Detroit Community Organizers 'Re-Imagine' Work

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Anyone watching the American economy might question what it means to have job security 2011. In Detroit this week, a group of national community organizers will be taking the question to the extreme as they ponder: What does it mean to work? The traditional answer—get a job and keep it—is suddenly beyond the reach of so many Americans, that the very definition of work must be re-imagined; say organizers of the Reimagining Work conference.

America’s down economy marks the perfect moment, they say, for citizens and cities hit hard by unemployment to rethink solutions.  

“At a time when it’s obvious there is a lot of work to be done in cities and we have massive unemployment, how can you not talk about reimagining work?’’ Asks Frank Joyce, an author, long time community organizer and featured speaker at the conference. “Reimagining work is part of the genesis of the urban farms movement. It’s part of the genesis of new small businesses with different values. It’s kind of irresponsible to not raise the question."

Joyce makes a point that is difficult to debate, particularly in Detroit. For all of the tangible and high-flying hope that entrepreneurship is creating in some quarters of Detroit, the new startup culture has yet to dent the most stubborn social problems. Unemployment among the city’s largely African American population climbed to nearly 30 percent last year, and about 38 percent of all Detroiters live below the national poverty level.

But don’t misunderstand the motives of Lowe and the collection of artisans, activists and intellectuals from both coasts and gathering in Detroit. Their meeting, a year in the making, is a call to work, not to the sidelines or to the soup kitchen. 

“There is a difference between working and having a job. Things are different today than they were a year ago or even a thousand years ago, or 10,000 years ago, because we worked,’’ says Joyce. “If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t have any concept of progress whatsoever. But the jobs system, the connection of work to a j-o-b, is 200 years old. And it has disconnected us, in many ways, from the values of work, from the spirituality of work, from the satisfaction of work. ’’

“It’s no accident that this meeting is being held in Detroit,” says Gloria Lowe, a former auto worker who is helping to create work for neighborhood craftsmen in Detroit as founder of We Want Green Too! “We have been among the first to see both the collapse of an unsustainable economic system and the birth of new ways of thinking and doing the work of being human.”

Lowe is a great example of the new opportunity than can grow out of creatively rethinking economic survival.  A massive head-injury cost Lowe both her secure job as an autoworker and her ability to perform the most basic life functions, even speaking. Lowe fought all the way to the frontlines of Detroit’s community work empowerment movement. She started We Want Green Too! As a means of training Detroiters in home restoration and repair. She fashioned her new way of living, she says, simply by looking around her neighborhood at the lists needs and lists of skills.

“Our job,’’ Lowe said recently as part of an independently produced radio documentary called Work In Progress,  “is to be examples of what we know is possible.’’

Of course, that kind of optimism in the absence of actual solutions to the “jobs crisis” invites easy critics. But Joyce says those quick to dismiss the exploration of community based work models as too radical or a ticket to poverty are blind to the depths of America’s decline.

“We’re creating a new economy here not out of some ideological abstract idea but because we have to,’’ says Joyce. “For at least 20 years now, there has been a growing group of people who have come to the conclusion that help is not on the way. We’re it.’’