Originally published in The Michigan Citizen
In the controversy over varying interpretations of Detroit Public School graduation rates, or the district’s well-documented financial problems, adults tend to ignore the opinions of the very students who struggle through these difficulties in their effort to obtain a decent education. On the audio cd Rising Up From The Ashes: Chronicles of a Dropout, young people use hip hop and recorded interviews to speak their minds, tell their own stories, and tell the stories of friends and family members who have dropped out of school.
Detroit Summer’s Live Arts Media Project (LAMP) is a youth-led popular education arts and media program that helps young people develop creative solutions to the problems they face. LAMP’s youth participants and an all-star cast of Detroit’s best hip hop artists and producers use the disc’s 23 tracks to take us on a journey through the world of Detroit’s youth and their challenges.
On “Tell Me Why”, interviewees explain different reasons they, their friends or family members left school. According to the students, some believe they are treated like “animals.”
“Even if you’re having a hard time learning, they just put it as ‘you’re stupid,'” one person remarks. Students commonly face suspensions for dubious reasons like tardiness or not having IDs.
“I was doing good in school,” says one teen, “it was just the suspension thing. And I was kind of frustrated, because I wanted to get into a school instead of sitting out here and doing nothing.”
Often complex issues force students to leave school. One young man dropped out after being arrested. Another left school to take care of a sick grandmother. A transsexual student speaks of being ridiculed. Others offer accounts of students being bullied, and teachers failing to protect them.
“Drop Out Economics” analyzes the economic trials that can lead a student to leave school, and laments the lack of job opportunities for those who don’t have a high school diploma. A young woman asks, “What jobs could be created for high school students, for them to feel independent and stay in school? Some students drop out because they don’t have the money to keep going, and the situation at home is tight. What jobs would help them balance school and work?”
For some, the underground economy is the answer. “I know a lot of kids who sell drugs to support their families, because their moms don’t have jobs. They have to go out and actually make money.”
The voice of Grace Lee Boggs explains the development of the drug economy in Detroit. “In 1985 crack came to Detroit. And what happened was that folks began saying, ‘Why go to school with the idea that one day you can make a whole lot of money, when you can make a whole lot of money right now selling drugs.’ And it hasn’t gotten any better.”
The prison atmosphere of some schools can perpetuate the problem. “They have cops roaming around everywhere on the block,” a young man complains on “High Security State”. “For the people who wanna do good, they mess that up for us.”
“They’re stereotyping,” reasons one interviewee. “Just ’cause my daddy’s generation sold drugs and gang-banged, don’t mean I’m gonna do it.”
There is plenty of blame to go around for these conditions. Many of the emcees rail against America’s capitalist system. One student calls on Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to “step up.”
But the focus of Rising Up From The Ashes, is to search for solutions. Peer juries are suggested as an alternative to the problem of unfair suspensions. Schools like Catherine Ferguson Academy, a school primarily for pregnant teens and teenage mothers, are highlighted.
When it comes down to it, track 22, makes it plain. On “It’s Up To Us”, students discuss how they have protested the poor conditions at their schools by organizing walk outs and demonstrations. Grace Lee Boggs suggests that “sit-ins” not “walk outs” proved more effective for the labor movement, and could be used by students to bring about change. Detroit emcee and LAMP facilitator Invincible asks what would happen if students, parents and teachers joined together to petition school administrators to make a change.
Rising Up From The Ashes: Chronicles of a Dropout is an important document that examines the plight of a marginalized segment of society – young people – gives them a voice and a provides them with a forum from which to speak. As one organizer of a student walk out recounts, “…since we’re kids, nobody takes us seriously.” Chronicles of a Dropout proves that Detroit’s young people have a strong contribution to make to the discussion about what is ultimately, their future and their lives. It is also a good place for the rest of us to begin listening.