The roots of our connection to Brightmoor began with our initial reflections regarding the importance of college access in communities across the state of Michigan. When we decided to research the benefits of having a college degree at multiple levels of analysis, we began by examining the decision-making process that Michigan students and families go through when choosing whether to attend college. We hoped that out of this research would emerge a model to help inform public policies in Michigan surrounding college access. It must also be noted that this effort occurred during a time when our state was debating the issues of college access as related to affirmative action and the use of race-conscious admissions at our major universities. In effect, we were taking a national and state debate and using it to ask questions on a local level. The National Forum’s Access to Democracy project brought together community leaders, local residents, and civic organizations across the state to discuss college access and educational attainment. Our conversations were driven by the basic question: “Who is college for?” With the support of Jennifer Granholm, then governor of Michigan, we brought to Michigan residents our question and our desire to listen.
Access to Democracy included 69 structured dialogues between nearly 1,000 people across five Michigan communities. We collected significant data from our participants including journals, surveys, and transcripts of our dialogues. With this information in hand we consulted with the Kettering Foundation in the hopes of partnering to further examine what we had learned in these community conversations. We developed a research proposal that would allow us to step beyond our initial findings and conduct follow up interviews with community leaders. Ultimately, we planned to develop tools to support others in developing similarly effective community dialogues surrounding educational access. We found that the more we examined our relationships with communities across the state, the more we realized that each was different – and the more we felt drawn to focus more closely on the voices of one community, Brightmoor.
Brightmoor is a four-square mile region in northwest Detroit. Much has been said about what could be “wrong” with Brightmoor. The poverty and unemployment rates in the community are high, and many of its residents are on some form of public assistance. Scholars and students from the University of Michigan (UM) have been present in Brightmoor with the hopes of addressing these issues for several years. We sought to meet with community leaders, listen to their thoughts, and build upon existing community assets to improve educational attainment.
For the past few years, community and civic leaders have been meeting in Brightmoor to discuss improving educational access and attainment. Students and faculty associated with the National Forum have been directly involved in these discussions and at a number of points have played an important role in sustaining them. With initiative from graduate students associated with the National Forum, the community was able to get a state-funded Michigan College Access Grant (MCAN) to support a series of monthly meetings between a diverse set of community partners on the topic of educational attainment for neighborhood youth. These conversations included representatives from community foundations, scholarship programs, schools, universities, and churches.
We hoped that by pooling our diverse knowledge and resources we could develop a plan to contribute to educational access in the community. Collaboration on the initial and second year of the MCAN grant produced significant progress in building the Brightmoor Career and College Access Network (BCCAN) because there was trust and ongoing communication among participating stakeholders. The Brightmoor Career and College Access Network (BCCAN) has now moved from a concept into a stable, visible, community asset. This success is a direct result of the creation of partnerships and collaboration of supporting networks. Some of these partnerships include a K-12 School District (Detroit Community Schools), non-profit organizations (Brightmoor Alliance, Northwest Detroit Neighborhood Development Corporation, etc.), faith-based partners, and postsecondary institutions (Marygrove College, etc.).
Much has changed in Brightmoor since our first meetings there. We have focused the efforts of the dozens of UM faculty and the hundreds of UM students who work in Brightmoor behind a common goal, not to the exclusion of their own teaching and research agenda, but in a way that allows the vision of strengthening the educational culture of the community to shape all aspects of involvement. We have conducted trainings in “college positive volunteerism” with local leaders, educators, and visiting students.
In cooperation with Northwest Detroit Neighborhood Development (NDND) we were able to hire an Americorps Member to support the community high school in educating students about college and career opportunities. We reached out to administrators and students at Marygrove College, the institution nearest the Brightmoor neighborhood, to support them in developing their own strategy for building a college-going culture. Perhaps most significantly, we have had the privilege of watching the community take ownership of the local issues surrounding career and college attainment.
We believe strongly that it is important to “let the community lead” at every step of a university and community partnership, and to prepare for the day when individuals served by the initiative are ready to sustain it. Whereas we were once a primary driving force for helping convene city leaders and encouraging dialogue around this issue, that work is now originating from within the community itself.