By Kathy Barks Hoffman
Jason Garland held the smooth square of glass in his hand before carefully adding the artwork of a brightly colored house that would turn it into a decorative coaster. Beside him, Montaze Frye stained a box made from sturdy boards recycled from homes demolished to clean up blight.
For 26-year-old Garland and 36-year-old Frye, the tasks are a chance to participate in one of several mini-businesses employing homeless or developmentally disabled adults at the Cass Community Social Services’ Green Industries building. For the University of Michigan students and professors who worked with Cass to brainstorm and set up the coaster business, it’s a chance to make life better for Detroit residents.
The three schools that make up Michigan’s University Research Corridor – Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University – are working in Detroit through dozens of programs to help residents be healthier, find work, grow their own food, get a better education and lead fuller lives.
Michigan State University’s Community Music School, for instance, offers music education and music therapy classes to everyone from toddlers to senior citizens. Hundreds of Detroiters have learned to play an instrument and perform collectively and individually through the hands-on help of some of the university’s top professors and musicians.
Wayne State, located in the heart of Detroit, has been an important catalyst in Detroit’s economic revitalization. From supporting entrepreneurship, health care, food systems, the arts and more, Wayne State continues to be a driving force in transforming Midtown Detroit and beyond. In just four short years, Wayne State has helped reduce crime by 50 percent within a four-square-mile section of Detroit, making Wayne State’s campus one of the safest in the state – a critical factor in Detroit’s recovery efforts.
U-M sends scores of student interns to Detroit each year to help with everything from starting an empowerment dance program to organizing youth nights and working to quell violence. Students on campus are involved in other ways, such as the business, engineering and art and design majors who helped with the coaster project at Cass Community Social Services and the business students who consulted with Cass on how to improve the efficiency and profitability of a document-shredding operation run by developmentally disabled adults.
After following the students’ advice, the shredding operation expanded from 25 to 50 workers and now can shred a ton of paper an hour, compared to a ton a month, drastically improving the business’ bottom line. Like the eight people working on the coaster project, most of them homeless Detroiters who came to Cass for help, the workers are earning a small amount of money and learning skills that may lead to another job.
“I love it,” Garland said of his work with the coasters, which feature murals from the wailing wall built in the early 1940s as a division between black and white Detroit neighborhoods. “I actually live by the wall, never knew what it was. Now I get to tell its story.”
The Rev. Faith Fowler, executive director for Cass Community Social Services and an adjunct professor of social work at U-M’s Dearborn campus, calls the cooperation between Cass and the university “a wise marriage.”
“We don’t have the time or expertise. We need people who are smart and can offer analysis as well as business strategy,” she said. “The students, of course, want to change the world, and through us they can.”
Here’s a look at some of the many programs that enable students and faculty at the three URC universities to improve life in Detroit:
URC executive director Jeff Mason said the URC’s commitment to Detroit is deep and based on many things, including the commitment of faculty, administrators and students to make life better in Michigan’s largest city and around the world.
“The students and faculty are eager to work with Detroiters to share ideas, talents and enthusiasm,” Mason said. “Everyone wins when we have a vibrant Detroit, and the URC is committed to being part of the solution.”