A sense of resolute determination that was captured in Chrysler’s Super Bowl advertisement sent shivers of pride down the spines of Michiganders. The two-minute commercial illumined Detroit in such a way to make us want a more personal connection to the city and to its message of hope. But as is seemingly evident, the commercial was advertising more than Chrysler vehicles—it was advertising the Motor City, and it was calling for action. As Eminem stepped out of the car and into the Fox Theatre, I noticed one prominent message subtly displayed on its sign, “Keep Detroit Beautiful,” and I began to ponder our responsibility as University of Michigan students to carry out this message.
This is an especially stressful time on campus for students. Seniors are struggling to finalize career plans, and interviews are being conducted for positions in the top paying private sector—positions we have been told are crucial for launching a successful career. Between our academic commitments and planning our future, is it even reasonable to consider that we have a responsibility to the city of Detroit? And, if so, what would our work entail? Sure, we can manage to sacrifice a few hours every here and there to volunteer, and there are several student organizations on campus that provide the opportunity to do so. Maybe we’ll even spend a semester or an Alternative Spring Break in Detroit. However, as a tutor myself through the Detroit Partnership, I know I’m not the only one who has questioned the impact we are making on the city at large when we help a few middle school students with algebra every Friday afternoon.
Perhaps we are simply not in the position to seriously affect significant change on the larger social problems that perpetuate the socioeconomic disparities in Urban America—at least not yet. However, there exists an inherent conflict between the pressure placed upon securing our impending future by seeking out stable, high-paying jobs to justify the tuition we cough up, to the reality that careers in community development are not quite esteemed by their prestige, nor do they offer a secure and strategic launching point—with the exception of the job as a community organizer that Barack Obama took as a 23 year old in Chicago’s South Side.
The personal responsibility, or lack thereof, that Michigan students have towards contributing to the social, economic and political development of Detroit is paradoxically at odds with the pressures that have been placed upon us to be the Leaders and the Best. Detroit needs some of the energy and enthusiasm we exude on football Saturdays, some of the talent we have as one of the top research institution in the nation. But the city needs more than a few hours of volunteer work. It needs more than fundraising campaigns for local non-profits. It needs more than a reference in a tweet, despite how catchy “Imported from Detroit” is. The city of Detroit needs those who can make to it a long-term investment and a passionate commitment.
As we pursue internship opportunities and work that bring us around the world doing public service, or shadowing the top dogs in Corporate America or politicians in the District of Columbia, we might keep in mind that a mere forty-five minutes outside from our quaint college town is a city that could use some bright ideas. Perhaps Bo Schembechler was referring to more than just the football game when he so wisely spoke, “Those who stay will be champions.”
(Photo by Bob Jagendorf under a Creative Commons license)