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Opinion: Serving Together While Standing Apart

Thoughts from a Detroit resident on supporting one another during a pandemic

I live in a small neighborhood in Northwest Detroit. When I moved here six years ago, I chose this corner of the city because it exemplified what I was so eager to learn from and continue to grow in myself: a collection of neighbors who dedicated their time to working together to improve the place they collectively called home. This meant holding monthly neighborhood meetings, spring cleanups, a joyous annual jazz fest, and advocating for our needs through the layers of public decision-making.

Dani Wilson
Dani Wilson, program coordinator, Ford Volunteer Corps sits next to one of many birdhouses that were painted by students from Cooke Elementary and installed around the neighborhood. Photo courtesy of Dani Wilson

I listened to my neighbors first as an AmeriCorps volunteer working with the Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation and, after completing my service year, as a fellow resident in Greater Sandhill. I was inspired by the countless hours people dedicated to organizing everything from community gardens to block parties, these elements of cohabitation that feel as though they were part of a by-gone era and no longer necessary in our society. But it is in moments of crisis that we understand just how important these ties truly are.

Today, Detroit has become one of the Coronavirus hotspots. There are more than a few reasons why this area has been so devastated by the pandemic. Thirty-four percent of Detroiters live below the federally defined poverty line, and many more families struggle to meet their basic needs. Many are working essential jobs right now in healthcare and service industries and are unable to shelter in place. Due to tighter budgets, families don't have the ability to buy in bulk and must make more trips into public. 

2017 Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation SOUP dinner
Grandmont Rosedale 2017 SOUP fundraiser and neighborhood pitch competition. Photo by Dani Wilson

More than this, though, communities in Detroit—majority black and brown—have been undeniably shaped by structural racism and inequitable policies that have impacted the neighborhoods, schools, workplaces and, ultimately, the bodies of individuals living with the consequences. This translates to significant health disparities with African Americans being more likely to have underlying health conditions that would make the body more vulnerable to added illness. It becomes no surprise then, that though only 14% of Michigan's population is African American, this group makes up 41% of the deaths through the middle of April.

None of this is any consolation to the families losing loved ones or the communities losing leaders and visionaries. This pain came to the door of a dear friend and neighbor who lives with and cares for her elderly parents. They all became ill with COVID-19 in the last two weeks and after long nights, difficult decisions and an extended hospital stay, this friend lost her mother. Though we hear about the new cases and deaths every day, we must remember that each one is a life. And a life. And a life.

Unable to gather and grieve, we are re-writing the ways that we support each other during these already difficult times. I have felt that my actions have been wholly inadequate to meet the needs and pain I see. And I understand that I am experiencing this moment from a place of privilege—one where I have consistent income, a healthy family, and ample support—that few of my neighbors enjoy.

2016 Greater Sandhill Block Party
In 2016 Dani Wilson, left, coordinated the first neighborhood block party in 25 years. Photo courtesy Dani Wilson

But it should not stop us from trying. If anything, this understanding ought to propel us forward. If you have food in your fridge, consider giving to your neighbors who cannot count on this security. If you have savings in your bank account, donate to one of the many organizations working to meet basic needs, or give it directly to folks who need it. Buy grocery gift cards or offer to order a food delivery for a neighbor who cannot leave their home. Call your people, especially those who are living alone. These small, thoughtful acts let them know that you care about their well-being.

April 19-25 is National Volunteer Week. This prompts me to ask: what does service look like now? This pandemic has changed us. It has altered not just how we move through the world, but how we interact with and understand connection itself. The irony of being asked to stay apart from others is that it's a reminder everything we do impacts multitudes of people around us—whether or not we interact with them directly.

Serving others today demands that we see the importance of maintaining our social bonds and exercising our ability to organize as communities. Though one of the best things we can do to reduce the disease spread is to stay home, do not forget to turn your attention beyond the walls that contain you. Nurture your health, heart and mind, and when you feel strong enough, send that energy back into the world through calls, notes, flowers, gift cards, and donations.

Soon enough we will be working side-by-side again. Until then, stay safe and be well.

Greater Sandhill community board
Community bulletin board located in Detroit's Greater Sandhill neighborhood. Photo by Dani Wilson

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