Dispatch From (Alternative) Spring Break: Detroit

This post was written by Emily Zonder, a student at University of Michigan who participated in an inspiring Alternative Spring Break program with Hillel and Repair the World. 

To say that my Alternative Spring Break trip to Detroit was a meaningful experience would be a vast understatement. It has taken me just over a month to even begin to find the right words to describe all that ASB meant to me — and quite honestly, I’m not sure any words on any page will have the power, strength, or weight to accomplish that — which is something that I think is important to remember as you read on.

ASB: Detroit was one of two trips that was run through Hillel at the University of Michigan (the other, a trip to New Orleans). We were a group of nine — some more familiar with each other than others, all hailing from different backgrounds, majors, and familiarities with social justice and Judaism as a whole. Our trip was the product of a partnership with Repair the World, whose energetic and thoughtful fellows helped my co-student leader, Kendall, and I craft the most enriching and intentional itinerary that we possibly could.

While in Detroit, our days were packed — beginning in the early hours of the mornings and ending well into the evenings. We spent what seemed like every moment doing one of four things: learning, working, exploring, or reflecting. We learned from various leaders and activists about the challenges that many of the communities in Detroit face, and worked in the mornings and evenings as volunteers at various community-based organizations aiming to address those very issues. Our afternoons were dedicated to exploring — and by that, I mean that we led after-school programming for a wonderful group of seventh graders from Earhart Elementary-Middle School where we embarked on a series of after-school adventures throughout the city. Our journey with the Earhart students led us to places ranging from La Gloria Bakery and Clark Park to Campus Martius; from the Detroit Historical Museum and the Detroit Opera House to the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue. All of these pieces of our time in Detroit were woven together with an ongoing process of reflection — a practice that our ASB group did together as a community, purposefully and meaningfully, after every adventure, program, and conversation.

For eight days, we did our best to live intentionally and work consciously — two aims that, while incredibly challenging at times, left our group thinking critically and, at the end of the week, hungry for more opportunities and experiences that would allow us to continue to do so.

Since returning to Ann Arbor, we have spent a significant amount of time (both individually and as a group) discussing the impact of our trip — more specifically, the impact that we made on the communities that we worked within, as well as the impact that those same communities had on us. It has taken me, personally, all of this time, handfuls of conversations, and dozens of pages in my journal to piece together all that I have learned and all of the ways in which ASB has impacted me. The list is long, personal, incomplete, and growing every day.

That said, there is one theme that I wrote down almost immediately when my post-ASB reflection process began, one idea that I have found myself returning to each day since those first moments in the “After” (a term that our group has been using to refer to this stage in our journey). I’ve written it big and bold, countless times in countless places:


This lesson was taught to me by my new seventh grade friends over the course of the five days that we spent together, expressed through an ongoing series of conversations and experiences and interactions. It is a statement that I thought I understood prior to ASB, but not nearly to the extent at which I know I understand it now.

The Earhart students planted this seed in my head on Monday (the first day we spent together) as we all bonded over interactive theater games and filled the Repair the World Workshop space with laughter, energy, and light. The idea grew steadily in my mind as the week went on — every adventure bringing more opportunities to connect with and learn from one another, each day fostering an even greater sense of respect and understanding among a group of individuals whose identities, cultures, and stories all differed greatly.

To all of those who are reading this and had a stake in making my ASB experience all that it was: thank you. I am and forever will be incredibly grateful for everything about the time we were able to spend together. You have affected me in a greater sense than I believe I can describe, and I will walk through this world carrying all that I have learned with and from you wherever I go from this moment forward.

By the end of the week, I had noticed a significant change in the way we were listening to and engaging with one one another. There was a sense of community in the air that was rooted in compassion, empathy, and love that left me feeling warm and empowered. And, based on the last activity we did with the Earhart students — one where everyone wrote kind words of encouragement for each other to take home with them afterwards — I know that I was not alone in feeling this way.

I realized then what I believe wholeheartedly now: where there is love, there is power; where there is empathy, there is opportunity to build relationships and community; and where there are are people actively striving to live their lives with these things in mind, we can and will begin to overcome the injustices that have impacted all too many communities and people for far too long.