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We Support Detroit Schools mobilizes youth to promote improvement of city

By Paige Pfleger, Daily Arts Writer
Published December 11, 2013

In Ann Arbor, the looming giant of Detroit has a small presence — its skyline can be seen on fliers plastered on posting walls, and its plight is taught in economics classes; its name peppers the course guide; slogans urge students to “volunteer in Detroit” and to “help Detroiters.” However, for one small group on campus, We Support Detroit Schools (WSDS), the notion of a helpless Detroit doesn’t exist. Instead, the group urges reciprocal learning, shedding light on the fact that the only true experts on Detroit are Detroiters themselves.

“The students are the experts,” said WSDS member Stephanie Yassine. “We aren’t here to tell them they’re wrong or refocus them. It’s really important that they come here and present their information because they are the experts on this. They live there. They go to school there. This experience is empowering for them and empowering for us.”

Five such experts sat at a long table in the School of Social Work’s Educational Conference Center on Monday. They are ninth-grade students from Cornerstone Charter Health High School in Detroit, and WSDS brought them to the University to present their research projects on the causes of vacant lots in their city. They named the event “Detroit: Research through our eyes, reshaped through our voice.”

Masters of Social Work student Bobby Siporin founded WSDS last year after spending time as a special education teacher with Teach for America. Having spent most of his young life in Huntington Woods, Mich., a suburb sheltered from neighbor Detroit, Siporin wanted to combine his passion for teaching and his curiosity about Detroit into a mutually beneficial organization: a student-run group that collaborates with high-school students in Detroit on shared projects and initiatives with the purpose of building relationships.

This goal seems to have been achieved. The high schoolers buzzed about, introducing themselves while professors, alumni and university students filled the room. There was a line of 20 pizzas, pop, cookies and more — libations selected by the high-school students who planned the event.

One of the attending teachers, University alum Robyn Paul, selected the five students from her ninth-grade class that aims to use information learned in core courses to fix real-world problems. These problems include the decline of the automotive industry, the riots of 1967, population decrease, crime rates, as well as governmental corruption.

After a short introduction from Paul, the students each stood and presented their issue and how it contributes to lot vacancy in the city. They were nervous; however, it was clear that they’ve done their research as they spouted out staggering facts and anecdotes that exceed expectations of 13- and 14-year-olds.

Five million people lived in Detroit in 1950. Now, there are only 700,000. It takes the police an average of 58 minutes to arrive after being called; that is, if they even show up at all.

“My friend was held at gunpoint,” Jazzlyn Seabourn said while presenting about crime.

“We in the city have gone through a lot,” ninth-grader Antwan Pettas admits, “But the city has also given me a lot.”

After giving their presentations, the students sat back down at the long table and fielded questions from audience members. They developed their answers seamlessly, holding the microphone in their hands and speaking one at a time.

“I think it’s important to talk about blight in Detroit so that we can change it,” NaTasha Peace said.

“As young adults, we see the city differently. As kids, we aren’t so quick to judge,” Ewenique Wilson said. “We should do more things like this to fix the city, so that people don’t take the media’s word for it and they aren’t afraid of Detroit.” She quoted Dan Rather and The Detroit News, later mentioning that she hopes to become a journalist.


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