Residents and grad students make space for new growth in Detroit

Feb 22, 2016

Katrina Watkins stood on her front porch in Detroit’s McDougall-Hunt neighborhood staring at the vacant, overgrown stretch of land across the street.

“I have been trying to get the city out here to cut this for years,” she said.

Amidst the overgrowth, she and her neighbors often saw prostitution, drug use, and stolen cars being stripped. Her 92 year-old father used to get his exercise by pacing up and down the block, but now it’s just gotten too bad for him to handle. Her nephew, Ilario, played basketball and volunteered at Franklin Wright Settlement House just on the other side of the vacant plot.

“I am always on my toes walking through there,” he said.

The Watkins family had a simple goal: to create clear lines of sight and eliminate the dangerous threat the vacant land posed in the neighborhood.

The task, however, was anything but simple. There were huge, overgrown trees and bushes, tall grass, piles of trash from illegal dumping, uneven land, and buried sidewalks and alleyways.

Even more daunting was obtaining the required permits and resources to remove the blight.

For Katrina, navigating the maze of legal and government processes on her own was frustrating at best.  She didn’t even know where to start to make connections to the people and organizations who possess the equipment, labor and know-how to get the job done. It became a matter of access and opportunity.

With specific neighborhood projects like this one, I recently discovered, a collaboration between neighborhood residents and graduate students can be a powerful force.

As a student in the Master of Community Development (MCD) Program at the University of Detroit Mercy, I had tremendous access to programs and resources – professors, scholarships, fellowships and extended professional networks – that many living in the community did not.            

On the flip side, Katrina had vast knowledge of the needs in her neighborhood, community buy-in, and a passion and drive to make her neighborhood better. No amount of studying would ever give me these essential things that are necessary to create lasting change in Detroit.

So she came to the table with the local knowledge, a tax-exempt non-profit known as the Bailey Park Project, a liability insurance policy, and support from the community. I was able to bring a MCD/W.K. Kellogg fellowship to help with resources; buy-in from Michigan Department of Transportation, which we used to bring private contractors on board for equipment and labor; pre-apprenticeship students to help; local unions and training coordinators; and access to city officials for needed permits and other support.

We ended up calling the project The Framework and Resources for Empowering Environments (FREE) Pilot Project. The results speak for themselves: 

So what’s the Next Idea?

No doubt, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people across Detroit who, like Katrina, have ideas for projects to improve their neighborhoods. And, no doubt, many are frustrated by the lack of resources and access to the people and institutions that can help.

There are also hundreds, if not thousands, of graduate students in Michigan’s many top-notch colleges and universities who are eager to have their work make a difference – who don’t want to wait until they “pay their dues” to have their ideas and work matter.

Many Detroit workers are staring across multiple skills gaps with a growing demand in the construction industry. There are thousands of unemployed individuals who need a fair shot at increasing their skills while gaining experience working on construction projects.

What if there were some sort of way to make connections between these three groups much easier?

In this era of technology, a low-cost solution could resemble a matchmaking social media platform on which residents like Katrina and neighborhood organizations like her Bailey Park Project could create a profile and upload their needs and challenges, as well as share their assets and resources. Likewise, students, professors, government and workforce development agencies can post their expertise and project ideas. Then let the searches and matchmaking begin.

A program like this would jump-start community needs assessments from the ground up, while bridging the gap in networks between educational institutions and government agencies with the communities they serve.

Connecting more students with community-based organizations and neighborhood leaders would facilitate creative, grassroots solutions and greatly expedite local development projects.

To be clear, such a tool is not meant to replace the hard work of being physically present to meet each other, listen to desires and concerns, and all the other things that technology can’t replace when it comes to forming truly collaborative working relationships. Instead, it would serve as a starting point and a catalyst from which new projects and innovative, cost-effective solutions to real problems could grow.

There was a powerful synergy in the FREE Project that empowered both Detroit residents and graduate students to make change. This collaboration, rather than being a one-off, could serve as the beginning of something bigger. There is tremendous potential – in terms of creativity, cost-effectiveness, and producing results – in making these connections. Graduate students can serve as the entry point for neighborhood residents and grassroots organizations to access the tremendous resources of a university. And these same community assets can help train graduate students to become more responsive to real needs before they embark on their careers.

We should explore creative new ways to connect more people like Katrina to more universities and their graduate students like me. There’s no reason the results we managed to achieve with FREE can’t be replicated 100 times over, to the benefit of everyone involved.

Joe Gruber is currently the Downtown Development Director for the city of Wyandotte. He is also a co-founder of the Framework and Resources for Empowering Environments (FREE) in Detroit. 

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