Whether it’s checking off the last few upper-level classes in a major or completing an internship, senior years are typically more about finishing what you started than discovering new interests. For December graduate Briana Hurt, though, her final undergraduate year at UM-Dearborn has featured a little of both.
As planned and on time, she’ll be finishing her Health and Human Services degree, leaving her a clear path to a job or a spot in grad school in social work or public health — if that’s still what she wants to do. But as she headed toward the commencement stage, there was a steady internal debate about the path ahead, mostly as a result of new passions she’s discovered in the past year.
Hurt says the initial spark came during a class project in a Health and Human Services course taught by Assistant Professor Finn Bell. The students were charged with conducting a community needs assessment, and Hurt chose to focus on her own and other east side Detroit neighborhoods.
Dozens of conversations with friends, relatives and neighbors revealed persistent challenges around food access. It was an eye opening experience, one that led Hurt not only to do a deep dive into the complex relationship between food and health but food and politics.
“You get out into the neighborhoods and it’s not hard to see the unequal distribution of resources,” Hurt says. “Some neighborhoods have a Whole Foods Market, and in other neighborhoods, residents have to walk close to a mile to the grocery store, which may or may not have quality produce.” Hurt learned about how this phenomenon of “food deserts” — or what some academics and activists call a system of “food apartheid” — leads to systemic health disparities and long-lasting impacts on residents’ and neighborhoods’ socioeconomic well-being.
The following summer, Hurt traveled deeper down the food politics rabbit hole with Bell, working as a research assistant in the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) program. Her work focused on collecting oral histories from BIPOC farmers and gardeners in the Ypsilanti area.
In a matter of months, Hurt says she was transformed from a person who’d never grown anything but house plants to someone who cared deeply about agriculture and its potential to improve communities. And the very next term, her final at UM-Dearborn, she set herself up for another transformative experience.
Hurt enrolled in Semester in Detroit, a program run by UM-Ann Arbor that’s open to students on all three campuses, which allows students to live, learn and work in the city alongside community leaders doing grassroots work. It may seem like a strange choice for a Detroit native who’d lived her entire life in the city.
But Hurt says it didn’t take long to discover how much she didn’t know about Detroit — and just how inspiring and complex it could be. She learned about the rich history of Paradise Valley and Black Bottom, a vibrant, predominantly Black residential and commercial district that was razed for a mid-century interstate.
She learned about Detroit’s significant role in the Underground Railroad, and also the deep racial and socioeconomic divides that fueled the 1967 uprising in the city. She was especially inspired by the life of Grace Lee Boggs, a Chinese American writer and activist who moved to Detroit in the 1950s and became, along with her husband and fellow activist James Boggs, an intellectual force in multiple social justice movements.
“I think the biggest shocker, outside of learning all this history, is why it took so long for me to learn it,” Hurt says. “I’ve lived here my whole life, went to school here, but it took until my senior year of college to discover any of this.”
Hurt’s still mulling over why that might be. She thinks part of it has to do with people’s tendencies to want simple narratives — to define Detroit as “The Motor City,” or more recently, as a “revitalization” story.
“But the real story is so much deeper and I’ve personally developed a lot of inspiration and appreciation from learning that history,” she says. “I think I was one of those people who would say that they were ‘proud’ to be from Detroit but maybe didn’t know what that meant as much as I do now. Now, I feel like I can articulate why. I have the reasons, and I can share that knowledge with others so maybe they can see the city the way I do.”
Most recently, Hurt got an opportunity to knit together her bolstered love for her hometown with her new interest in agriculture. As part of the Semester in Detroit program, Hurt is doing an internship with Keep Growing Detroit, a nonprofit that operates several urban farms and educational programs to support the organization’s goal of making Detroit a “food sovereign” city. Her work has focused on coordinating volunteers and essential farm chores like harvesting and weeding. Through that experience, she’s discovered the incomparable taste of a fresh-picked heirloom tomato, the joy of “getting lost” in a cucamelon bush and her intense phobia of bugs.
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