Unexpected Moments

THINKING FOR OURSELVES
Unexpected Moments
By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, Mar. 29, 2009

Detroit is a city that helps us think in new ways.

Many of us don’t believe in the quick fix. We have seen too many empty promises and watched too many grand schemes give way to more disappointments. We are not easily fooled into thinking that more money will solve the educational crisis or that bailouts will rebuild the economy or that green jobs will prevent ecological disaster, while we maintain middle class life styles. For many of us, the small efforts to improve daily life provide the unexpected moments that give us a vision of what the future, at its best, can look like.

I had such a moment talking with Gloria Rivera, IHM, of the Bioneers. She has become a community partner with the Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition. SEMIS has made a ten year commitment to develop place-based education, the kind of education where the curriculum of the school evolves through the efforts of students, teachers and community groups to learn, restore and care for the place where they live and study.

“We are taking a rather unique approach,” said Eastern University Professor Rebecca Martusewicz, director of the project. “We contend that for real change to take place, a fundamental understanding of the intersections between ecological and social justice need to be established.” “It has never before been more important,” she continued, “for communities and schools to work together to involve young people in meaningful explorations and studies that lead to real learning about the critical social and environmental problems we face.”

This vision of place-based education is being encouraged through SEMIS, housed at Eastern Michigan University and made up of a broad coalition working together to address serious ecological and social problems in Southeast Michigan. The SEMIS Coalition is one of four “hubs” in the state established by the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative (GLSI) with funding from the Great Lakes Fishery Trust and the Wege Foundation. Partners in this coalition facilitate school-community partnerships and work to develop students as citizen-stewards who understand and can promote healthy ecological and social systems affecting the Great Lakes basin, the southeast Michigan region, and their communities.

Right now it is a working coalition of six schools: three in Detroit—Hope of Detroit Academy, a K-8 charter school; ,Cristo Rey High School in Southwest Detroit; and Nsoroma Institute, an Afrikan-Centered K-8 charter school in Northeast Detroit. The community partners range from the Ecology Center and National Wildlife Federation in Ann Arbor, to the River Raisin Institute in Monroe, Great Lakes Bioneers Detroit, Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, Matrix Theater Company Detroit, and Friends of the Rouge Watershed.

Sr. Gloria told me about a neighborhood-mapping project, designed to help students look at their community as a resource and as a place for action. Recently students pointed out familiar landmarks as students and teachers walked together through the school neighborhood. Everyone seemed to know the houses that would have vegetable gardens in the spring, and talked about how they could repair steps or fix windows for elderly neighbors. Before long they came to a familiar sight, a “vacant” lot filled with abandoned tires. This led to a discussion about what they could do about the tires and with the lot. Sr. Gloria told the students about a program at Cass Community Social Services where Detroiters are turning abandoned tires into doormats. Soon the kids made plans to clean up the lot and collect the tires. CCSS offered to help pick up the tires, make the doormats and return the profits to the school.

It’s a small step. But it is the kind of new view of education that opens the possibilities for young people to transform themselves while transforming the streets they walk every day.

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