The tenacity of hope: Shining examples of Detroit's students

• To read Nancy Sylvester's entire series, click on her author name or here to see a list of her columns.

(Derek Truninger, via and used under Creative Commons zero)

Many years ago I toured St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. I can recall climbing up to the top of the cupola and going outside on the balcony from which there is a marvelous view. Of course, I could see the wall that surrounds Vatican City. As I stood there, I reflected on how impenetrable this wall was and couldn't help making the connection to how difficult it was to communicate with many of our bishops and cardinals about critical issues.

Suddenly something caught my eye. There in the midst of the wall was one single yellow flower pushing itself through the bricks and mortar. It was determined to live and flourish. I thought, "What a sign of hope! If life can get through that wall, then life can flourish in this church." Hope is certainly tenacious.

That memory was revived just recently when I attended an honors convocation for Marygrove College, one of our congregations' sponsored institutions. The college is in the heart of Detroit. Detroit's public school system has for years been plagued with scandals, mismanagement, inadequate funding, lack of leadership and failed student performance. The 48,000 pupils are often sitting in classes of 45 or 50, in buildings that are crumbling. For four years in a row, Detroit Public Schools has ranked last in academic achievement (4th and 8th graders) among urban districts nationally. In addition, the district has a debt of more than $3.5 billion.

These problems form a wall around the students, who too often cannot overcome the obstacles of the educational system which has failed them. But the students honored at the convocation were like the yellow flower pushing through that basilica wall. They succeeded in spite of obstacles — educational, personal, and economic— witnessing the tenacity of hope.

As spring begins, a few of these recipients are worth contemplating. I invite you to "take a long loving look" and feel the rising of hope spreading throughout our cities and our lives. You may also want to pause after each one to get in touch with what each life is saying to you.

A junior majoring in social work was honored. She is a black, lesbian, disabled veteran of the Iraq War. Homeless in her youth, she graduated from high school and community college. Now at Marygrove she holds a GPA of 3.835. She is a leader in the LGBTQ community and volunteers to facilitate Women2Women group meetings, organizes community outreach programs, and she cooks monthly meals for those in need. After graduation she plans to continue her advocacy for those who are voiceless and oppressed in the city of Detroit.

Another honoree is majoring in English. In one of her classes she worked with others to create a board game to address the obesity crisis in urban youth. For another project she investigated the ways in which the Google search results of "perfect family" and "perfect wedding" reflect a construction of ideal relationships that is exclusive.

The distinguished student award went to a senior majoring in English and history with a dedicated commitment to social justice. He is a mentor to his peers, as he participates in difficult discussions of racism, classism and sexism. His leadership style makes room for other voices, seeking to include and collaborate, even as he shares his own insights.

A junior majoring in English received three honors, including a scholarship awarded to those for whom it would significantly assist in completing their education. Impressed by his work, his professor wrote, "His essay 'The Wilde Women in The Importance of Being Earnest,' underscores the degree to which Victorian England organized itself around powerful beliefs that had little-to-no concrete basis in the material world, yet does so with prose that is as good-humored and sarcastically witty as any Wilde could have hoped for in an audience."

A junior majoring in business completed a service-learning internship aimed at partnering with local businesses to find sustainable solutions for water usage. She then designed and implemented her own service-learning projects, including a 16-week course to teach life skills to women in a homeless shelter. Her future aspirations include helping women in transition break the cycle of poverty through advocacy and education.  

"Taking a long loving look" at these women and men and the others who were honored, I can envision a different political discourse in our country in the decades to come.

Gender differences and sexual preference would no longer be suspect and judged but rather accepted and seen as a source of creativity. Rather than arguing over who is the "perfect" American, we would see how these standards for perfection are rooted in historical perceptions and begin to explore how we understand them today. We would encourage the difficult conversations as we try to bring together people across the polarities that plague us. We would be open to understanding that some of our beliefs have no basis in the real world. We would integrate sustainable practices into business goals. We would value the professions and careers that address breaking the cycle of poverty.

The yellow flower at the Vatican signaled for me a need to be patient and wait, for eventually life will burst forth between the cracks in the wall.

The "yellow flower" represented in the lives of the students signal for me that life is emerging in our cities against terrible odds and that things are changing.

Both are signs of the tenacity of hope.

* Special thanks to the Marygrove faculty and administration whose remarks for the various awards provided a major source for this reflection.

[Nancy Sylvester, IHM, is founder and director of the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue. She served in leadership of her own religious community, the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Monroe, Michigan as well as in the Presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Prior to that she was National Coordinator of NETWORK, the national Catholic social justice lobby.]

To read Nancy Sylvester's entire series, click on her author name above or click here to see a list of her columns.