Building Power and Support in Frontline Communities
Aaron Appel ’16 discovered Auntie Na’s House, a grassroots community center on Detroit’s west side, during his second winter term in 2014. The center provides a place of support and survival for those who are left unprotected by traditional government or nonprofit social services. At various times it has served as a food pantry, after-school program, clothes distribution hub, community garden, free childcare center, community meals space, and temporary shelter. Appel says the trip was an “incredibly transformative month that challenged me considerably to rethink my previous political disengagement.” After that initial trip, he began leading trips back during fall and spring breaks as part of the Immerse Yourself in Service (IYS) program. Upon his graduation in December 2015, he began working there full time.
Appel grew up just 25 minutes away from Auntie Na’s House in Troy, Michigan, and each day commutes in to do everything from data collection to building acquisition, but his primary focus has been developing the organization’s summer youth employment program, the Peewee Planters Program. Through the program, four local youth are paid to work at Auntie Na’s House and the house’s fiscal sponsor, Georgia Street Community Collective. The plan is for the program participants to work part-time and meet with one another to develop soft skills and political awareness.
Appel, along with Darrell Davis ’16, received funding for the project through Davis Projects for Peace. Inspired by the late philanthropist Kathryn W. Davis, the Projects for Peace program is an invitation to undergraduates to design peace-building grassroots projects that they will implement during the summer of 2016, with $10,000 given to the projects judged to be the most promising and feasible.
Appel says the relationships he builds are the most rewarding part of his job at Auntie Na’s House. “Every day I am able to build relationships with more than a dozen children who regularly come to our center for food, safety, and fun. Seeing them every day, whether we’re playing ninja, racing one another down the street, or playing basketball is an indescribable joy. It is also a bitter reminder of the way our country has systematically stacked the odds against them and how the rest of us are often unknowing or uncaring of this fact.”
While at Oberlin, Appel majored in politics and law and society. He served as a student senator; acted and wrote for the sketch comedy group, Piscapo’s Arm; and worked as a residential assistant, tour guide, and admissions interviewer. He was also involved in many public outreach and community service initiatives including as a facilitator and mediator for the Yeworkwha Belachew Center for Dialogue, a Bonner leader and Day of Service site leader for the Bonner Center for Service and Learning, and as a president’s public service fellow.
He says his time at Oberlin has played a major role in the way he approached his current work.
“I would not have started out on this path of building power and support in frontline communities were it not for my peers challenging me to be uncomfortable and grow as a person. Through civic engagement while at Oberlin, I’ve learned how to show up, be reliable, and build trust and connections in a new city, all of which is relevant to my current work in Detroit.”
Looking to the future, Appel says he wants to maintain connections to movements for social change and building power in frontline communities, particularly in Detroit. “Since working at Auntie Na’s House, I’ve reaffirmed my belief that legal knowledge and political capital are both critical in these movements, assuming they’re present in a supportive and not dominating manner,” he says. “I hope to return to school after a year or so to obtain either a law degree or a master’s in public policy. After that, I hope to be involved in promoting the human right to water and housing as a lawyer, government agent, or nonprofit worker.”