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The Detroit Connection

by Jeff Mortimer

Is Detroit an opportunity not to be missed? This may strike some as a novel question, but the promise of opportunity informs the work of an increasing number of people at Eastern, who believe the University’s proximity to the Motor City and its environs Detroit Connectionoffers abundant venues for teaching, learning and service.

Some have been capitalizing on those opportunities for years. Others have only recently had their consciousness raised. But they all share a passionate optimism about the role Eastern can play in breaking down the barriers—social, economic and perceptual—between the city and its suburbs, and how that enterprise can, in turn, lead to dialogue across disciplinary divides that will benefit both faculty and students. Eastern’s Historic Preservation Program, for example, has been a presence in Detroit for decades. “We’ve had our alums working there, and usually student interns, almost since I’ve been here,” says Ted Ligibel, the program’s director, “which is 21 years.”

One of those alums is Diane Van Buren (MS12), whose story personifies Historic Preservation’s connection with Detroit. Van Buren was an elementary school art teacher in the city in the early 1980s when she saw a flyer in the teachers’ lounge announcing Eastern’s new master’s program in the field.

“I have no idea why it was there because it wasn’t about teaching,” she says. “It must have been my good karma coming out. What I really loved was Detroit’s architecture, and I decided that I would like being in historic preservation better than teaching.”

She kept her day job and took classes at night, but she had to let the classes go when she became the manager of a preservation program in her own neighborhood. The rest, as they say, is history. Or, as Van Buren puts it, “Twenty-five years of working in the field happened.”

They’ve been pretty impressive years. She joined Zachary and Associates, a renowned historic preservation consulting firm, and married Ernie Zachary, its founder and principal. Among other accomplishments, they led the revival of the area now known as Midtown.

“Diane’s entire career has been spent in rehabilitating historic buildings and doing environmentally sensitive renovations on buildings in Detroit,” says Ligibel. “She and her husband are this powerhouse duo in Detroit.”

And, as of the end of the summer, Van Buren is finally, officially, an alumna, having returned a year ago to finish her degree. Not surprisingly, considering she’s worked with more than 100 interns in the last 25 years, her thesis project was formalizing an internship work-study program for Eastern students in Detroit.

Both the city and the students will benefit. The Historic Preservation Program has always focused on a hands-on approach, training students for what they’ll encounter in the field, and Van Buren believes these students will inject a desperately needed dose of expertise in historic preservation, as opposed to demolition, into deliberations about the future of shrinking neighborhoods.

Historic Preservation is not alone in its long history of engagement with Detroit. Professor of social work Lynn M. Nybell points out, “I’ve had students in training projects in the city for the whole 30 years I’ve been on the faculty.”

It was that background that moved Nybell and Professor Sylvia Sims Gray, a colleague in social work, to convene a faculty development seminar last fall called “Teaching in Context: Placing EMU in Southeast Michigan.” They sought an experience as broad as theirs was deep, in terms of their own understanding of the University’s importance and the range of disciplines into which learning and service could be integrated.

In addition to social work, participants represented a diverse palette of specialties, with faculty from the library, teacher education, English language and literature, women and gender studies, history and philosophy, nursing, and geography and geology. A field trip dubbed “Detroit from the Ground Up,” which included students, was a key part of the package. Enthusiasm was so high that most of the faculty involved have continued to meet informally. In their final report on the seminar, Nybell and Gray cited several outcomes that could well serve as templates for the future:

  • Strengthening connections between EMU and community resources in the region, particularly in the city of Detroit.
  • Confronting inequalities and possibility in the region.
  • Enhancing classroom dialogue.
  • Using knowledge of EMU’s “place” to strengthen connections between curriculum content and students’ lived experiences of the present.
  • Enriching learning experiences for students through interdisciplinary exchange.
  • Re-energizing or conceptualizing scholarly and service work in connection with the region.

“The opportunities offered (by the seminar) transformed our view of the possibilities of the University—and our place within it,” wrote Nybell and Gray. “Given that we have been associated with EMU for thirty years, this is a significant statement.”

Spreading that kind of transformation around requires tearing down the walls of division. Curing misconceptions is the first step.

“People that have grown up around Detroit and never been in Detroit have this image of what Detroit is,” says Delbert (Marty) Raymond, associate professor of nursing and a seminar member. “It’s a gross stereotype. It isn’t that there aren’t elements of truth, but it’s a biased picture.”

One of the clinical sites where Raymond’s students learn about public health nursing is the Juvenile Detention Center in Detroit. “Working with these kids, students have an excellent opportunity to hear the voices of children that are typecast as being criminals and, while some are, a lot of these kids are in really challenging situations,” he says. “To hear the stories begins to shed light on the circumstances that bring them to this moment. Some of them are really fascinating, good kids that aren’t being given the opportunity to shine.”

Tom Wagner, another seminar participant, brings a lifetime of experience to his work as a lecturer in urban geography. He admits he was oblivious to the area’s conflicts when he was growing up in Dearborn, but the more time he spent on the ground in Latin America, Africa and Europe, and the more adept he became at using satellite technology to see the big picture, the wider his eyes opened.

“I came to the conclusion that really Detroit doesn’t have to be the way it is,” he says. “What I found, being a geographer, was that Detroit’s problems are not with the city itself but with the acceptance of some form of apartheid in the metropolitan area, where the people that live in and govern the City of Detroit see themselves as a separate sovereign entity from the suburbs, and the suburbs are saying that’s fine with us, we already drained all the wealth, all the good stuff, out of Detroit.

“The problem is the continuation of this separation, this unwillingness of people to talk to each other. I can show economically that metropolitan areas that don’t deal with each other do poorly. It’s like designing an engine. If you have pieces of the engine that are not contributing, it’s not going to work. That’s Detroit’s problem.”

“This Detroit and southeast Michigan thing, for me, touches on everything I do,” says seminar member Charles Cunningham, associate professor of English language and literature. “I’m interested in working-class literature but also history from below, working people’s history, and also issues of social and economic justice and race in America, a crucial shaping force.”

Race is an especially tough nut to crack. “Black people think I talk white,” says Stephen Jefferson, associate professor of psychology. “I talk like my parents speak, but it doesn’t matter what I’m really like, it only matters how people see me. Here comes a black man: who knows what crazy thing he might do? We’re all awash in this. Asian, white, black, we all get messages about different groups. Most of us don’t have the opportunity to challenge that.”

In teaching future public health nurses, one opportunity is the so-called windshield survey, a standard pedagogical practice where students drive through the areas served by the clinical sites where they’re getting training.

“It’s called the windshield survey, but we still get them out of the car,” says Raymond. “I want them to get a feel for what it looks like to live and grow up on a particular street, how from one neighborhood to the next can range from very scary to quite glamorous. I want to give them a broad snapshot, the good and the bad, the highs and the lows, to get them to understand the complexity of what the city really is, not just this image that they’ve been fed.”

Nybell and Gray sought that same kind of balance. “One tension that we negotiated in the seminar was between recognizing the real serious problems that the city and the region face but also acknowledging the creativity of the people who are at work trying to reinvent the region,” says Nybell. “People are exploring some really creative, sustainable alternatives. When we brought our students in, it was to see the real economic and social and political distress, but also to see the hopefulness and the possibility.”

Nursing, social work, geology, literature, historic preservation— these are only some of the arenas in which Eastern and Detroit mesh, and the list is growing. What undergirds them all is hope rooted in realism.

“I’m optimistic about Michigan and I’m optimistic about Detroit,” says Wagner. “It still has the geographic advantages that gave rise to it in the first place: its location on a waterway that provides plenty of fresh water and cheap transportation, and on the border with Canada, making it one of the major pathways for the connection of the Canadian and American economies. There are a lot of things that can be taken from Michigan, but you can’t take its geography.”

Nor can you take Eastern’s.

“Proximity is crucial,” says Cunningham. “Eastern is positioned in a great way to interrogate these questions of space and race and economy and culture. We should see that as a positive, as an opportunity. We’re a public, working-class university in Michigan that’s near Detroit and near the suburbs, and that’s good for these kinds of questions.”

He envisions an ongoing conversation between students (most of whom are from southeastern Michigan) and faculty (many of whom are not), among the students themselves, and among faculty, especially across disciplines.

Such seeds could yield an enduring crop, in Nybell’s vision. “Eastern draws and nourishes students who stay in this region, who almost become the infrastructure of the region,” she says. “We have a great opportunity to be a place for dialogue about its history and its future. This region is not going away. If anything, it’s going to come back. Our students have to be prepared to lead that comeback.”