For the fourth year in a row, the Detroit Community-Academic Urban Research Center has partnered with Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan to provide funding for projects seeking to develop policy to alleviate urban poverty. 

The Detroit URC is a community and academic partnership working to improve health for Detroit residents through community-based research. Barbara Israel, professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education and director of the Detroit URC, said the URC partnership with Poverty Solutions is beneficial. It combines Poverty Solutions’ resources with the URC’s expertise in funding seed projects, which are projects that are launched with a small amount of funding. 

Israel said Poverty Solutions and Detroit URC selected projects based on how equitably they involved community and academic partners and how much potential they had for growth and sustainability. Projects were also evaluated on how well they improved the efficacy of programs and policies alleviating poverty.

“Part of our work has always been the importance of having community and academic partnerships do the research,” Israel said. “If we promote co-learning and capacity building of all the partners involved, the research needs to benefit the community as well as the academic partners.” 

Carol Gray, center manager of the Detroit URC, said the URC has worked as a matchmaker to create mutually beneficial research partnerships between academic researchers and community actors for over two decades.

“We’re celebrating 25 years of partnership,” Gray said. “The Detroit Urban Research Center is one of the longest community-based participatory research partnerships in the country if not the world. And we’re very proud of reaching that milestone.”

This year, Poverty Solutions and the Detroit URC gave $26,500 each to three projects: a team building a greenhouse combining technology with African traditions, an experiment in food delivery for low-income mothers and a study on entrepreneurship programs and socioeconomic mobility.  

Tammy Chang, assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and researcher for the food delivery experiment, said her team partnered with the Women, Infants & Children program in Washtenaw County to deliver healthy groceries to young and low-income mothers. According to Chang, these mothers often face significant logistical barriers to finding and buying healthy food despite qualifying for government food benefit programs. She said her team sought to help communities often underrepresented or ignored in research. 

“It’s our job as community members and physicians and researchers to be out there in the community so that we can seek out people and be ready to listen,” Chang said. “And provide opportunities for people who typically don’t or can’t voice issues, and then create programs and projects and studies around those people.”

She said her project works to create evidence to show government agencies that an investment of $100 or less on mothers during pregnancy can greatly improve maternal and child health over their lifetimes.

Ron Eglash, professor at the School of Information and at the School of Art & Design, said his team is working to build a high-tech greenhouse next to the Detroit MBAD African Bead Museum that combines cutting-edge technology with African economic and ecological traditions. 

He said his team was inspired by research he conducted on West African societies using bottom-up, generative economic models to keep wealth in local communities. Typically, Eglash said Western economic models include state or private corporations which extract and keep value from individuals. 

Eglash said the team intends for the project to be both educationally and economically beneficial. 

“If we can have robotic systems, automated systems in the greenhouse, we can have digital sensors, if we can have AI do some pattern recognition, it’ll not only benefit the greenhouse, but help educate University of Michigan students, who are right now asking themselves, how do I get to the cutting edge in robotics or AI, oh, I know, I’ll do some work for the military or I’ll work for this giant corporation and make some billionaires even wealthier,” Eglash said. 

Audrey Bennett, professor in the School of Art & Design, said the project demonstrates the role design thinking can play in generative justice. She works with a team of students across a variety of disciplines in design to teach how technology can augment African traditions of generative justice to improve communities. 

“(The students) have to work with the community to see how design could help the community to alleviate poverty,” Bennett said. 

One of those students is Art & Design graduate student Keesa Johnson. She said discussions about diversity, equity and inclusion, often ignore or neglect to talk about equity. 

“This project for me centers around equity,” Johnson said. “Generative justice … speaks to that healing that I’ve been looking for when it comes to equity.” 

Johnson said her work on the project connected concepts she’s learning in class about complex systems design to broader lessons about community. 

“It’s really about building community for the whole of society,” she said. “I’m not extracting anything from anybody, we’re building and we’re making and we’re exchanging, and it all goes back to one thing.”

Reporter Julia Rubin can be reached at

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