The Grand Finale: The Fellows’ Final Day in Detroit

Over the week, the Sleight Fellows have been traveling around Detroit meeting inspiring people, exploring the diverse neighborhoods, and sampling some of Detroit’s unique restaurants. Yet when they returned to the hotel after their long day of adventures, the Fellows still had work to do. As mentioned previously, the students were responsible for putting together a grant proposal and presentation that could be applied to areas in Detroit as well as Albion. Thus, the final day of the program found of the Fellows presenting their proposals to the rest of the class. The topics included a tractor-sharing program between community farms in both cities, a fellowship that would help current Albion students or recent graduates relocate to Detroit for a job or internship, and a partnership between local artists, horticulturists, and owners of abandoned buildings to help beautify run-down structures. Some of the students share their thoughts on the presentations and their Detroit experience as a whole:

Nora Jositis:

After a long day out and a late night working, it was time for each group to present their project. Many of the Sleight Fellows were downstairs around 7am to have a quick breakfast while putting the final touches on their PowerPoint presentations. Dr. Bryant and Dr. Pheley had a few last minute discussions with each group. By 9am, it was time to present the work that we had started so few days ago, but that we had put so much time into.

Each group spoke for their allotted 20 minutes and the next 20 minutes were spent clarifying, critiquing, and discussing that group’s work. To be honest, it was nerve-wracking. However, there was no better feeling than presenting to our peers and the professors about what we had produced; the long days and late nights were absolutely worthwhile! It’s hard to remember everything that we as Sleight Fellows did, saw, ate, laughed about, and discussed. The class might have only started four days ago, but there was so much that happened. And because our week was jam-packed with activities, it was incredible. The class discussed the week’s activities over lunch on the last day and together came to the conclusion that what we accomplished was certainly impressive.

Christin Spoolstra:

People often talk of Detroit. They talk of the crime. Of the vacant buildings. Of the trashed economy. Of the racial tension. When I described the purpose of the Sleight Leadership Fellows Program to my friend, he quipped, “You know what my plan for Detroit is? Let it burn.” Only it wasn’t really a quip. So, with all these hardships and this pervasively negative perception, is there any chance that Detroit can be revitalized?

The general consensus we gleaned from this course was that revitalization is already in progress. During our walking tour of Detroit, we saw a thriving art community, historic businesses that still drew many patrons from in and out of town, community action groups, urban farms, and newly-forming, innovative businesses.

When I consider the future of Detroit, I think of Patrick Crouch of Earthworks Urban Farm; one of the Fellows asked him where he saw himself and Earthworks in five to ten years, and he answered honestly and poignantly: I hope we’re out of business. Detroit will not always been a land of social services and revitalization programs – these endeavors are merely temporary installations to stimulate the population back to a level of self-sufficiency. Since I am interested in non-profit administration, Crouch’s attitude resonates with me, and the most tangible result of my week in Detroit was solidifying within me my desire to move there after graduation, not to make a life in non-profit work, but to be a part of an already thriving movement to change attitudes toward a great city.

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Farms, Food, and the Future

The Fellows volunteered at Earthworks Urban Farm. Earthworks is funded by the Capuchin Soup Kitchen and works with them and Gleaners Food Bank to provide food to the city’s residents. They then ate at the soup kitchen and spoke with longtime residents about the city’s history and its future. Finally the students traveled across the city to the North Corktown neighborhood to meet Hostel Detroit owner Emily Doerr, a young entrepreneur who shared her experiences with the Fellows and explained discussed the many unique opportunities available to young people in Detroit. Some of the Fellows share their thoughts on the day:

Jessica Jones:

Today we spent time volunteering at the Earthworks Urban Farming project in their new green house.  After a little heavy labor with some shovels and sledgehammers, we ate lunch at their community soup kitchen, Capuchin, and spoke with workers about the project.  The best part of the day for me was after we left Earthworks and met with Emily Doerr, a young entrepreneur opening her own hostel in Detroit next April.  It was so inspiring to meet someone who is actually going out and making her dream a reality!

Destin Simon:

Today we had a jam packed day filled with a lot of work and traveling around to different parts of the city.  First of all waking up at 6:45 am was not the most pleasing experience that I have ever had but there was work to be done. We worked and ate breakfast for the first two hours of the day with some mixed results.  Then we went to Earthworks to volunteer and learn about the project that they were running. We dug some trenches where they will be putting in boards and broke up concrete with sludge hammers. Some people had almost too much fun destroying concrete. Then we ate lunch at the Soup Kitchen attached to Earthworks and mingled with some of the local people there. Next we went to a hostel that was being created by a young woman named Emily who had recently graduated from CMU.  She moved down to the city of Detroit and was trying to make a difference and rebuild the city. After a long day of being outside in the freezing temperatures and wind, we finally got to stay in the warmth of the hotel for the rest of the night.

This is where the real fun began; we had the rest of the night to finish the rest of our grant proposals. We worked for hours writing, researching, and trying to stay focused and on task.  After hours of work it was about midnight and that is when our exhausted group called it a night. We had accomplished so much in about 5 hours and we were very proud of the work that we had done. The hotel bed, which was very nice I have to say, never felt better after a long day of hard work

Kaitlyn Pospiech:

Today was my favorite day of our trip (besides the tour day) because I am the president of the Albion College Student Farm, and Earthworks had a lot to share about their farming. I enjoyed talking to Dennis, the director of the youth programs at Earthworks. He has very interesting dynamics in his classes, from teaching about farming to teaching about the racism that has affected detroit through its history and still to this day. It was fun to see the different projects that they are starting as well.

Darrian Hollonquest:

The volunteer work at Earthworks was an awesome experience. I thought that it was really awesome that Earthworks and the soup kitchen formed a partnership. I liked how the guys were open to answering any questions we had and told us a brief history of Earthworks and how they work together with the soup kitchen. The soup kitchen was also a great experience for us to have. Poverty is a big issue in Detroit and going to the soup kitchen gave us the opportunity to hear the stories of some of the citizens who are impoverished.

I also liked visiting the Hostel and hearing Emily’s story because it first gave me an insight to what a hostel is. It also showed us that young people can make a difference in the city. Hearing Emily’s story of forming a partnership to start her own business gives me hope and the motivation to want to make a difference also. I have always said I want to be in a history book because I want to make a difference and I feel the difference should start in my own community. I now see how even the smallest change can make a difference in my community and knowing Emily’s story shows me my dreams and goals can become a reality.

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Discovering Hope in Detroit

On Thursday, the Sleight Fellows joined tour guide Sean Mann of the Michigan Municipal League to explore Detroit. The students faced the bitter cold and visited diverse sites, from the burgeoning expansion of the RiverWalk to the abandoned, though awe-inspiring Michigan Central Depot in Corktown. They also met passionate Detroiters, like Slows Bar-B-Q Owner Phil Cooley and Clark Park Recreation Center Director Anthony Benavides, who spoke of building community and inspiring hope. Five students share their thoughts on the day:

Katherine DeVoursney:

I grew up on the west side of Michigan and it wasn’t until coming to college did I finally begin exploring Detroit and its surrounding areas. It has only been quite recently that I have begun to pay attention to the cool things happening in the city – especially in regards to artistic endeavors. As an Art History major at Albion, creativity has always been one of my passions. I have come to see Detroit as a hot bed for artists and opportunities. Between the brilliant inspiration the city offers (the Detroit Institute of the Arts, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, the amazing architectural wonders), the educational institutions brimming with young people (the College of Creative Studies, Wayne State) and the entrepreneurial spirit that pervades this town, Detroit can easily be called a beautiful canvas upon which new hope may be painted.

The people of Detroit recognize the power of art. No where is this more evident than at Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project. In the hopes of drawing attention to his otherwise blighted neighborhood, Guyton began creating outlandish collections of found objects and organizing them in quirky and unconventional ways throughout an entire city block. Stuffed animals decorate abandon houses, shopping carts hang from trees, stoves are filled with shoes. After visiting Heidelberg and also after talking to people involved in the Hygienic Dress League, a guerrilla art group that aims at bringing attention to Detroit’s vacant buildings with the goal of rehabilitation, I am certainly impressed. Seeing the success of these two projects were, for me, a testament to Detroit’s wonderfully unique sense of self. Art’s ability to move the soul will always continue to be one way in which Detroit may heal its heartaches of the past while at the same time promoting faith in its future.

Eddie Bachle:

Exploring Detroit with Sean solidified many of my changing perceptions of the Motor City.  For a long time, my view of Detroit has been largely shaped by the news that I read each morning.  It is not necessarily the previous day’s criminal activity which garners my focus, but rather the happenings in Detroit politics.  The published scandals and inadequacies of the Detroit City Government and Public Schools were my primary sources of knowledge about Detroit.  I continuously heard about leaders seeking change who were hamstrung by red tape and successful programs which were ended by unaware and uninformed administrations.

Talking with members of the city’s private sector along with John Gallagher and Dan Austin from the Detroit Free Press changed this.  I began to get a more realistic impression of what is actually going on in the city.  Some of the aspects of Detroit that I saw as contributing to its downfall turned out to be its greatest assets.  The city government is crippled by corruption and bureaucracy; this opens the doors for residents to begin programs such as urban farming ahead of zoning ordinances being altered to allow this.  The immense number of vacant and abandoned buildings allows for individuals or groups with little startup capital to start a business.  This also can help spur large corporations into the area; there are immense uninhabited office buildings in the downtown area which they could buy for less than it would cost them to rent for a month in a place like New York City.  Though the city still has more than enough problems, it is not a place without hope for the future.  There is a dedicated group of residents and plenty of opportunity to go around in Detroit

Amber Myers:

Though the bitter cold, and snow covered vacancies filled our tour of Detroit on January, 13th, there existed something more significant radiating from every street corner: hope.  After today’s experiences, I find it really odd that people perceive Detroit as a city of lost hope – they are sorely mistaken because it is a city blossoming with hope.  From the retold stories of old from the life-long Detroiters, to the visionaries rebuilding the city piece by piece, it it was quite obvious to me that Detroit’s ever-present hope, with a twist of initiative, has become essential elements to reviving this city. As we toured the city with Sean Mann, I began to recognize the importance  hope played in terms of the citizens of Detroit.  Every neighborhood had a different story or culture, but has the same hope for revitalizing Detroit.  Throughout the multitude of stops made along the tour that i found extremely beneficial, there was one encounter that I found quite moving. Near the end of the day, we met up with Phil, owner of Slow’s Bar BQ and urban developer.  As he showed us around his restaurant, and described the ins-and-outs of his vision for his neighbor hood,of which he was creating by hand and heart, I realized that the real beauty of Detroit is found within the hope for the city’s future, and the leadership the citizens are actively taking.  Whether it is refurbishing buildings for local artists, or reaching out to the public school system, Phil embodied the real change in Detroit is making from the inside-out.  And though there are many people that are remaining as roadblocks, I believe that the active citizens in Detroit who are taking leadership in the community are a prime example of how heart, vision, and hope can make it a long way.  Though many may say that Detroit is falling to ashes, I now see that with the hope from leaders like us, Detroit can and will rise from the ashes of its past.

Cody Yothers:

Before yesterday’s tour, I perceived Detroit to be just like it is often described: a once-great city, which has fallen into despair.  However, after spending the day with Sean Mann , I saw Detroit as a cluster of unique communities isolated from each other by burned-out blocks and empty parking lots. What inspired me is that some neighborhoods are banding together to improve the safety and beauty of their streets. In Mexicantown, people are using paint to clean up abandoned buildings and highway overpasses. On Heidelberg Street, the artist Tyree Guyton has created a reflective artwork about consumerism that takes up an entire (otherwise decrepit) city block. This movement of community improvement is a consequence of local activists like Sean, who see opportunity in the ‘ruins’ of the Motor City.  Sean and Phil Cooley, the owner of a Corktown restaurant, started to build a public park in front of the abandoned Michigan Central Station. It began two years ago with a $10,000 budget and has since been expanded to a half-million dollars; it will include an amphitheatre, a skate-park, and a playground. This culture of hope and cooperation is one that I believe will attract young graduates to the city. I had not previously thought of living in Detroit after graduating, but what I saw today has made me reconsider.

Jessie Baird:

As a senior at Albion, I have officially entered those last few whirlwind months in which the question of my next move after graduation is frighteningly, but also thrillingly, real and pressing.  My broad mixture of interests in psychology, sustainable agriculture, food and environmental justice issues, and community development lend themselves to a number of possible directions, both in terms of career path and physical location. As for the latter, the tour today helped put Detroit at the top of my list.

Here is why: between the community groups fighting relentlessly to preserve beautiful historic architecture, the conversion of vacant lots and houses too expensive to demolish into canvasses for public art, community gardens that offer places for green thumbs to gather and share their proven techniques with neighbors, a bakery that incorporates food grown in Detroit soil into its regular menu, and neighborhood ice skating rink and hockey league, I can envision myself eventually calling this city home after living in a suburb of Chicago for the past 21 years. I say “eventually” because this possibility is, of course, contingent upon the availability of jobs since idealism can only go so far without an income (see Mom and Dad? I pay attention sometimes). That said, today’s tour left me with a kind of educated optimism that good jobs can be found here by recent graduates who don’t have much experience. Historian and author of Lost Detroit Dan Austin spoke about his friend who started a now very successful creperie. Later, we’ll meet with 26-year-old Emily Doerr, who is preparing to open her own hostel in Corktown. Giving support to the niches that exist for creative job outlets like these is a network of idealistic (but humble), community-minded, risk-taking, and persistent professionals like Dan Austin and Phil Cooley, owner of the wildly popular Slow’s Barbeque and benefactor to local artists looking for a place to showcase their work. He has spearheaded an effort to renovate old buildings for use as apartments and free studio space.

Suddenly the questions, “what’s next?” and then, “why Detroit?” seem a whole lot less daunting to answer.

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Detroit 101: Intro to a City

Wide open spaces. Wildlife. Tall grasses wave in the wind as flocks of birds fly overhead.

Is this Northern Michigan? Albion? No. How about Detroit? Yes! The Motor City? Over the past few decades, dramatic change has occurred in Detroit – and Albion College is there to learn about it.

Sixteen Albion students are spending the week in Detroit learning about leadership and efforts to return the city to a viable and vibrant urban center. The students, through the Sleight Leadership Fellows Program will tour the city, meet with community leaders, and engage in discussions on topics that are relevant to the city’s future.

Under the direction of Al Pheley, director of the Ford Institute, and Tom Bryant of the Gerstacker Institute, the program blends academic readings and discussions with experiential learning opportunities. “This is what the Albion Advantage is all about,” says Pheley. “We can talk about the city in the classroom, show pictures of what Detroit was and is now, but being here, seeing and teaching it and engaging in dialogue with the people working to make a difference is an great example of Albion’s vision for student learning.”

As an example, the Sleight Fellows are staying at the historic Fort Shelby Hotel. Abandoned in 1979, it stayed empty and endured decades of vandalizing, until renovated and reopened by the Hilton Corporation in 2008 as the Doubletree Fort Shelby. “We hear and see a lot about abandoned and dilapidated buildings in Detroit. The success of the Fort Shelby project and others like it ought to be recognized. Yet we don’t hear as much about them,” says Casey Hoffman, ’12.

On their first evening in Detroit, the Fellows met with John Gallagher, author of the book Reimagining Detroit, Opportunities for Redefining an American City. Gallagher, the architecture and business editor for the Detroit Free Press, discussed the issues facing the city, from urban farms and light rail systems to consolidation and finding the right size for the city.

“Mr. Gallagher’s questions and answer session was a wonderful opportunity for us. He really motivated us to think outside the box to solve the city’s problems and revitalize. He had a great message for us to take away and really made us feel empowered and driven to make a significant difference from the grassroots level. Even though we’re students, he helped us to realize that we can definitely help and make a positive change,” reflected Chelsea Denault, ’12.

During the week, the Fellows will work in small groups to develop grants proposals based on ideas they have learned about. One of the requirements of the class is to create a proposal that could be applied in Detroit as well as Albion. Says Pheley, “Creating a revitalization project, whether in Detroit or Albion, allows them to put their experience into action. These are our future leaders. They will make the difference in the future.”

Over the next several days, the Sleight Fellows will continue to provide updates on their Detroit experience. Please check back to read more!

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