The Impossible Must Be Made Possible in Detroit
The robbery of Rev. Marvin Winans and the wave of shootings and murders in Detroit brings to mind a book I’m reading, a most extraordinary account of life amid urban poverty, “Making the Impossible Possible.”
Written by Bill Strickland, above, who grew up on Pittsburgh’s blighted north side, the story is one that could have been told in our own Motor City. Strickland, an African-American brought up by a strict and loving mother and mostly absent father, was what we call an “at-risk” youth. He grew up among peers who invaded homes, smoked crack and robbed gas stations. Strickland managed to avoid the pitfalls.
Yet he also was an indifferent, aimless student until a chance meeting with a teacher who taught him how to use a potting wheel and create ceramics. He embraced the craft with a fiery passion, realizing for the first time that his life had lacked meaning or direction. Eventually he was graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, learned how to fly an airplane, founded an arts and crafts center – all while gaining deep insights about how human life can be wasted or fulfilled.
Strickland’s revelation about his community and how lives were being thrown away drew him to the mission of introducing art, music, crafts and skills to aimless people whose lives had been largely wasted or unrealized. Eventually he lectured at Harvard Business School about the Manchester Bidwell Center he founded in his neighborhood and eventually won a MacArthur “genius” grant for his work.
I know very little about those who robbed Rev. Winans and nothing about those who murdered the Chaldean store owner Fred Dally a few weeks ago. My educated guess is that the violent young robbers and thieves had little positive happening in their lives, perhaps nothing at all. They likely lacked supervision, moral guidance – and, most importantly, were never given a sense that life can and should be more than mere survival. Life – as most of us are fortunate to learn – can be a thrilling, passionate, meaningful journey of discovery and fulfillment.
"Every human being, despite the circumstances of his or her birth, is born full of potential, and the way to unlock that potential is to place individuals in a nurturing environment and expose them to the kind of stimulating and empowering creative experiences that feed the human spirit," Strickland wrote.
Here in Detroit we’re embroiled in deadly serious debates over security, police budgets, crime-fighting strategy and so forth. Should gas station owners employ more guards? Why doesn’t the city protect its citizens and businesses?
The more fundamental question, Bill Strickland would say, is how can we inspire so many human beings to stop throwing their lives away? And another: Who will step forward to provide the inspiration that is lacking in homes that produce these young criminals?
The horror of daily violence and crime in Detroit reflects the tragedy of lives thrown away because they are merely exercises in survival.