Kendra Watkins and Ben Ratner return to Detroit as Repair the World Fellows working with Detroit Jews for Justice and the Coleman A. Young Elementary School.
I knew I would return to Michigan at some point after college, though I did not expect it to happen so soon. During my junior year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I participated in an alternative spring break trip with Repair the World in Brooklyn. As soon as I learned that Repair had a program in Detroit, I knew that this could be a way for me to come home and do meaningful work in the Jewish community.
Much of my time as a Repair the World Detroit Fellow is spent with my partner organization, Detroit Jews for Justice (DJJ), and developing our youth program, PeerCorps Detroit, alongside my supervisor. In working with both DJJ and PeerCorps, I have shifted my understanding of service. As an organization working to mobilize the Jewish community in Metro Detroit for racial and economic justice, service takes the form of making the personal political — listening to people’s stories, drawing connections and zooming out to see where power needs to shift so that our needs and the needs of our neighbors are met fairly and with the dignity we all deserve.
In PeerCorps, I am able to facilitate learning experiences where our young community members learn to see themselves as part of something larger.
Finding connections between my Jewish life in North Carolina and my work here in Detroit has been an exciting experience. It was in North Carolina that I began to get involved in the Jewish community. With small Jewish communities scattered throughout the South, I learned quickly what intentional community looks like, and that everyone plays a vital role in keeping things going. Because of the effort it takes to maintain and grow this kind of community, I played a number of roles — teacher, ritual leader, organizer, host, etc.
And while suburban Metro Detroit has a large and highly resourced Jewish community, I have found a similar energy around co-creation and organic community development within Jewish Detroit. The skills, commitments and relationships I built in my small Southern Jewish community have come in handy, albeit in slightly different ways, in my work as a Detroit Repair Fellow and as a member of this community.
Coming to Detroit for the Fellowship has been a homecoming in many ways, but having not been involved in the Jewish community here in my childhood, it has been a new and welcome experience to learn about the Metro Detroit Jewish community as an adult. As someone who considers themself a Midwestern Southerner and has a deep affinity and connection for both regions, I am not sure where I will end up in the long run; but, for now, I am grateful to be surrounded by old friends, family and Michigan’s beautiful lakes.
Every Monday, I have the pleasure and privilege of spending my day at Coleman A. Young Elementary School (CAY) in northwest Detroit. It’s a beautiful place: a mural of black authors, artists and freedom fighters covers the first-floor hallway. There’s a tiny garden on raised beds behind the gym. And, of course, there are the students I get to spend time with each week. Even when I walk in the door exhausted, their joy and excitement just to be at school leave me grinning by the time I head back into the chilly Michigan evening.
When people ask, I usually describe what I do there as “volunteering,” both as a literacy tutor and helping to run the afterschool program. And it is true; that is technically my role. But this always feels a bit simplistic and detached from the real reason my time there feels meaningful. In just a few months at CAY, I have learned the real value of this work is in the relationships I have built — with the students I have mentored, with the parents whose resilience astounds me, with the teachers and principal who show up every day for the kids amidst a system that is failing them.
Tikkun olam — the Jewish idea after which Repair the World is named — is commonly understood as a commitment to improving the lives of others and building a better world. My parents raised me with this idea as the central piece of my Jewish identity. I believe it is invaluable. But I think tikkun olam asks something else of us, too: that we commit to repairing ourselves.
It asks that we break down the prejudices we have internalized, that we strive to overcome our fear of the “other” even when we would rather rationalize or ignore it. To become empathetic beings in a world that keeps us disconnected, segregated and distrustful — this is what tikkun olam calls on us to pursue.
I feel very lucky that in my time at Coleman A. Young, both types of tikkun olam have challenged me: that of service to others and that of self-repair. Working on reading with the kids is an uphill battle. Even on the days when we make real progress, it is painfully clear that they have been set up to fail, whereas I was set up to succeed. But struggling through new words and stories brings us closer together each week. The friendships we have formed have been such a gift.
I chose to join the Repair the World Fellowship in Detroit because I wanted to be back in Michigan and because I am considering becoming a teacher. Thanks to my Mondays at CAY, I have gained something else: healing, connection and a sense of purpose.
Kendra Watkins and Ben Ratner are serving as 2019-20 Repair the World Fellows in Detroit. After having lived in North Carolina and Maine for the last several years, each of them has valued the chance to come to Michigan.