Watch just one episode of The Wire, and you get it. Life in Baltimore is tough. It's gritty. The public school system is a failure, corruption is everywhere, and the drug economy pretty much dominates the city.
Shavon Holcomb grew up on Detroit's west side and went to Detroit public schools her whole life. Until she watched The Wire she thought no one had it as bad the kids in her school:
"I was watching and started to realize that it's a lot like how I grew up. When you're growing up in it, you just assume that this is how things is. But watching The Wire, I got to see the big picture and all the different dynamics that went into it. And I thought that I needed to do something, anything. Get more involved in the politics around me."
So when her sociology professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn told her about an upcoming academic conference based on The Wire, Holcomb was all about it.
She decided to write a paper based on her experience in the Inside Out Prison Exchange class she took last semester. The class has undergrads from outside the prison, like Holcomb, get together with students inside the prison to talk about things like racism, segregation, drugs, public schools. Well, it turns out that all the students, both inside and out, were huge Wire fans. So they used The Wire as a kind of text to understand how some of them landed inside prison and others landed on the outside.
"I think The Wire should be seen as one of those great pieces of American art," says Salamishah Tillet. She teaches English at the University of Pennsylvania, and she's a panelist at the conference.
"You know," says Tillet, "The Wire is one of those shows that, regardless of one's academic discipline, one can find a common language or a common interest to talk about the show. You can have sociologists coming together, or economists, or literary critics, or historians, all trying to wrestle with the questions that the Wire posed to its audience members."
That's exactly what Paul Farber is banking on. He's a grad student at the University of Michigan and one of the guys behind the Wire themed conference, which they're calling "Heart of the City." He thinks there's something in The Wire for everyone to talk about: from inner city students to scholars. Even a big time politician like President Barack Obama has gone on the record saying it's his favorite TV show.
"The show is unique," says Farber. "It offers not just compelling story lines, but also really focused and keen ideas about policy making. When we think about reform, oftentimes it's around single issues platforms. So you go in and fix the schools, or you go in and fix crime. What the show demonstrates to us is that you can't just intervene in one area without having a really sincere, deep impact in others. The idea is that all areas and sectors of society are intimately connected."
And since Obama has already gone on the record saying how much he likes The Wire, Farber hopes that when it comes time for the administration to talk about new policies or reform, Obama takes into account what he learned from watching the TV show.
You can find more information on the Heart of the City conference here