When I visited Detroit last summer, I found it to be a place of extremes. On the one hand, a city buckling under the weight of decades of deindustrialization, white flight, and abandonment — a city so gripped by economic malaise that it contained not even a single full-service supermarket. On the other, it also seemed a veritable beehive of community organizing, based mainly around urban agriculture.
It’s not hard to see why the city’s community leaders have settled on urban ag. It takes two devastating problems — a surfeit of abandoned land, a lack of grocery stores — and turns them into, respectively, a resource and an opportunity. Abundant land can be used to grow high-quality fresh food, which will then find a ready market among a citizenry that relies heavily on liquor stores for food shopping. I wrote up my impressions of Detroit in a broad overview and in a brief look at three especially interesting projects.
One project I visited briefly but didn’t get a chance to write about was Catherine Ferguson Academy, a special public high school for pregnant girls. The school, featured in the documentary Grown in Detroit, is most famous for its large vegetable garden tended and harvested by the students. But its importance goes beyond gardening. Teenage pregnancy can be a tragic event — it can severely limit educational and job opportunities for young women and lead to cycles of poverty and despair. The threat is particularly serious in a place like Detroit, where job opportunities are limited.
Here’s how the school describes itself:
At Ferguson, the main goals are to educate the young mothers and prepare them for a good future. “We want our girls to know that becoming a mother in your teens does not mean you are doomed to a dead end life,” said Ms. Andrews. All students are schooled in the core curriculum of English, math, science, and social studies in a family-like, accepting environment. Along with the academics, there is ‘real life’ learning about raising a child and how to function as a knowledgeable, independent, and productive adult. “The responsibility of providing food, shelter, and other basic needs in life should not be stressful. They have the right to look forward to a rewarding life and we help them achieve it,” said Ms. Durant.
By all accounts, it has been successful at achieving those goals. Its graduation rate is 90 percent — well above the citywide average — and more than half of graduates go on to two- or four-year colleges. And yes, gardening is a major part of the curriculum. The school’s grounds include “goats, chickens, vegetable gardens, a horse, beehives, and more, where the ‘city girls’ have taken to the farm like they’ve always lived there.”
Now, in a rational society with an interest in solving its festering problems, the Catherine Ferguson approach would be supported. There might even be attempts to replicate it for other at-risk youth. In Great Recession America, where government budget deficits have been ludicrously fingered as Public Enemy Number One, the response is to threaten to defund it and shut it down.
This Rachel Maddow show segment has the goods on the vicious, antidemocratic politics that led to the insane decision to put the Catherine Ferguson on the chopping block:
As for the young women who attend the academy, they are not responding passively to the attack. They organized a sit-in last week to protest the shut-down threat. In response, a city that can’t keep its schools running nevertheless managed to send a team of cops out to menace and arrest the girls. From Voice of Detroit, here is the account of Catherine Ferguson student Ashley Matthews, who participated in the protest:
When we heard the police were coming, we ran to the library as fast as we could and barricaded ourselves in there. The police knocked on the window, and before we knew it, they busted open the library door. We all got in a line and held hands. We took a vote because we wanted to be democratic and we decided not to leave. We chose to stick together, we came together and we were staying together. We were chanting, ‘Whose schools? Our schools!’ The whole time I was recording everything on my phone.
The cops apparently didn’t appreciate the spectacle of nonviolent civic activism from a population segment — teenagers — often associated with apathy. Reports Voice of Detroit:
She [Matthews] said the cop who arrested her, a Detroit police officer named R. Brown, saw that she was recording the events and snatched the phone away. She said Detroit Public Schools officers also took part in the attacks.
“I had sat down, and he yanked me up and slammed me down on my stomach on the floor,” Matthews said. “All the girls went berserk, telling him to get off me, but he was just wiping up the floor with me. He pressed his thumbs in my neck, and he tightened the handcuffs so hard that I have bruises there. I cried at first but then I made myself stop.”
Images of pregnant girls being roughed up by cops and hauled away in chains for defending their public school all too neatly sum up the dysfunctions of our age. Ashley Matthews and her classmates remind us that something real and important is at stake in the Kabuki theater over deficits playing out in Washington and at state capitals across the nation. We can have robust, democratically oriented public institutions that give everyone a fair shake; or we can eviscerate such institutions, leaving behind only thuggish police forces charged with quelling civic uprisings.
Meanwhile, while public schools get the budget ax, cheered on by “deficit hawks,” details are still dripping out about the full extent of public support for the very big banks that caused the financial crisis in the first place, as the latest revelations from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) show. Severe austerity backed by state violence for the schools; and what Sanders called “free money” for the banks. As the young women of Catherine Ferguson demonstrate, there’s no need to accept this situation docilely.
Defend Public Education and Change.org both have petitions in defense of the academy.