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By: SID Associate Director Craig Regester
I first became seriously interested in the city of Detroit over 25 years ago thanks largely to now-retired RC/History Professor, Charlie Bright. A remarkably talented teacher and lecturer whom many reading this will remember fondly, Charlie’s popular 20th-Century Detroit History class would have our heads spinning with cognitive dissonance as we wrestled with tough questions like: How was the federal government complicit in the city’s demise? How did the emergence of black political power in the early 70s feed into deeply rooted racist narratives about white supremacy? Why did the labor movement emerge so strongly in Detroit, and how do Detroiters’ working-class experiences affect their world-view? But perhaps Charlie’s most persistent and underlying question was one that has remained relevant throughout U-M’s entire bicentennial existence: as one of the most prestigious and wellresourced public academic institutions in the world, how should we engage with Detroit through the course of our educational journey? As only the best teachers do, Charlie put this huge question not only to us, but also quite genuinely to himself, to his peers in the RC and throughout the University.
This would have been an utterly ridiculous question, of course, for the first two decades of U-M’s life: from 1817-1837 the College of Michigania was located in what we now know as downtown Detroit (albeit in a very different form; more a high school preparatory academy). Back then, we can safely assume that most, if not ALL, students, faculty, and staff were Detroiters (and also male, white and affluent.) The relationship between our predecessor institution and the city of Detroit was entirely intertwined; and Ann Arbor was the faintest shadow of its current self.
Skip ahead to the summer of 1967 and we can imagine that such a question would have struck the starkest possible contrast: only six weeks after the 1967 Detroit Rebellion (one of the most significant urban uprisings of the 60s), a few hundred very hairy and bedraggled college students stumbled into the first-ever RC classes. Put another way: only a few weeks after 43 mostly black and working-class Detroiters are shot dead by mostly white and working-class Detroit cops and National Guardsmen, 43 miles away, mostly white and affluent recent high school graduates (many from metro Detroit) continue their journey up the economic ladder. That fall, Detroit and Ann Arbor probably felt more like 43,000 miles apart.
Fortunately, over the five decades since, there have been many in the RC who have understood the perennial importance of U-M’s relationship to Detroit; in particular, how much our own teaching and learning can be strengthened by genuine relationships with Detroit based in respect, solidarity, and justice. I won’t capture them all, but surely our beloved retired colleague and esteemed poet, Ken Mikolowski, brought with him in the early 70s many creative lessons learned from the Cass Corridor (and a few other things). Frank Thompson’s previous life as a truck-driving Teamster, as well as his own experience raising his family in Detroit in the 70s and 80s (including our own Pulitzer-prize winning historian, Heather Thompson!), shaped not just what he taught, but how RC students learned about political economy and how to understand capitalism. The late and wonderful Barbra Morris began partnering with Detroit high schools to teach writing and journalism back in the mid-80s – WAY before the city became so sexy and interesting to most in our esteemed institution. Kate Mendeloff and Charlie Bright, as well as Deb Gordon-Gurfinkel, developed critical co-learning partnerships in the late 90s and early oughts with important Detroit community-based theater organizations such as Mosaic Youth Theatre, and Matrix Theatre Company in SW Detroit. Dominique Butler-Borruat has developed an innovative way for RC French students to collaborate with Detroit’s Freedom House organization dedicated to building community support for political refugees seeking asylum. Ian Robinson has partnered with several important Detroit community groups such as Michigan United, Detroit Action Commonwealth, and 482Forward to provide opportunities for undergraduates to learn about organizing people and power for change. And Teresa Sanchez-Snell has led the Spanish Language Internship Program (SLIP) for the past ten years placing students in community-based internships in Detroit and other nearby communities.
And so it was upon the shoulders of these important RC colleagues and their many students over the decades that Rachael Tanner (RC ’07) first proposed the idea for a Semester in Detroit program in Stephen Ward’s Urban and Community Methodologies course. Frustrated by what she considered a lack of comprehensive and more long-term opportunities for U-M students to engage in respectful and reciprocal partnerships with Detroit, Rachael proposed an immersive and academic living-learning program in Detroit. Her idea gained support and strong momentum within the RC due to Professor Ward’s advocacy and the diligent efforts of student organizers, but also because of the historical legacy described above of the RC’s many existing relationships with Detroit. Moreover, and not surprisingly, the main character in this piece, Charlie Bright, played a critical administrative leadership role as the initial “Found” faculty director (not “founding” as it was the students who “found” him.) And, in arguably one of the most important early decisions in SID’s development, Lolita Hernandez, RC Creative Writing faculty member, native Detroiter, and retired GM-UAW worker (33.6 years!) was tapped to build a Detroit-based creative writing class which is still offered to this day!
Today, as new U-M collaborations in Detroit have begun to rival the near-daily openings of new downtown “foodie” joints, it is arguably more important than ever to examine how our institution is relating to the City: How are Detroit and Detroiters integrally tied into our mission and success as a public university in the 21st Century? How can we insure that the tremendous resources and wealth of our university are marshaled into mutually beneficial partnerships with everyday Detroiters and not just the flashiest and newest enterprises? How can students and faculty deepen their learning from the wisdom and experiences of legacy Detroiters, or from what is becoming dubbed “old” Detroit? And, lastly, how can the most recent campus push for more diversity, equity and inclusion be facilitated, and even realized, through deepening our relationships with the many different K-12 systems and schools spread out across Detroit’s educational landscape? There are no easy answers to any of these questions, and the many more like these that we grapple with every day in the Semester in Detroit Program. What should be crystal clear, however, is that we NEED to be asking these questions – not just of ourselves, and our students, but of the many overlords in our institution who have the most power to direct resources and make significant change in our region.
So it is in this spirit that we in the Semester in Detroit Program celebrate the RC’s 50th Anniversary and U-M’s bicentennial. And we invite every RC alumnus (especially those who live in Detroit and the greater region), to join us as we continue to wrestle with such huge questions – certainly during our 50th celebrations but also for as long as our funky little college may exist.