Archive for the 'detroit public schools' Category

Plug Into the LAMPpost

By Invincible and Jenny Lee

Originally published in the Newsletter of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit

“They used to plug into the lamppost, wiring sound systems, linoleum ground spinning, wind-milling a dance broke.

Vocal emceeing, mobile museums-transport untold stories for the global to see them, call them vandals. Battles instead of bullets…”

20 plus years after block parties in the South Bronx midwifed hip-hop culture, we found ourselves in a time warp, but rather than New York City, we were on the corner of Poplar and Lawton on Detroit’s near West side. This block party to connect hip-hop and activism was for a youth leadership and community organizing program we work with called Detroit Summer. It consisted of all day performances including the neighborhood church children’s choir, Miz Korona, Black Bottom Collective, DJ Len Swann, live graffiti murals, and head-spins on sun baked concrete. Since the early 90s, Detroit Summer had been doing the nuts and bolts work of growing community– working with youth to rehabilitate abandoned houses, paint murals and take over vacant land with community gardens. Ever since the success of the first block party, we saw how Hip-Hop could bring people together and transform a community in the same way. It brought new life into our work by tapping us into the undercurrent of youth energy that is the Detroit Hip-Hop scene. We were also fortunate enough to connect with one of the culture’s pioneers living in our midst, Bronx native, Prince Whipper Whip. By making a link between our block parties and Hip-Hop’s origins, we resurrected the value system that produced Hip-Hop–relying on our own ingenuity to solve problems creatively without violence, and reclaiming our community power—plugging into lampposts.

“Self taught. Each one, teach one ruling their school of thought.
With no diploma we stand on the shoulders of soldiers.
breakin the status quotas and wake us out of comas that control us.”

Detroit’s school system is in crisis. While some might try to paint hip hop as part of the problem, we looked to it as part of the solution. We saw that youth were coming into our programs through Hip-Hop and often times it was Hip-Hop that kept them there. More than just learn how to emcee, they learned critical thinking and creative problem solving with Hip-Hop as the vehicle. Detroit Summer is modeled after the Mississippi Freedom schools of the 1960s, where amidst a failing and unjust school system, the community provided the kind of education people needed in order to take power over their lives and shape their own futures.

In Detroit, with one of the nation’s highest dropout rates, we can see that this approach is needed now more than ever. One of our great mentors and a founder of Detroit Summer, Grace Lee Boggs wrote, “Instead of trying to bully young people to remain in classrooms structured to prepare them to become cogs in the existing economic system, we need to recognize that the reason why so many young people drop out from inner city schools is because they are voting with their feet against a system which sorts, tracks, tests, and rejects or certifies them like products of a factory. They are crying out for another kind of education that values them as human beings and gives them opportunities to exercise their Soul Power.” In its best form, Hip-Hop culture can play an integral role in the kind of education that allows young people to revalue themselves as visionaries, leaders, and shape shifters.

“So now we plug into the LAMP quotes. Drop outs and walk outs.
They say you ain’t got a say you’re too young and you can’t vote.

Demanding understanding they shove it down your damn throat,
while you’re checking ya man’s pulse. I’m checking the public schools hand’s pulse.
Almost a flat line. Try to make a change and get slapped with a fine. Suspension or a felony charge.
Expelled or put in jail behind bars we got a vision for a new way of living.
Rebel(v.) with a cause”.

In the summer of 2006, Detroit Summer launched a campaign to transform the entire education system in Detroit, inspired by several young people we worked with who had dropped out, or were considering dropping out, as well as some who were organizing in their schools for a change but were suspended or arrested as a result. After attending several community forums on the issue we noticed a glaring piece was missing; no one was asking youth, the people most impacted by the schools crisis, what they thought. There were fingers pointed but no long-term sustainable solutions proposed. We realized that we needed to evolve the whole concept of what it meant to campaign for social change. What would happen if we explored the question of why people drop out as a community, in order to generate solutions as a community, while prioritizing the voices of youth? And what if, instead of a standard campaign 12-point platform, we created a Hip-Hop audio documentary to express our demands? And what if we didn’t just critique the outdated teaching methods that are in place, but also modeled the process of hands-on real life learning? We launched the Live Arts Media Project (LAMP) as an answer to all those questions and an experiment in a different type of community organizing.

We’ve found that the model of Hip-Hop-based community organizing, developed through the Live Arts Media Project, is useful to people in many different places, facing similar crises as Detroit. Since the completion of our first Hip-Hop audio documentary, entitled “Rising Up From the Ashes: Chronicles of a Dropout”, LAMP youth and artist mentors have traveled around the Midwest, California, and as far as Deheishe Refugee Camp in the West Bank, Palestine exchanging models with other youth leadership projects. In LAMP, we use Hip-Hop to investigate, illuminate, and transform. Through that process, we’ve learned that the lasting solutions to our deepest problems will emerge from the ground up.

“Not just numbers they added up on count day. The heart strength and ambition they wanna down play. Channel the Anger the apathy and the outrage. Get with the movement or get out the way.”

(Lyrics by Invincible taken from the song “LAMPpost” by Finale and Invincible-as appears on LAMP’s “Rising Up From The Ashes…Chronicles of a Drop Out” CD.)


Comparative Literature


Today Mike and I did a little holiday shopping at John King Books, one of Detroit’s most awesome places to lose hours in. Although I barely scratched the surface, I still found some things: one Russian dystopian sci-fi book called We and two reproductions of old-tyme wood-cut christmas cards. The cards are really beautiful, if surprisingly morbid. One of them depicts “Charlie” – a little boy on a “wintry, piteous night,” who’s getting ready to “meet the angels.” On the inside it says, “amidst the joy there are still too many Charlies in the world.”

John King Books is one of the places that makes Detroit great. It boasts “over one million used and rare books.” It has a range of categories that resembles an encyclopedia. There is no computerized method of tracking the books, but if you ask the woman behind the desk on the first floor about the illustrated book of fairy tales by Oscar Wilde, the Illuminati Papers or the history of Hamtramck, she will tell you whether or not your selection is among the million. Then, if for some reason it’s not, she will recall the person who came earlier and luckier than you, to obtain it. Finally, she’ll assure you that multiple copies of your selection exist in the world and if you just try back often enough, you’ll get it eventually.


This is something I found on flickr. I guess it’s a picture of The Detroit Public Schools’ book depository. The post said: “…it was finally abandoned in the 80’s with a building full of supplies that have sat deteriorating and wasting-away while the school system can’t supply their students with the basic necessities.”

It’s interesting. Though I’m pretty heavily involved in educational justice stuff through Detroit Summer, I didn’t know this existed. Looking at this picture gives me the same tragedy-stricken sense of disbelief that driving past the Packard Plant or the old Michigan Central gives. But even more than that it gives me a gross sense of gazing upon tragedy through the lens of an “urban explorer.” I could be really wrong… but the photographer, and the flickr community of photographers who commented on this image, struck me as archetypes of the unfortunate, suburb-dwelling, disaster-fetishists. Many of the comments were predictable: from “what a mess” to “how hauntingly beautiful.” But others went so far as this one: “…after checking the forecast for Detroit – I can only think of one thing left to do with this mess. Bring your hot dogs though.”

If this urban-explorer-photographer’s efforts amount to this, to pats on the back from his collegues, to expressions of immobilizing despair, and conclusions for a ‘final solution’ to Detroit’s problems, then I hope the next adventure is met with this: a hauntingly beautiful pack of wild dogs.

…Not really. Some friends that were visiting me from out of town last summer got chased by a pack of wild dogs and it was no joke! I wouldn’t wish that upon anyone. But I do wish that the people whose curiosity brings them in and out of this city had more humility towards the vitality that persists here, more respect for facts of suffering, less enfatuation with the fantasy of the post-apocalypse. And I wish that they would figure out something better to do than take pictures of it all.