I’ve had a lot on my mind since I spent a few June days in Detroit. To process what I learned and keep some of my promises, I’ve participated in a group forum, introduced colleagues, talked and tweeted with other media makers and filled out a survey explaining what made the time “powerful” for me. That’s a good word to describe the four days that journalists and media people “conspired” (to quote one of the organizers), in the formerly holy space of St. Andrews on the Wayne State campus. In a church without its pews or pulpit, we journalists talked about our survival.
Now my ideas have stewed a bit, the dust kicked up has found new places to settle and in a few forthcoming posts I can share with some clarity a few of the more potent lessons that I took away from the conference titled, “Create or Die”.
First, the welcome. The greeting from the director of the Journalism Institute for Media Diversity at Wayne State, Alicia Nails, caught my attention. I later told Alicia that I could listen to her all day. Her presence and her voice filled the space. She took the microphone with a gracious nod, looked at each of us seated in a circle surrounding her and told us we were in a city with a global reputation. She charged us to be mindful of whose town we were in and asked us to be open to learning things about Detroit that might challenge our perceptions, built with images and reports from an unfair news media. Later, at our gathering on day four, she asked that we perform acts of journalism in the memory of our time together. That became my benediction. Before I left, I asked her to repeat part of her welcome, just to give you a sense of her poetic style.
With an even longer view, Grace Boggs, a 95 year-old activist from the motor city, echoes Nails. She has seen the waves of prosperity, desperation and hope visit her city. She tells Yes! Executive Editor Sarah van Gelder:
Detroit was once the national and international symbol of the miracles of industrialization and then became the national and international symbol of devastation of deindustrialization. Now it is becoming the national and international symbol of a new way of living-of great transformation. [article: Detroit’s Renewal: Can it inspire the Social Forum]
It was that same sprout of hope and renewal that brought JTM to Detroit. It was also a sense of justice. There are community leaders and journalists in that city who want to tell more stories that represent the residents. The people there want to see stories about what’s working alongside the important stories of the car industry’s peril, the crime and the desolation. They want the corruption covered as well as the cultural events. Most importantly, however, they want the videos, articles, newscasts, broadcasts or podcasts to come from within the city limits. For too long, they say, journalists have parachuted into the hot spots of Detroit from the safety of their suburban towns or other major cities. Many locals attending the conference even consider the TIME Inc. experiment, a house purchased for reporters to use when they’re in the city, an epic fail. Attendees pointed out that no one actually lives there all the time. Certainly no reporters have stayed long enough to invite the neighbors in or become part of the local channels of communication.
There are journalists in Detroit who want that TIME house and want the megaphone to tell the world their story. What I learned in Detroit is that true understanding of a place comes from taking time to touch, smell, feel and hear that place and listen to the stories of its people. I understand better now how different I am from a resident of Detroit, and I know there are ways to work with the people there to nurture Detroit’s sprout of hope into a towering tree with deep roots and branches that reach up with hope into heaven.