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Sharing a passion for justice

Bonnie Halloran motivates students to advocate for fair housing in Detroit

Bonnie Halloran’s course description reads like many others: There is required reading, a grading rubric and course objectives. But look a little closer and you’ll see the document is peppered with phrases like “community-based activities,” “civic life,” “citizenship and democracy.” Specific assignments involve court hearings, rallies and interviews.

Halloran’s class, “Power and Privilege in Southeast Michigan,” doesn’t just teach the theory of economic inequality and social structure: It plunges students right into experiences that make these concepts come alive. At the same time, it contributes to social justice in Detroit.

Students of “Power and Privilege” volunteer at an advocacy organization to support people whose homes are in foreclosure. They rally to prevent evictions and learn firsthand about housing policies that discriminate against people of color and disadvantaged families. They immerse themselves not only in their readings, but in their actions.

Halloran, a nontenured, part-time anthropology professor at the University of Michigan–Dearborn, wants to teach students that, working together, they can make a difference. It’s a natural approach for her: She is a long-time union activist and the founding (and current) president of the Lecturers’ Employee Organization at the University of Michigan.

Although not native to Detroit, Halloran has adopted the city as her own. Known for its crumbling infrastructure and high crime rate, the city filed for bankruptcy in 2013 and is under emergency management. Many of its residents have fled.

Halloran stayed. She loves this place and wants her students to understand the difficult politics of poverty and privilege that have shaped it. “You can’t understand the issues in the city of Detroit if you don’t know the history,” she says.

It’s all on display at Detroit Eviction Defense, which Halloran calls a “perfect” place for students to learn about how race and social class impact the people of Detroit. The coalition of homeowners, union members, faith-based activists, community advocates and allied groups works to support people struggling against foreclosure and eviction. It treats affordable housing as a human right and, according to its website, “the foundation of a viable community.”

Halloran’s students read about power and privilege in books like Privilege, Power, and Difference by Allan Johnson, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit by Thomas Sugrue, and Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age by Kevin Boyle.

Then they interact with DED to experience it for themselves. They make phone calls on behalf of people who are about to be kicked out of their homes, and when they are put on hold, or passed around to a half-dozen bureaucrats, or shut down by officials who would rather not hear about the human impact of foreclosures, they learn about how it feels to be powerless. Conversely, they see the effect they can have in a courtroom, when they literally stand up for people who are about to lose their homes; judges, says Halloran, are visibly moved, especially when a large group of activists participates in such an action.

And that’s another lesson: There is power in numbers. Students might stand at a rally beside an elderly woman whose decades-old family home is about to be snatched out from under her because she didn’t understand the paperwork associated with paying the property taxes. Or they might interact with renters who are fighting to get a negligent landlord to address a leaking roof, black mold and broken air conditioning—in solidarity.

“We are not often challenged to examine ‘the way things are’ and we just figure ‘that’s the way they will always be,’ ” wrote student Julia Cuneo in her class reflections. “In this class that passivity was challenged, and I think every student came away with a new appreciation for struggling against oppression.”

“[Working with] DED has made me become more comfortable with speaking out for my beliefs and makes me want to make a difference in my community,” wrote student Brooke Styles.

One class was so appalled by the injustice they witnessed, they organized a seminar to spread the word, placing informational cards on tables in the cafeteria and designing posters for the lawn outside the student union.

“Students are transformed by the experience,” says Halloran. Most of them are suburban, middle-class kids, she says, and showing them how other people live “was really powerful for them. It made them aware—without me preaching—of their unspoken prejudices, prejudices that they didn’t even know they had.

“That, to me, is education.”

AFT On Campus, Fall 2015 Download PDF (2.24 MB)
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