneva for summer study abroad. When I shared the news with friends and family, I received warm reactions and my excitement was returned. Reactions changed when I shared plans to study abroad in Turkey the following semester. Instead of excitement and positive reactions, I got advice to “stay safe” and looks of concern. My desire to see anything beyond the comforts of western Europe was met with much resistance even within my own family. Now, after a few months home, I have convinced everyone to go to Istanbul.
Unfortunately, I experienced the same reactions when I tell people I am interning in Detroit. Usually, the first reaction is “oh”. This is followed with some remark about how dangerous Detroit is or how it has no redeeming qualities, accompanied with looks of confusion and almost pity- looks of “she has no idea what she’s doing or how unsafe it is”.
I tried to stay positive and start changing people’s minds about Detroit before I even arrived. Sharing with them the stories of social entrepreneurs and the grass-roots rebuilding of a city. I tried to remember most people only hear about the bankruptcy, crime, and abandonment of Detroit. I was trying to overcome the power of a single story. No one better articulates the dangers of the single story than Chimanda Ngozi Adichie,
“I’ve always felt that is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar…Stories have been used to dispossess and malign, but stories can be used to empower and humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”- Chimanda Ngozi Adichie
Even the stories I had read about Detroit were incomplete. My first few days in Detroit, I was overwhelmed with a sense of community. I knew about the entrepreneurial ventures and spirit, but I grossly underestimated the sense of community driving the bottom-up rebuilding of the city. Through Detroit Experience Factory, we toured all parts of the city – good and bad – then went on a scavenger hunt through downtown. Whether it was asking for directions or answers to our scavenger hunt questions, everyone was more than willing to help. Whether you’re a Detroit native, summer intern, or tourist, if you’re in Detroit, you are a part of Detroit. Our first Friday, we attended Shop Talk – a monthly panel discussion at a barbershop where panelists are asked to speak about entrepreneurship and their experiences, while getting a haircut, to a broader audience. At Shop Talk, the founder of Lip Bar, Melissa Butler, said the bankruptcy was the best thing to happen to Detroit. It brought people together in a way only hardship can. While my work at BUILD Institute will help entrepreneurs in Detroit and contribute to the community efforts to rebuild, I hope my stories from my internship will reach beyond Detroit to overcome its single story.