Self-Reliance: An Enduring Principle

by Riverwise Editorial Board

One of the primary missions of Riverwise magazine is to survey the sites where visionary organizing work is occuring in the city of Detroit. There are many examples of people who are transforming themselves and the stagnant institutions around them through fresh political and economic programs born in marginalized neighborhoods. This is where the social revolution we need to change the world is emerging. By putting these community-building efforts together, we are advancing the commitment to ‘community control’, which has long been an aspiration of many social justice movements.


Throughout the ‘90s and 2000s, the concept of ‘community control’ has become even more important to developing a better society, as state power has increasingly sought to subdue and commodify public institutions. Our best defense has emerged in areas where people, no matter what their circumstances, have been able to organize around new ways of living and working by collectivizing their resources and talents.


We were reminded of this vital aspect of political organizing during our April 15 conversation with former Black Panther Party members Emory Douglas and Kathleen Cleaver (page 18). We entered that dialogue by asking about the Party’s ideological and practical work that took place behind the scenes and as well as  Douglas’s ways of representing this in his art. Later, the conversation turned to the relationship between the Panther Party and the community, and the emergence of the free-breakfast and other survival programs.

Douglas and Cleaver left no doubt that the Panthers’ early success emanated directly from the resources the community was able to generate. Black Panther Party members were in tune with the needs of the urban centers where they were organizing. The abundance of youthful and political creativity, freedom of expression and self determination culminated in the Panther Party’s model of community control. Not hindered by reliance on outside material support, the original Panthers kept the distance small between themselves and the community, between crisis and solution.


Kathleen Cleaver’s descriptions of the cramped quarters in which the Black Panther Party newspaper was compiled provides an important lesson for current political movement activists. Panthers converged in Eldridge Cleaver’s studio apartment sharing everything from emerging political theory to packs of cigarettes. Discussion was focused directly on the response to specific social injustices.  The lesson is: by securing resources from within the community, we strengthen ties to each other and create an environment of self-reliance.  


Some of today’s visionaries apply these same concepts of community control and self-reliance to new projects that seek to integrate technology and social relationships in ways that give people greater social and economic independence. Such is the case of the work that is being done by Blair Evans and Incite Focus (page 10). At this point in history, technology should be redefined and only be considered an advance if it benefits our collective well-being. Blair Evans and advocates of the fabrication labs, or Fab Labs, emphasize the potential that machines and technology might allow us to focus even more so on community building and at the same time alter the conventional idea of work itself. It seems like we’ve heard this before (see how auto industry sold us the automation of assembly lines). Nonetheless, considering the recent abandonment by the auto industry and the subsequent wide-scale destruction wrought by emergency managers and greedy realtors, Detroit seems the perfect place for us to explore the concept of building, at the community level, only what we absolutely need. In any case, all such issues can only be decided if our social consciousness is heightened and community control becomes a prerequisite for any society-wide industrial endeavors.

We must begin to find ways to make distinctions between what we need and what we want, between what we can do and what we should do to develop our communities and protect our earth. We can only make these decisions if our social consciousness is transformed from a “thing-oriented society” to a “people-oriented society.”


In many Detroit neighborhoods, the fight to stop home foreclosures due to rampant tax and water bill assessments is the necessary first step to ensure we are developing compassionate, inclusive communities. While many have heard that homes can be foreclosed on due to water shutoffs, not as many are aware just how difficult it is to erase debts caused by either tax-foreclosure or water bills and how inextricably linked they can be.

Foreclosure resistance activists like Michele Oberholtzer of the Tricycle Collective  (page 24) and Donna Givens of the Eastside Community Network (page 25) relate their community-based fights to keep people in their homes on opposite sides of town.


While the city of Detroit has seen its share of media coverage of vacant buildings, the stories behind the foreclosed homes and shuttered schools have remained largely untold. Especially the stories of the people who lived in those homes and the memories they took with them when forced to leave. Our Spring/Summer2018 cover’s central image is from a recent multi-media performance, part of the Good Bones project, during which the building literally tells its story. On May 4 and 5, community voices narrated true stories over shadow puppets and projections displayed directly on the building formerly known as the Sophie Wright Settlement and Community Center. Their oral histories came directly from their experiences, not only in that neighborhood, but in that particular building. The structure now houses the James and Grace Lee Boggs School, so it’s far from vacant. But the Good Bones project reminds us that every vacant structure in the city, especially the homes, are deserving of such a commemoration.


Using the Boggs School as the stage for Good Bones’ presentation underscores the importance of education to a self-reliant community. The state-led aggression recently unleashed toward Detroit schools has enabled a movement seeking real education alternatives created by vested community members, including parents. The potential leverage created by the Detroit Independent Freedom Schools (page 15), for example, seems the only way forward as yet another Superintendent is assigned the task of reforming the system as opposed to remaking it.

As DIFS promotes a multi-faceted curriculum designed by community activists to address institutional deficits, other educators like Salima Ellis (page 14) are teaching even closer to home. The home-school movement in Detroit can add even more to the dialogue about greater participation in our children’s futures and, furthermore, what education means to us.


And finally, we can celebrate the Allied Media Conference (AMC) convening of diverse communities meeting for the 20th year to promote media-making for social justice. Although the digital influence in media organizing is at the forefront of many AMC workshops and activities, the real potential for healing comes from the personal relationships that are created and strengthened throughout the AMC weekend.


Our interview with AMC directors (page 7) shows one reason why the conference  has proven sustainable— its ability to be self-critical and keep pushing the envelope of its evolving mission. As with any movement activity, the challenge of widening the circle of participants remains the underlying objective. For the AMC, this means making all Detroit communities aware of our potential to describe our own lives  and create our own social realities.


Several Detroit-based initiatives, or tracks, have been created within the AMC , only to later become independent organizations of their own— groups like the Detroit Area Restorative Justice Center, People In Education and the Detroit Community Technology Project. The Dream Café will bring food justice issues to the table at this year’s AMC (page 8). The weekend-long pop-up kitchen will be housed at the historic Cass Café for the three days of the conference. The concept of rotating visiting chefs of diverse backgrounds and their various approaches to radical dining is one that could find a permanent home in Detroit and add some more color to Detroit’s resurgence in the culinary scene.


With all these advocates for the establishment of community self-determination how can Riverwise, yet another media project, be more than just a reflection of that work? How can we become a more vital part of that effort? By securing resources within the community first, and strengthening ties to each other to create an environment of self-reliance. Please join us at a community conversation, a writing workshop or by submitting a subscription envelope, or share your thoughts and ideas for publication. Submit an article, poem or original artwork to We appreciate your support and hope to support you back.

                                                                Free Siwatu!

                                                                In love and struggle, Riverwise




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