Walking Detroit

This story originally appeared on The Jewish News on December 23, 2013

By Michael Evers

I do a lot of walking and traveling. This year, my feet brought me to Detroit. Here, I serve as “boots on the ground” — a notion I’ve always been uncomfortable with. Thick laces constrain and hard soles leave a deep impression on the Earth. But, as a Repair the World Fellow, I’m learning to tread well in Detroit.

Prior to signing on with Repair the World, I lived on an ecological farm in Israel. I grew up in Cincinnati, followed by DePaul University in Chicago. (But really, my story began in Ann Arbor, where I was born.) As my time overseas came to a close, I learned about an entrepreneurial fellowship based on community service, volunteering and Jewish reflection. This year, four of my “fellow Fellows” and I are living and working together to help support robust and resilient communities in Detroit.

Among our many community partnerships is Bagley Elementary School. I go there twice a week to read, write and play with students in the Bagley Book Brigade. To engage the students and volunteers, I’ve started a journalism pen pal program partnering Bagley students with Hillel of Metro Detroit and Chalkfly, a school supply company with a social mission.

This past week was the first exchange of notebooks. The smiles on my students’ faces as they discovered a full-page letter — addressed and responding directly to them — filled them with wonder, appreciation and enthusiasm. The week before, these same students had assailed me with questions of whom we were writing to and how much information they had to give about themselves. But, as soon as the notebooks arrived, the barriers melted away and the rare guest of silence visited the room, followed by the quiet scratching of pencils on paper as they promptly responded.

Moments like those at Bagley are what Repair the World is looking to foster all the time: to build relationships, foster communal connection and engage in service involving all sorts of people and all types of communities. From Downtown to the Metro area, I work, learn and serve. Which brings me back to footwear.

There’s a lot of ground to cover and, when I walk, I prefer wearing soft shoes on my feet. Soft shoes tread lightly and give a strong and natural grip on whatever surface I come upon. In just two short months of walking Detroit, the stories I’ve heard from city residents, the people I’ve met and what I’ve witnessed with my own eyes have taught me a few lessons.

There is an atmosphere of scarcity in Detroit — kind of. People are clustered in some neighborhoods while scattered in others. One evening while driving on the east side, I entered a stretch of city blocks with no streetlights on my way to the James and Grace Lee Boggs School. When I arrived at my destination, the building was full of light and packed with people. The contrast between the emptiness outside the school and the people inside made me confront my preconceived notions about the city.

Detroit has stories being lived out in neighborhoods, shops, gardens, schools, churches and local block clubs. We need to respect those stories — just as importantly, work to understand them — and, ultimately, to be part of them.

The task of repairing the world is not as grand as the English for tikkun olam makes it out to be. Rather, the work of repairing the world is a small and personal task to mend ourselves — and through our own listening, learning and healing — the world.

Michael Evers is a Repair the World fellow living in Detroit this year.