A new oral history project headed by an Eastern Michigan University professor documents grassroots activists' accounts of Detroit’s emergency management and bankruptcy.
The Voices from the Grassroots project’s website was released on Thursday, Oct. 26 and features interviews from 41 grassroots organizers, over 2,000 pages of transcript and three interactive timelines that unpack injustices in Detroit’s history. Peter Blackmer, professor of Africology and African American Studies, proposed the project in 2018, about four years after Detroit’s democratic control was returned to the city.
The website compiles 80 hours of interviews into detailed briefs of the interviewees for readers and embedded Youtube links to full filmed interviews for listeners. The organizers' anecdotes are categorized into three issues surrounding the emergency takeover: education, water and land. A timeline of each issue corresponding to information from the interviews makes the information accessible to community members, students, archivists and more.
In March of 2013, while the city was still reeling from the 2008 recession, Governor Rick Snyder declared Detroit was in a financial emergency, and unilaterally placed a lawyer with history in corporate bankruptcy replacing the power of the elected city council and mayor. The lawyer, Kevyn Orr, remained in this position for over a year until Governor Snyder accepted his resignation in December of 2014. Those 18 months were transformative to Detroit and whether his actions were beneficial to the city has been up for debate since his departure.
A few months into his appointment, Orr filed the city for bankruptcy to reverse the trajectory of the city's 18 million dollar debt. As a result, social security services were slashed, water shutoffs grew in frequency and schools were closed among a number of consequences that affected thousands of Detroiters.
“The way that this history is going to be told in the future is going to be informed by the records and the voices and the materials that are available to the people writing these histories,” said Blackmer. "The voices of people who are critical of emergency management who were fighting against it. Fighting against the suspension of democracy, water shutoffs, tax foreclosures, school closures, pension theft, asset theft. All of these manifestations of austerity, those voices were being excluded, erased, marginalized, and criminalized from popular discourse and the historic record.”
The Voices from the Grassroots project was supported through the Detroit Equity Action Lab, a community centered initiative of Damron J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State that trains activists and community leaders doing racial equity work. Blackmer’s background in studying social movements and making those histories available to popular audiences paved the way to become a fellow at DEAL. Blackmer proposed the project after starting at DEAL in 2018. This project has two main goals: challenging the current narrative of Detroit's emergency management and being a resource for organizers through platforming critical insights, lessons and strategies told from grassroots organizers.
After years of research on independent community outlets and notating recurring names and preparation to set the project’s intentionality, the interview process arrived. Blackmer asked every subject whose voice needs to be heard at the end of every interview, so the list grew as connections were made.
Connections require doors of trust to be open, and Blackmer recognizes the responsibility to be able to share these stories. Blackmer credits his opportunity to interview Aliya Moore and Yolanda Peoples to a voucher from long time activist Helen Moore.
“They only agreed to be interviewed for the project because Mother Moore vouched for us because they know how badly academics can burn local people and grassroots organizers,” said Blackmer.
While interviewing Wayne Curtis or Baba Wayne on the front steps of the last remaining Black Panther Party office in Detroit, people came out of their houses to check out why a camera crew was filming in front of the boarded up building. Many people living in that neighborhood during the time that the Black Panther office was operating remained rooted and told their accounts of receiving free breakfast through the People’s Free Food Program and lessons they learned through the party's influence.
“There is a lot of joy contained in these interviews, a lot of pride,” said Blackmer.
The project team was faced with hundreds of hours of recorded interviews and transcripts, so they worked with EMU and Wayne State students, activists and journalists among other community members to write profiles of the interviewees. The entire project team grew to 45 members with an intention to hire black Detroiters who do not have a background in organizing work, so the experience could act as a gateway to get connected with activists.
Adding the timelines were important to this project for many reasons, the first to contextualize the stories from the organizers in the greater systematic faults in Detroit’s history. Also, they can be embedded into media articles, which is a major facet of changing the narrative and uplifting the organizers stories.
A launch event kicked off the website on the release date. Around 65 journalists, students, academia, community members and contributors to the project came to the event and were interacting with each other and Detroit’s history. It began with background on the project and what its intentions were, then moved onto a demonstration on how the website works and focused on showing clips from the interviews.
“What was, I think, particularly profound from how I was interpreting audience reactions was playing clips from the interview with Rev. Dr. JoAnn Watson, who has since joined the ancestors. To be able to bring her into the space and to uplift some of her analysis and wisdom to set the tone for the gathering,” said Blackmer.
Next was a panel discussion featuring Sonja Bonnett, Aliya Moore and Sylvia Orduño, all featured on the website, moderated by Lloyd Simpson, a contributing writer graduate of Wayne State’s African American studies department and organizer.
“We closed it out with a charge from Rev. Dr. Watson from another clip from the interview encouraged people to organize, organize, organize, get out into your communities and do the work because that's what this project is about. It's not about documenting history because this work is ongoing,” said Blackmer “This project is about providing a resource tool to educate, inspire, and empower current and future generations of organizers.”
While the project has been released, it is far from over and intends to be ever growing. One major resource the website provides is a guide to conduct oral histories with community members to be added to the project. Blackmer said adding a main section dedicated to policing would also be relevant to the project. To keep up with the Voices from the Grassroots project, follow their page on Instagram or the Detroit Equity Lab's Facebook page.