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We spend a lot of time discussing narratives in Semester in Detroit – really just a fancy-sounding name for stories. Who hasn’t heard a story about Detroit? Millions of Michiganders have never set a single foot inside the City, but think they know something real and meaningful about Detroit from all the stories they have read, heard or seen.
Yet, we should remember that few stories about Detroit, or anywhere for that matter, are ever complete. Most of the stories we are fed about Detroit, actually, are quite deliberately incomplete: skewed even, to a particular set of interests, agendas and ideas about this place. Native SW Detroit journalist, and my former neighbor, Simone Landon, captured brilliantly this dynamic about Detroit stories back when she was the Bureau Chief for Huffington Post Detroit.
I make all of my students read this article early in their experience in our program for two main reasons: First, because I want them to understand that – regardless of where they are from – they have been fed lots of stories about Detroit. Some contained truths, some were outright lies, but almost all were likely incomplete, out-of-context, and a disservice to their greater understanding of Detroit without conscious and constant interrogation. Second, because I understand that what distinguishes humans from other creatures is our innate drive and capacity to create stories about our experiences. The stories we create about our lives are fundamentally intertwined and interdependent with the lives that we create.
A perfectly tragic example of the power of incomplete and skewed stories to influence our lives and how we think about the world is the recent news about the suburban business owner and Detroit Public School administrators who allegedly conspired to steal millions from the district. Take a close look at how the mainstream media has covered this emerging story so far. Last week’s Detroit News article is a great start for interrogation; notice the title of the article, “Ex-DPS Principal in Bribery Case Cries at Arraignment.”
How much do you learn in this article, and others you may have read, about Norman Shy? Who’s he, you ask? Deep near the end of this article, you read that Shy is the 74-year old business owner of school supplies vendor, Allstate Sales; he lives in Franklin, Michigan – one of the richest suburbs in northern Oakland County. Oh, and, by the way, he “DEVISED THE SCHEME” according to the article. This whole tragic and corrupt enterprise WAS HIS IDEA!!
Do the math in the article: federal prosecutors allege that, of the $5 million billed by Shy’s Allstate Sales to DPS between 2002-2015, $2.7 million was fraudulent. It is alleged that around $910,000 of this was paid in kick backs to ten DPS officials; that means over $1.7 million was stolen from DPS by Shy and his company.
Perhaps I overlooked some news coverage (and please share if I did) but almost all of the articles I have read about this case in the mainstream media focus on the stories of the individual DPS employees who were involved, which perpetuate a sweeping and tired narrative of the so-called “culture of corruption” that created them. The way this “story” is being told is affecting how we understand what actually transpired.
Thankfully, nearly three weeks since this story blew up, we’re beginning to learn more about the more relevant “culture of corruption” that led Norman Shy – up in the rich suburbs of Farmington Hills and Franklin – to create, develop, orchestrate and manage this 13 year-long criminal enterprise. And let’s just set aside – for now anyways – the huge “white elephant” in this situation: that the State of Michigan was effectively responsible for the oversight of DPS in 10 of the 13 years during which Shy ran this vast criminal conspiracy.
But when will we get to learn more about Norman Shy and how his company was able to manage such a huge scam for so many years? Furthermore, who will investigate what motivates and encourages someone – who was probably quite rich already – to pilfer millions of dollars from one of the most challenged public school districts in the nation; at any point in history, but especially during such a vulnerable period for Detroit Public Schools and its students?
To be clear: I believe everyone culpable in this crime should be held to account as this case is prosecuted. But, as this case is tried both inside and outside of the courtroom, I urge Detroit’s media outlets to investigate and report fully on the complete story of what happened. Resist the temptation to resort to tired, hyperbolic generalizations about DPS. And always keep in mind the larger political context for this criminal case as state legislators deliberate on the future of the Detroit Public School’s system.