e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


Road Scholars, Day One

Our trip has begun. The University tends to pick faculty members for the RS program whose work already takes them beyond the confines of campus. My cohort includes folks from the medical, nursing, and dental schools, for instance, who do clinical work. Nice to learn about the teaching and research that goes on in diverse fields. Makes for an enjoyable experience on the bus. I'm sure I'll have more chances to hear about other people's work in the coming days.

Today our itinerary focused on Detroit. We left Ann Arbor at 7:00 and made our way to Focus:HOPE, a site familiar to many Detroiters. Fr. Bill Cunningham and Eleanor Josaitis started the organization after the '67 riot as an attempt to fight the root causes of both poverty and racism in the city. Both were informed by the Catholic social justice tradition but the organization isn't a faith-based group. Instead, it's an ambitious project that transcends categories. Advocacy. Direct aid. Higher education and job training. Activism. Much, much more.

We toured Focus:HOPE's Center for Advanced Technologies, a manufacturing training program that offers low-income Detroiters vocational training as well as advanced degrees in engineering (in conjunction with various area Universities). I chatted with a senior mechanical engineering student who started out in one of the tech programs and worked his way into a degree program. He just finished a co-op experience at a Honda plant in Ohio. One of the cool things about their machinist program is that the students make their own tools. Machinists generally need to have their own tools in order to get good jobs, so Focus:HOPE decided to have them make their own ball peen hammers, etc.

We also checked out their food distribution center. Focus:HOPE delivers food to thousands of low-income seniors and other shut-ins and also operates a USDA "grocery store." Folks on various aid programs can shop in a setting that promotes dignity. Clients who use food stamps there can buy foodstuffs for one-fourth of the price of supermarkets, thereby not only stretching clients' dollars but also stretching everybody's tax dollars.

The highlight of our time at Focus:HOPE was a talk from Eleanor Josaitis. I've heard Ms. J speak various times over the years. One of my all-time favorite profs, Fr. McGovern, with whom I took several classes in ethics and philosophy, was a close friend of hers and hosted her often in his classes. And when we were undergrads, Nicole did an interview with Ms. J for a campus magazine I edited for a few years. I think I had forgotten what a powerful presence she is. She emphasized her committment to feeding the many, many hungry senior citizens in the area. Herself a senior, Josaitis' level of empathy was palpable as she urged all of us to check our parents' cupboards, as most seniors who can't afford food lie to family members because they're ashamed to find themselves in need.

She also told her own story of starting Focus:HOPE while a suburban homemaker who took a fateful walk through Detroit with her priest-friend, Fr. Cunningham, the morning after the '67 riots ended, and decided then and there to work toward change. She moved to Detroit and started her life's work. Members of her family rejected her for working and living with African-Americans. Her parents sued her for custody of her children. Turning a deaf ear to racists who resisted her work became a motiff of her life. She shared "love letters" she's gotten over the years, including one note scribbled on one of her guest Free Press editorials: "Shove diversity up your ass, bitch."

We also toured The Ford Piquette Plant, Ford's first assembly plant and the place where Henry and company built the Model T. A group of Ford retirees is rehabbing the place. Neat place. We had lunch with Detroit City Councilperson JoAnn Watson, several representatives from the City Planning Commission, and a rep. of the company that owns the Ambassador Bridge who debated several competing proposals for new bridge construction on the Detroit River. After a quick drive to Lansing, we went to a reception with local UM alums and young folks in Lansing who'll start UM in the Fall. Finally, dinner with Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero and members of his staff. Mayor Bernero's gotten a bit of a national profile due to his outspoken support for organized labor generally and automotive manufacturing specifically. I think a lot of the Road Scholar disagreed with Bernero's view of emerging technologies and the potential of green industries in the state, but everybody appreciated his fiery delivery and his clear committment to the state.

Long day. I'm now going to collapse into a cushy Radisson bed. We sleep here in Lansing and divide our time tomorrow between the capital and Grand Rapids.

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