Navigating the Narratives: How the University promotes student engagement in Detroit

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By Ian Dillingham, Daily News Editor
Published October 8, 2014

“If I was a venture capitalist with lots of spare change, I’d make an investment in Detroit.”

At a July 18 press conference during his first week as University president, Mark Schlissel reaffirmed the University’s ties with Detroit, saying he was impressed by the work of both students and faculty in the city. Having spent two days in the city prior to coming to Ann Arbor, he remained cautiously optimistic about its future.

“I don’t think it’s going to become one of the small handfuls of major cities in the United States which it was at the height of the growth of the auto industry, but I see lots of seeds of redevelopment and energy in the Detroit economy that I predict five years from now, Detroit’s going to be a vigorous city,” Schlissel said.

In the coming weeks, Detroit will likely reach a key point in its 15-month bankruptcy saga. Pending a decision by Judge Steven Rhodes — who will hold a hearing about a potential deal between the city and it’s last major creditor, Financial Guaranty Insurance Co. — the city has a chance to emerge from Chapter 9 bankruptcy by the end of year.

But despite what many are lauding as a successful turnaround, a recent Michigan Daily survey suggests students might not be so confident about the city’s future.

In an e-mail survey of 230 randomly selected undergraduates, only 22 percent of respondents indicated they would consider living in the city after graduation if presented with an employment or educational opportunity, compared to 55 percent or more in similar metropolitan areas, such as New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco.

Forty-one percent of respondents indicated they would not live in Detroit and 37 percent indicated “maybe.”

Source: September 2014 Michigan Daily campus survey. Response on each question was optional, thus numbers may not total 230.

Violence

The most contentious issue for students: safety.

In 2013, Forbes ranked Detroit as the most dangerous city in the United States for the fifth year in a row. That year, the city had more than 300 homicides among a population of just more than 700,000. By comparison, Chicago — with more than 2.7 million residents — recorded just more than 400 homicides the same year. New York City — with more than 8.4 million residents — had just more than 330.

Despite a 7-percent drop in violent crime in 2013, cuts to police funding have left some residents wary. In January, Detroit Police Chief James Craig openly encouraged Detroiters to seek concealed pistol licenses as a deterrent against criminals.

“I’ve joked about this with my friends,” said Engineering junior Eyad Tamimi. “If I were to live in Detroit, I’d get a concealed carry license. I’m not particularly in favor of guns, but in some neighborhoods you have to have that as a precaution.”

Tamimi, an international student originally from Jordan who recently transferred to the University, said his perception of high poverty and unemployment rates would discourage him from ever moving to the city.

Some with ties to the city, however, have come to accept the uneasy status quo.

Craig Regester, associate director of the University’s Semester in Detroit program, said he has experienced crime firsthand. In 18 years living in the city, he has had three incidents of damage to his car and one bike stolen, though he knows individuals who have experienced more serious incidents.

“We have a serious problem with guns in this country, and Detroit is part of this country, so yes gun violence is a problem in Detroit,” Regester said. “It is a problem for Detroit, and it is a problem for other major cities. We don’t hide from that.”

For students unfamiliar with the city, Regester said the University has “an opportunity, and frankly a responsibility, to speak the truth” about what is happening in Detroit. He said while crime is a major point of discussion, it should not be a factor that prohibits students from exploring the city, citing that violence is a part of life in most major U.S. cities.

Regester described a conversation with a French foreign exchange student who, prior to coming to the United States, considered the situation in Detroit equivalent to that of Syria, where the United States is currently conducting airstrikes and hundreds of thousands of people have fled to neighboring countries. In the past, Regester said students have similarly likened the city to Lebanon or Gaza prior to visiting.

In contrast, other students — such as those from the West Coast or those who did not follow national news in high school — come to the University with no prior knowledge of the city, its history or its current challenges.

“It really depends on who you talk to,” Regester said. “I think there’s such a range of impressions.”

Source: September 2014 Michigan Daily campus survey. Responses only presented for students who reported University standing, therefore total number will be less than 230.
Reputations

Whatever these impressions may be, the University and the city are — and have been — inextricably linked.

Before moving to Ann Arbor in 1837 — the same year Michigan was admitted to the Union — the University was located for its first 20 years in Detroit. While the city and the University parted ways geographically, Regester said they stood together on the world stage for most of the 20th century as manufacturing boomed and technological innovations abounded.

“The University is indebted in many respects,” Regester said.

And historically, that indebtedness was paid off through a steady influx of University graduates to the city each year, though hard data in this respect is difficult to find.

Regester said the decline in Detroit’s economy might have resulted in decreased numbers of college students entering the city, but that it is difficult to speculate. There is one statistic, however, that he was proud to highlight: one in three — the number of alumni who have lived or worked in Detroit after completing the SID program.

“People usually want more of a relationship and a deeper relationship with Detroit after they’ve done our program, because they’ve had some of that experience,” Regester said. “Detroit sells itself as far as I’m concerned.”

One of the program’s alumni, Rashard Haynesworth, who participated during the spring of his junior year at the University, still lives in the city two years after graduating. He volunteers with SID weekend programs several times per year and currently works at Racquet Up Detroit, a nonprofit youth development program for which he interned as part of the program.

A lifelong Detroit resident and community college transfer, Haynesworth said he felt the need to give back to the city upon arriving in Ann Arbor his junior year. Students he talked with were scared to visit the city, he said, in part based on media portrayals and in part because of a lack of personal experiences in the city.

Even Schlissel, who moved to the region this summer, admitted that media played a significant role in his view of Detroit prior to arriving in the state.

“The media generates an impression of the city, and — not having visited or lived here — of course the impression is built on what you read and what people say,” Schlissel said.

As a recruiting director on campus, Haynesworth found students had little reason or motivation to explore the city, with the exception of a few select campus outreach programs, such as the Detroit Partnership — a student-run nonprofit that organizes “service-learning opportunities” between the University and city.

Along with concerns for personal safety, many students Haynesworth interacted with considered Detroit a “wasteland.”

“Once you hear it so many times, you think, ‘this is an issue,’” Haynesworth said. “If this is what people think about the city, it’s going to be hard to attract young college graduates.”

The Michigan Daily

Repair

Regardless of how the majority of students interact with the city, those who make the move are doing their part to help with the improvement efforts and change the perceptions of the city in Ann Arbor.

Larissa Carr, a long-time Detroit resident and SID participant, said students are rarely well informed about Detroit’s history, its culture or its people — something she would like to see changed. She stressed the importance that students visit the city in person and talk to its residents in order to form their own impressions, rather than relying on what they hear from outside sources.

“We’re one of the most diverse parts of the region,” Carr said. “That’s our biggest asset — our people.”

After moving back to the city and working for a short time at the nonprofit Mercy Education Project, which provides educational resources for low-income women, Carr was hired to work for state Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D–Detroit). Despite being from Detroit, she referred to SID as one of the most valuable experiences she had at the University.

She also highlighted the organizations and movements that work to improve the city on a daily basis. In her current position, she said she spends time connecting residents with the resources they need to improve their quality of life.

“There are so many different organizations with people on the ground doing grassroots work to help improve the quality of life for the people that are here,” she said.

Meanwhile, the University has continued to take part in the revitalization efforts.

Since 2005, the University has operated its Detroit Center, a facility of more than 26,000 square feet on Woodward Avenue that works to promote engagement between the city and campus communities. Mike Morland, communications director for the center, said students who visit and learn about the city often become more engaged in the area.

The center works to facilitate community events and expose the University community to different aspects of Detroit. Such events include musical performances, guest lectures, service projects and historical exhibits. Morland said promoting this type of cultural interaction provides a tangible benefit to the Ann Arbor community, reflective of the 200-year history of such interactions.

About a year ago, the University introduced a new bus route — the Detroit Center Connector — which aims to provide students with a free means by which to explore the city, which has notoriously bad public transit systems. After a successful first year of operation — during which it provided approximately 6,000 rider trips to the city — the program is looking to expand its scope in the coming year. Morland pointed to this early success as an indication that students on campus are, in fact, interested in being involved in the city.

“The students who get here seem not only very interested in visiting the city, but being part of the change,” Morland said.

Yet certain indicators still cast uncertainty on student relations with the city. In its first year of operation, the primary subset of riders on the Connector was students traveling to Detroit to visit their families. While Rackham student Carolyn Lusch, transportation coordinator for the MDCC, said this discrepancy is “still a way to enrich (students’) education,” it brings into question the effectiveness of such programs at promoting cultural exchange among the rest of the campus body.

Additionally, the narratives surrounding the city can instill students with an inflated sense of self-importance. Regester said he has observed this “savior mentality” among students and other visitors, and cautions them to be aware of judgments they adopt before arriving in the city.

“It’s pretty unlikely that you’re going to save Detroit, but quite possible that Detroit will save you,” Regester said.

As Schlissel settled into his new role this summer, he acknowledged the University’s continued responsibility in facilitating interactions between the campus and city — continuing the process of educating students about the challenges as well as the opportunities the city presents. Under his leadership, it does not appear these efforts will fall away any time soon.