By Steven Shapiro
Detroit is a city in transition. The birthplace of Motown and home to the Big Three automakers is decades removed from its glory days as an industrial powerhouse, but it’s showing signs of an economic and social revival.
“There’s a lot of amazing humans that are here, that are doing the best they can with what they know and what they have, a lot of energy, a lot of life,” says Amy Kaherl, director of Detroit SOUP, a community-run microgranting program that supports social entrepreneurship in the city.
Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric traveled to Motown for her series “Cities Rising: Rebuilding America” and took a closer look at some of the biggest issues facing the city today, including an illiteracy epidemic plaguing nearly half of the adult population.
“I always say that it’s not just the buildings that got neglected over the last 50 years. The people who lived here did too. The jobs moved away, the educational system kept getting worse and worse,” says Paula Brown, executive director of Reading Works, a nonprofit dedicated to improving adult literacy in metro Detroit.
Couric spoke with 77-year-old Isiah Spencer, who decided to try to learn how to read for the first time after his wife, who had always taken care of the family paperwork, passed away. He now wants to get a college degree to be a role model for his grandchildren.
Another student, 56-year-old James Samuel, told Couric he now reads at a first-grade level and was able to pen a love letter to his wife for the very first time. “You are the best friend I ever had. I love you. You are the best woman that I have ever loved in my life. I would never give you up, never,” he wrote.
Detroit’s education crisis is widespread. The city has closed more than two-thirds of its schools in the past 15 years, creating an even greater need for programs like the InsideOut Literary Arts Project, which uses poetry to help students with their writing, reading and creative thinking skills.
The program places professional writers and poets in Detroit schools to help students amplify their voice and improve reading and writing skills.
“I think so much of what’s happening in classrooms across Detroit is neglecting or putting the students’ story on the back burner or as a second thought,” says Ben Alfaro, a youth leadership coordinator for the group. “And our goal is to really make sure that’s front and center, and that the student is bringing their whole self to the table — which we believe helps them be more effective learners and effective citizens.”
Detroit’s education crisis is intertwined with its high crime rate. According to Forbes, it was the most dangerous city in America in 2015. Couric spoke with the city’s police chief, James Craig, a Detroit native who returned to his home city after several decades working in law enforcement around the country.
“Since 2013 we’ve seen a steady decline in violence in this city. And so you ask yourself, how does that happen in the city that went through bankruptcy, a school district that’s in ruins, high poverty rate.” Despite that, he says relationships with the community today are stronger than in other cities. “They want to know how we’re doing it.”
One way is through the Neighborhood Police Officer program, which gives Detroit’s residents direct access to officers patrolling the streets. Citizens can even call the officers on their cell phones.
Detroit’s economy is shifting gears too. Companies like Shinola, a watch, bicycle and leather goods manufacturer, are adding a spark to a city that has long been known only for making automobiles.
“What we are doing from a social aspect is creating jobs, and I think that’s solving a real problem here in Detroit,” Shinola Chief Marketing Officer Bridget Russo told Couric.
Shinola’s employees, including Jovita Urista, who came out of retirement to work at the company, seem to agree.
“I think it’s going in the right direction. If we get more companies like Shinola or companies that invest in the city, there will be a future for everyone.”