Rhee ’16 on community activism

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This is the second post from our new column highlighting the voices and experiences of students of color on Brown’s campus. This post, by Alissa Rhee ’16, focuses on her involvement with the Motor City Exchange and community activism in general. Check out the first entry in this series and the BDH’s coverage of Alissa’s work as well!

After procrastinating on school/gym time/work by reading an unhealthy amount of blogs on race-based issues and critically engaging in spaces to discuss them, I began to feel comfortable embracing my ethnic rage identity. This shift in perspective has made me more aware of the nuances of my involvement with community development and racial equity.

Though we can identify as people of color, Asians and Asian Americans must remain conscious of the ways in which our experiences differ from African Americans, Latin@s, Natives, and other minority groups and how that affects our interactions with those communities of color. We’re fortunate to have spaces like MPC workshops, the TWC, and student groups to discuss these issues. However, it was only once I was offered the opportunity to work with a nonprofit in Detroit and to assist in coordinating a fellowship program that I could put discourse into practice.

Motor City Exchange (MCX) was started by my friend and peer, Ben Gellman ’14. Together with our friend Naomi Varnis ’16, we have spent countless hours stress-eating candy, monopolizing the Fish Bowl in Faunce and following celebrities through our official Twitter account communicating with host sites, focusing our mission for the fellowship program, and coordinating housing and funding for our fellows—on top of Netflixing and other everyday tasks of a Brown student. The result of our intense bonding sessions/work is a 10-week fellowship program that brings in undergraduates both from Michigan schools and Brown.

The programming, which will include workshops and roundtable discussions with fellows and Detroiters, is an essential part of the fellowship. It’s imperative that we understand not only the work that we’re doing, but also why and how we’re doing it (in the words of one of our stellar fellows, Cherise Morris).

Though Detroit has long upheld the reputation for being a black and white city, it now ranks among the nation’s largest Arab American, Yemeni American, Bangladeshi American, Hmong American, Laotian American, and Chaldean-Iraqi American communities, with a very large and growing Latin@ community. However, most of our host sites are located in and work with the poor, black neighborhoods within the city. As a result, most of our fellows and I are racial and/or spatial outsiders in Detroit.

While we may bring a different energy and set of ideas to the host sites with which we will be working, our personal knowledge of the city and its history is limited largely to Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis and articles that we’ve read on HuffPo. Staying conscious of our limitations is crucial to being able to facilitate discussions on how we approach the work we’re given this summer.

With this applicant pool and our MCX staff generally, Ben, Naomi, and I found ourselves increasingly concerned with what it means when we bring not only people from outside of Detroit, but also people who are not black, to work in predominantly black neighborhoods. We wanted to avoid unleashing an army of white hipsters interested in ruin tourism and urban renewal gentrification on the city of Detroit.

We have spent hours trying to figure out how we will be received by these neighborhoods if we try to bring together a diverse group of Brown students and Detroit community members who are willing to share their experiences in the city to foster a conversation that teaches undergraduates about the communities in which they’re working. Bridging racial divides — especially in a historically black and white city — to build capacity at small, community-based nonprofits has the potential to be polarizing in ways that could prove counterproductive to any work we may do with these organizations. Unfortunately, we won’t know how to concretely reconcile any tensions there may be with the community until we have begun the program this summer.

Personally, I’ve struggled a lot with my vision for my own experience this summer. Before I even knew about Motor City Exchange, I had planned to work with one of our host sites, Builders of Promise (BOP). It’s an opportunity that I know could teach me more about community development and grassroots organizing than many of the classes available to me at Brown.

However, as an Asian American from the suburbs of Aurora, Colorado, I, like many of our fellows, am a racial and spatial outsider. BOP is in a black neighborhood on the west side of Detroit. Although I try to engage in dialogue that thinks critically about race, I recognize that my experience does not always apply to other communities of color.

Moreover, talking about race relations in community development is different from putting these lessons into practice. While I’m enthusiastic about the opportunity to work in a space focused on community development and racial equity, I have spent more time than ever figuring out how to avoid being some model minority savior in a city I don’t really know.

I still have my reservations about this summer. It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the job I will have, both with BOP and Motor City Exchange. It’s disheartening to think that I may not be able to be successful on account of my being an outsider, but the undying idealist in me knows that this summer could be a transformative one (pending the LINK award). These kinds experiences are what I need if I expect to understand what it takes to play a productive role in community development with communities of color.

1 Comment

  1. Robert Lee

    Dear Alyssa,
    I read your piece with great interest. Good for you!
    While you are in Detroit I highly recommend checking out the Boggs Center. (BoggsCenter.org) founded by Grace Lee Boggs, an Asian American activist who has been organizing in Detroit for fifty years. A truly amazing and inspirational woman (91 and still amazingly active). I use her latest book The Next American Revolution, Sustainable Activism for the 21st Century in my courses.
    Best of luck.
    Bob Lee, American Studies

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