When Ypsilanti resident and community activist Gail Summerhill hears a politician tell constituents, “Register and go vote,” she says it makes her feel like cussing.
“It’s like a knife every time I hear it. All you ever hear is ‘register and go vote,’ but you’re assuming that a person’s life is like yours when you make that statement,” she says. “It’s like saying to someone, ‘Take the keys to my car and go to Kroger and get a loaf of bread and bring it back.’ And you find out it’s a stick shift and you’ve never driven a stick shift.”
Empowering Ypsilanti-area residents with the building blocks of civic education is the goal behind the grassroots organization and website Summerhill and a team of friends created: Ypsi, Can I Share?
The website “is filling a communication gap most people and groups involved in community activism and politics ignore,” says Ypsi, Can I Share? member Margaret Shankler.
“That gap is the space between how information is distributed and how it is received,” Shankler says. “What is unique about Ypsi, Can I Share? is that its approach to every issue begins with the question: ‘Who is excluded from this knowledge and how do we reach those people where they are?’ It is from that perspective that we begin to develop our materials and outreach plans.”
The Ypsi, Can I Share? website says the group’s goal is to “uncover and share information that we believe may be suppressed on purpose. Our aim is to bring information to audiences typically excluded by our government, media, and other mainstream sources” and “sharing information so that we can advocate for a more equitable system for everyone.”
The focus is on the eastern half of Washtenaw County, highlighting political races and issues facing the city of Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township, Pittsfield Township, and Superior Township.
Summerhill admits that she didn’t know much about politics until she started selling Barack Obama T-shirts at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market during Obama’s first presidential campaign.
“The women who wanted to buy were asking my opinion on what I thought about such and such a debate,” she says. “I didn’t know what they were talking about, but I knew if I wanted to sell those shirts, I needed to look at the debate so I could be in the conversation.”
She then got involved with the Washtenaw County Democratic Party (WCDP) and, through that involvement, met and was inspired by the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis.
A short while later, Summerhill began participating in a series of events called “Uncomfortable Conversations” that grew out of the Bridging 23 initiative, meant to unite residents of Ann Arbor and residents of Ypsilanti. There, she met and befriended Jan Piert. Summerhill, who is Black, and Piert, who is white, began talking about the differences in their experiences based on race and upbringing.
“We started this friendship and gave each other a safe space where it was okay to ask dumb questions,” Piert says. “At times, I broke Gail’s heart because I didn’t understand when she’d say to me that something was done on purpose. In my head, I was interpreting it as they’re bad people. Later, I understood what she was talking about was institutional racism.”
Summerhill also talked with Piert, who had spent time volunteering with the WCDP, about her feeling that the WCDP wasn’t doing a good job of reaching out to people in Ypsilanti.
Summerhill decided to write Rep. Lewis and ask for a written statement she could use “to convince other people and give them a sense of hope” about voting and political engagement.
In his response, Lewis encouraged Summerhill to “make necessary trouble.” That inspired her to create “empowerment cards” with information about local government and resources, but she didn’t know how best to distribute them. She got together with early supporters like Piert and Shankler and made a video about how to obtain a handicap sticker in the Ypsilanti area.
From there, the effort grew first into a Facebook page and later the Ypsi, Can I Share? website. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the website began sharing COVID-19 public service videos made by Ypsilanti resident Bryan Foley.
Ypsi, Can I Share? also began hosting occasional virtual events, like a Zoom meeting in May called “Privilege Meets Privilege at the Capitol,” a response to armed white men entering the capitol to protest the governor’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order. The fear and trauma many white legislators experienced that day was the same type of trauma that people of color face all the time, Summerhill says.
As the election season approaches, Ypsi, Can I Share? has been emphasizing basic voter education like how to use your phone to register to vote or where to find a no-contact drop-off for your ballot. Ypsilanti activist Trische’ Duckworth, who organized many recent Black Lives Matter protests in Ann Arbor and Ypsi, is the narrator of many of those videos.
Another effort has been a “Talking Ballot,” an initiative that emphasizes relationships with candidates rather than politics. A page on the Ypsi, Can I Share? website contains links to ballots in the four target municipalities, with links to videos made by candidates.
“One of the most important things Gail taught us is to speak from the heart,” Piert says. “Politicians are issue-oriented, but you can’t tell who they are as a person. Gail asked us to focus on where the heart is in the conversation.”
Ypsilanti resident Desirae Simmons has been involved in soliciting videos for the Talking Ballot and getting the word out about the site to people who might benefit from it.
“When we’re thinking about voter engagement and building democracy, something I believe very much in, we need to be trying to reach people in different ways, to engage with people in ways that allow them to take control of the information,” Simmons says.
The next online event Summerhill is planning for Ypsi, Can I Share? is a Zoom forum about school board candidates, featuring candidates from both Ann Arbor Public Schools and Ypsilanti Community Schools. The two districts are geographically close but “as different as night and day” in terms of their relative privilege, Summerhill says.
Details of that meeting haven’t yet been finalized, but anyone interested in participating can watch the Ypsi, Can I Share? Facebook page for updates about future events.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at [email protected].
Photos courtesy of Ypsi, Can I Share?