A season in Detroit

Aug 25, 2010 at 12:00 am

Ashlee Stratakis grew up on the Dearborn-Detroit border and moved to the Dearborn side so, she says, "I wouldn't have to go to Detroit Public Schools." 

Dwayne Riley was raised on the city's west side near Joy and Wyoming. While his grandmother "used to tell stories about the riots and things like that," he says he "knew nothing about the east side of Detroit."

Diana Flora, originally from Bay City, spent time working at a homeless shelter in El Paso, Texas, before this realization: "I saw all the issues going on there, and I said, 'The same issues are going on in my home state, so I'm going to go back to Detroit.'" 

These three University of Michigan undergraduates decided to bridge the gaps in their understanding of Detroit by closing the physical 43-mile gap between the Ann Arbor campus and the city. Each participated in U-M's two-year-old Semester in Detroit program. 

This for-credit program houses its students in the city, provides a core curriculum of Detroit-centered classes, and pairs them with community nonprofit organizations for a 12-week internship. Its organizers describe the program as an immersion experience for the students, one that comes with a heavy dose of critical thinking and an ethic of reciprocity. 

Anyone connected to Semester in Detroit is quick to tell you what the program is not. It is not a study-abroad program. It is not a community service program. It is not a class. It is not a college scene. It is not a voyeuristic, temporary visit. It is not about outsiders coming to "save" the city. 

These denials display a certain self-awareness — bordering on self-consciousness — of how the program might be perceived, reflecting a desire on the part of its organizers to defeat those assumptions. 

"I think it was really important for the program to have a lot of honest humility," Rachael Tanner says. Tanner, who graduated from Michigan in 2006, had the idea for Semester in Detroit in an introductory Community and Urban Studies class. She drew on her experience in study-abroad programs and working with nonprofits in Detroit to develop a concept paper, which professor Stephen Ward encouraged her to turn into a concrete proposal. 

With three classmates, she formed a Semester in Detroit planning committee and drummed up administrative and faculty support. Tanner thinks the project's welcome reception and relatively quick bureaucratic processing were a function of a certain "serendipity." Affirmative action had just been outlawed, and the university had just opened a new center in Detroit. "U-M was still looking for ways to create a diverse campus and to invest a deeper relationship in city of Detroit in real way, to connect the community and students," Tanner says. 

Semester in Detroit had the potential to fill those roles for the university, but its designers wanted to ensure the program also left the city with something to show for it. "We can be part of re-visioning and remaking the city," Tanner says, but that has to happen "not as outsiders coming in but as people saying, 'We are willing to serve those who are serving the city and we want to offer what it is that we have.'"

Still, the faculty and staff recognize the program is likely to draw skeptical reactions. "U-M has that history of seeing the city as laboratory, as a place to go in, extract resources, and bring to campus and use for own ends," says professor Stephen Ward, who teaches the program's core course in 20th century Detroit history. "But this was designed to be the antithesis to that." 

"We've had students called outsiders and had motives questioned," assistant director Craig Regester says. "We shouldn't be any more immune than anybody else. I completely understand and respect and sympathize with what I feel is a very healthy suspicion born out of Detroit's history." 

To combat this, Semester in Detroit starts with the students. "They're not coming here to save Detroit — we pound that out of them as quickly as we can," Regester says. The students attend workshops before they move to the city and they take a mandatory, once-a-week reflection seminar over the course of the semester to discuss their work and place in Detroit. 

Semester in Detroiters haven't let anxiety about the program's reception get too much in the way of success. Something seems to be working. In fact, it's difficult to get anyone who's been involved with Semester in Detroit to say anything negative about the program. 

Conja Wright, assistant branch manager at the Detroit Public Library in Detroit's old Redford neighborhood, considers "the essence of it" — giving students an opportunity to be immersed in the community — "a must." She had expected to work with an intern from outside the city and was prepared to give an introduction to the "culture of the urban librarian." But Monique Gaines, the library intern, was from Detroit's east side. Still, Wright says Gaines got a new experience with a different part of the city. "I don't think there's any substitute for getting people out into the community," she says. 

Matt Bihun worked with two Semester in Detroit interns as programs director at Southwest Detroit Business Association, and says he thinks the students' "outsider" status actually gives them a fresh perspective. "It was certainly a change of pace and attitude and environment when you have grown up outside of Detroit and spent however many years in Ann Arbor," he says. "But they were really eager to learn and eager to participate in a lot of things outside of just their internship and their work."

Both Wright and Bihun say they intend to apply to work with Semester in Detroit again. Regester says that 12 of the 13 organizations reapplied to participate the second year, and that he expects most to return for the coming year. Semester in Detroit is looking for new organizations, but Regester says they want to avoid the shortcomings of community service classes, which he sees as transition and cyclical turnover. "We're very interested in long-term relationships." 

The students, Stratakis, Riley and Flora, are just as effusive about the program as the faculty, staff and community partners. Flora chose to do the program in its first year, and in her final semester at U-M, because she was curious about Detroit and "it was the perfect introduction to the city that I was about to move into." She did her internship with State Rep. Rashida Tlaib's office in Southwest Detroit, moved to the area, did a year as an Americorp volunteer, and then was hired by Tlaib to run her re-election campaign this summer. 

Riley says his internship at the American Indian Health and Family Services clinic was "the experience of a lifetime," and gave him a window into a different aspect of Detroit. He says, "You can be raised in the city all your life, but when you get behind the scenes and look into nonprofit organizations and hear about other people's experiences in their internships, you begin to understand Detroit in new light." Riley also says he "absolutely" intends to set up in Detroit upon finishing his medical degree.

Regester says he appreciates the students' enthusiasm, and people shouldn't be "concerned about repopulating Detroit with some white, intellectual dynamic." Young people who are educated with the conscientiousness and experience of Semester in Detroit should be preferred, not criticized. "The challenges that Detroit faces as a city, at some level they're so enormous, so incredibly complex, having a few more people here trying to grapple with these issues, to be a part in some small way in working towards positive solutions," Regester says. "I don't know how that could ever be a bad thing."

Simone Landon is a Metro Times editorial intern. Send comments to [email protected]