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(This blog is from the Summer of 2016.)
Few times in your life will you stumble upon a woman whose heart is as deeply devoted in her community as Yolanda’s. Her empathy is ready to cry with you when have lost your mother, laugh with you at the funniest quip, sit with you when what you need is silence but not solitude, encourage you when the floods of life keep your head below water, and tell you “I understand” — because she has lived it all.

Yolanda Scarborough is a native Michigander, having grown up in the city of Lansing (for those not familiar with Michigan geography — it’s in the middle of the mitten). In 2007 she moved, with her husband and family, to Las Vegas only to return to Michigan three years ago. Breast cancer made the first two of those last three years a living hell, yet she conquered it with an invigorating smile that brightens your life even when the Great Lakes send out their army of clouds. Yolanda has an awareness about this world that exceeds even the sages of old. Her life has history. Her life has tragedy. Her life has power and testament. And most importantly, Yolanda herself, has and gives hope.

I didn’t get to meet Yolanda until a few weeks into my internship. While my role has delegated me as more of an office rat, she is out on the daily with the 25 student interns in the DFA’s summer program. There wasn’t a whole lot of “mystery” about her, but the fact that I knew her so little was the perfect excuse to ask her to tell me a whole lot. The few occasions that I had spent with her made it evident that she was wise without end. Driving down the streets of Detroit, she verbally wrestled through competing dynamics of poverty and development. Her inner monologue is always on display. Sensitive to every emotion or feeling that another might have, she can pick up on even the softest ripples. And she does so with care and compassion. This is important in her role where, every day, she interacts with young people who themselves are trying to make sense of a world newly opened up to them and the inner transformations that occur as they wade through their summer internships.

“Most of these kids have never known anything outside of the four blocks around their house and the walk to school.” Yolanda offered revelation after revelation about the plight of education in Detroit. “Their high schools look like prisons, some even lack mirrors and require students to wear clear backpacks while walking through metal detectors each morning”. She recalled her first tour of one of these campuses after having just joined the DFA last year. As she and Will, a senior DFA staff member, walked, she became veritably upset at how closely it resembled the inside of a modern prison. Will uttered the sad reality that “they are working exactly as they should” — that these schools are systemic perpetuators of the “school to prison pipeline.” Pounded into these students’ minds are the daily reminders that the powers at be don’t believe these kids will account for much, that eventually they’ll drop out or end up on the streets, that a better and more committed teacher shouldn’t try to find a job in Detroit, that violence will never cease, that there is no hope. Yet this is what Yolanda is trying to fight.

Yolanda believes in the DFA because, in her words, “the cures for hopelessness will save Detroit”, and the DFA is one of those many prescriptions. “Food is a universal language”, she tells me. Her students know this too. One young girl uttered the simple but powerful truth during class last week, that “Food is unity because everybody has to eat!”. The great thing about food, Yolanda tells me, is how it opens up a world of learning to these students. Take Oregano. It is a simple herb used to season sauces and Italian dishes. But the story doesn’t end with how to use it. There are questions that precede your finding a jar of it in a store. How did it get there? Where is it from? What does the plant look like? These questions open up conversations not just about food, but also about world history and geography and biology. And so DFA in itself offers these students a sort of holistic education that they aren’t gleaning from their own High Schools. With the creative and yummy activities put on by the DFA, there is no difficulty in getting young folks to learn. Learning, then, becomes a source of hope.

Learning is also very difficult for these students because, as Yolanda tells me, it forces them to reckon with the privileges they have never been afforded. Food, though a unifying necessity, is also endowed with layers of privilege. The small things, like diversities in palette and taste, that many of us take for granted can be hurdles for others. When attempting to jump that hurdle, it can sting with the reminders of class, race, privilege, and poverty that have – until now – kept these students unaware of the colorful possibilities in food and flavor. Yolanda tells the story of a young girl who was overwhelmingly upset one day when the group decided to cook Blueberry rather than Apple Pies. Not settling down in the slightest, Yolanda finally realized what was going on. “You’ve never had a blueberry!”, offering her tender insight and a fresh blueberry to the student. The girl nodded, scared to admit that such an insignificant berry to most had never even graced her lips until now. But biting into that first berry opened up a world of opportunity. And creating that opportunity for each student is very fuel Yolanda uses to fan her flame.

Yolanda is also committed to the DFA because she knows that, without her, most of these students would lack the sort of friend and role model she becomes for them. “Anything these kids have gone through, I’ve done it three times over”. Her words are authentic and brutal. She opened up to me about the deep difficulties of her childhood and a family situation that would startle even the most veteran listener. And for the sake of privacy, I’ll keep my more detailed knowledge of them locked safe in the notebook of my mind. But trust me, Yolanda means every word when she says she has gone through it all. Yet she has grown stronger because of it, never debilitated, only empowered. She wants to make sure every student knows that they can overcome the same — no matter how battered and downtrodden they feel at first.

I am moved to finish this blog by recalling Gatsby. You see, that old sport had this “extraordinary gift of hope” that could “believe in you like you believed in yourself… at your best”. Maybe I just have a more positive view of Fitzgerald’s grand Opus, but I’d like to believe that Jay Gatsby could impart via his hope an irresistible vigor for life. And Yolanda instills that same vigor every day.