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The Transformative Power of Beauty and Detroit

I was raised to be an engineer, the son of an engineer, and the grandson of an engineer. Naturally good at math and science, art and beauty seemed like the dessert of life or maybe the icing on the cake. It's nice to have, but not really necessary. You know? I imagine this is the same kind of thinking that prioritizes STEM Education. When push comes to shove, we cut the extras, right?

These perceptions took on a hilarious and painful form as I started to educate myself about Climate Change and Environmental Justice, and get involved in organizing work several years ago. I remember the People's Climate March in NYC where over 400,000 people gathered - it was a momentous day, one filled with extraordinary power and creativity. Groups from all over the country came together, bringing art and music they had spent months organizing for. Being a person of extremes, instead of enjoying that expression of human creativity, I boiled as I walked along, "Arrrgggh, didn't we come here to protest and to fight? Why did these people spend so much time on art, we should be using our energy to(figuratively or literally) pry open the doors of the UN and the halls of U.S. power to get them to finally wake up and act! Why are people happy? Aren't we here to be mad? " This tape played over and over in the back of my mind. It's ridiculous, right? But, it's also a natural outcome of the belief that Art, Music, Theater, and all of those things are just icing on the cake! I am sometimes a person of extremes, so I took my belief to it's natural extreme conclusion.

Of course, as the Buddhist say, "Anger is like poisoning yourself, expecting the other person to get hurt." As that poison built up in my system from protest to protest, eventually something cracked open. As if a darkness lifting, the beauty around me began to make its way into my heart and my soul. The Jewish Mystics use the Hebrew word Tiferet to talk about beauty, but for them it doesn't only refer to aesthetic pleasures. Tiferet is a place of perspective and integration, it is a place of balance between strict judgment and compassion, and this ability lives in our physical hearts! Something softened in me that day, and I remembered a powerful teaching or Martin Prechtel, speaking from the Mayan tradition in Guatamala. He said, that while all life is inter-indebted to each other, while we all require gifts from outside of our selves to survive (the sun, the water, the microbes of the earth, etc. at the very least), humans are more indebted than most. We take the most. How should we pay back that debt? Martin teaches that it is with beauty! His words made no sense to me when I read them several years before. Surely, we human beings are the least capable of creating beauty, just an hour in the forest or the desert will prove that true. However, now I think that Martin was pointing to something much deeper. Perhaps beauty is both our way to make up for the destruction humanity too often deploys, as well as the path towards building a community of revitalization, sanity, and hope!

All of these teachings swarmed inside of me, and I realized what many of my friends and certainly everyone involved in community work has known for a very long time: Beauty Is Not Extra, It Is Vital To Our Lives. Especially in struggles against oppression and towards justice, beauty and creativity are what makes it possible to survive the long years of struggle. Even more than that, they are vessels for new ideas, for shifting perspectives, for breaking through old hurts and dysfunctional patterns. They are the language of artists and prophets, to speak truth to power in ways that even power can hear. A picture isn't just worth a thousand words, art and creativity in all its forms, are a language which speaks in ways that prose never can.

My default is still to want clear and direct actions, to prefer bullet point lists over stories and prose, but I'm making progress every day. Returning to Detroit makes that work particularly sweet. In the midst of many neighborhoods long ago abandoned and decimated by white flight, by poverty, and by fear... Detroiters are coming together every day to make a way out of now way. Folks are organizing, growing their food and their souls, and making every day life and every day neighborhood into art. In Detroit beauty and creativity are not left for the museums and professionals. They are part and parcel of neighborhoods. The Heidelberg Project built in 1986 might have been the beginning of that. However, today found art and murals are part and parcel of many neighborhoods. It's not just beautiful, and it is definitely not just icing on the cake. Detroit's beauty is an expression of the power of people's souls, the warmth of their hearts, the persistence of their hands. Beauty is intermixed with the mundane and the abandoned, it sprouts like seeds through concrete. I have never seen a city like this before.

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