The People Who Inspire series highlights individuals from a variety of backgrounds and occupations who are seeking to impact the lives of others in a positive way. Through Truth-Telling: the honest sharing of their own experiences, they teach us a little about themselves, hopefully enabling us to be able to learn a little about ourselves through their stories.
Today’s post features Mike Fannon, intern to the President of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History in Detroit, MI, and founder of Increasing Democratic Engagement of the Arts (IDEA), in order to organize Metro-Detroit’s arts community to be stronger advocates of public support of the arts and community arts volunteerism.
Could you tell us a little about your background and what led you to your current work?
I took an early interest in the intersection between social justice and public policy as a member of my high school debate team. The rigorous study, research, and exchange of ideas were immediately attractive to me. In order to excel in competition, you must be willing to look at every side of an argument and invite criticism of your own beliefs, and I have found that this principle applies to so many facets of life.
Currently, I am an intern to the President of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History. Here, I have been given an incredible opportunity to work in exhibition, education, and public programming areas as well as the development of grants. Recently, we celebrated the Michigan Humanities Council’s Great Michigan Read program by partnering with civic leaders, community organizations, student groups, and entertainers to bring a recreation of the civil rights landmark, and historical Detroit trial of Ossian and Henry Sweet in 1925.
Do you have any other issues that you’re interested in working on or working with others in terms of social justice/equity?
Absolutely, I think it is important to understand that it is critical to take part of the world around you, and just be a part of what is going on in the community. There are countless intersections between all of our lives where it is impossible to not be able to find an opportunity to be an agent of change. I believe we have an obligation to one another, or else civilization simply cannot be sustained.
Outside of my work at the Museum, I am an instructor and organizer with the Detroit Urban Debate League. The UDL serves to offer policy debate tournaments for schools and students in the community that are underserved. This is one of the best projects I have ever been a part of as, through this, I have personally witnessed students with no expectation of graduating high school, go on to college with the confidence to make a difference in their communities.
The league is almost 95% title I and has been the quickest and most effective way of reaching at risk students and teaching positive long-term critical thinking skills. I challenge anyone to find someone between 13 and 19 years old that does not have an opinion on their local surroundings. Teaching students to be better communicators, thinkers, and readers provides the key to unlock a lifetime of success. This very weekend we have four students from two schools representing Detroit at the National UDL tournament in Washington, D.C.
What are the parts of your work that you find most enjoyable?
Learning how to organize groups that can serve a common goal is something that will help make me a better servant no matter what I am doing. The work I do allows me to understand the worlds of non-profits, politics, community engagement, public policy in the context of the local struggles. The world is more complex than it once was and will require all of us to be able to wear many hats, so I am thankful to get experience in many different areas.
What aspects do you find challenging?
Apathy. I cannot think of a clearer and present danger to a community’s well being than apathy. Apathy not only guarantees that there are less resources working towards a healthier society, but it gifts the power to determine how people are managed to those that know that are not accountable for their actions. There is real beauty in struggle, as it is a demonstration of a will to live, and a reminder that it is ok to believe in something.
Unfortunately, the longer people struggle without any evidence of progress the more susceptible they are to apathy. A real belief that the political process does not serve the best interests of the people is all too common and truly highlights the point that inclusion, and involvement is exactly what is needed.
What/Who Inspires you?
The best thing in the world is interacting with people who are inspired by hope and compassion and have an unfettering resolve to struggle for a more inclusive society. I have experienced poverty, I have experienced privilege, and I have come to the opinion there are universal problems that everyone experiences, and that those who show up really do control the destiny of others. Whenever I see someone giving their time and energy to the betterment of another person I am reminded that we are all in it together.
Issues of race, class, and gender that stifle progress require generational approaches making it absolutely vital that people have both short and long-term examples of hope. People, just like yourself Relando, that wish to draw attention to making a difference and expand the conversation, inspire me greatly.
But most specifically, my niece (age 5) and her friends have been one of the most inspiring forces in my life. Kids tell it like it is, and they can recognize a raw deal. They also have a willingness to try things and look to us to give them the best advice possible.
What have been the Keys to your success so far?
Being open-minded to new opportunities. There seems to be some wisdom in taking a 360 degree approach to knowledge. We are constantly coming into contact with ideas that can reframe and challenge what it is we think we know. To put it less philosophically, success is not a straight line. I would like to be able to map out a plan that I know leads to success, but that is foolish to assume we have that much individual control.
Ten years ago I would have never have guessed that I would be given an opportunity to have a meaningful role in the largest African-American History Museum in the world. Even with all of the work I have already been a part of I am sure there will be more things to contribute to that are not foreseeable at the moment.
Are there any special projects you’re working on currently?
I founded an organization, Increasing Democratic Engagement of the Arts (IDEA), in order to organize Metro-Detroit’s arts community to be stronger advocates of public support of the arts and community arts volunteerism. The arts represent a unique part of Detroit’s economic development and an essential piece of understanding just who we are as individuals, and as members of community.
Hopefully this passionate, yet, fragmented, community can be an affective contributor towards more civic participation through ongoing dialogues, voter turnout, and meaningful advocacy. We are in the building stage and would love to reach out to as many people as possible that are interested in public engagement with the many art forms that are found in our communities. We also are looking for help bringing the best research, reports, case examples and other tools to the arts community to better present their case.
To see more visit: http://www.facebook.com/michiganIDEA
Is there anything Else you’d like to add?
It is the little things that matter, and how we treat the less powerful when no one is looking determines our fate.
Grace & Peace,
From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins, MSW
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