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What Detroit Exodus? Why 826Michigan's Moving Into the Motor City

826's innovative academic and literary arts programming is coming to Detroit.

A quick glance at the news tells us that we're in the midst of a mass exodus from Detroit. Over the past decade, tens of thousands of Detroiters have packed up and moved and a full 40 percent of city residents plan to leave in the next five years. 826michigan is headed in the other direction. After seven years providing innovative academic and literary arts programming for school-aged students in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, in January 2013 we’re launching 826 programs in Detroit.

Working with budding communities is in our DNA. In 2002 when Dave Eggers founded 826 Valencia in San Francisco’s Mission District, he was seizing on the opportunity to unite neighborhood K-12 students with adult volunteers committed to the success of their community. In the process, the specific knowledge and experiences of that population—largely designers, writers and other creatives—became a resource for the school-aged students in the program.

We opened 826michigan in Ann Arbor in 2005, and to achieve what we do now with 2,500 school-aged students, hundreds of 826michigan volunteers do the heavy lifting: working through algebra problems after school in the tutoring lab, kneeling next to a student’s desk in her classroom to work out the fine points of an essay, copy editing short stories for one of our annual OMNIBUS publication, or even staffing our retail store, Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair.

Our volunteers represent a diverse swath of our university town: undergrad and graduate students; professionals; artists; educators. Logistically, it's not always easy to transport our volunteers to projects we plan in Detroit, 45 miles east. Philosophically, we always aim to have our volunteers represent the communities they’re serving, and it’s been hard to reconcile our desire to do more for Detroit students with our lack of Detroit-based volunteers. Fortunately the DTE Energy Foundation believes in what 826 is doing—here in Michigan and around the country. Their funding will launch our first real year of programs in Detroit schools early next year.

The chance to grow our programs in Detroit is about much more than finding another retail and tutoring space, which we will eventually. It’s even about more than serving students in Detroit’s severely under-resourced schools, which we are so eager to do. It’s really about the chance to engage Detroiters as volunteers. We’re ready to find and train and support Detroit residents who are compelled by the 826 model and are committed to making the city a better and brighter place, now and in the future.

I can't think of a more compelling opportunity. The word "potential" doesn't come close to describing it.

It's no secret that Detroit's well-known difficulties have left us with ample vacant space, relatively low costs for urban living, and a keen sense of social awareness. It's also clear by now that young artists and entrepreneurs are already taking advantage of what Detroit has in abundance: opportunity. 826michigan is honored to have a front row seat as artists and business people set in motion an economic and cultural renaissance in Detroit. We're humbled at the chance to also contribute by providing meaningful opportunities for adults to engage in the process of social change.

It's easy for any of us to say that public education is a mess. It's also easy to say that Detroit and its schools are in trouble. But there are rare opportunities to actually do something about those issues. Volunteer opportunities at 826michigan and at 826 centers around the country not only provide immeasurable help to students and teachers, they also offer an important glimpse of the real scenario facing teachers and students today. Instead of offering broad declaratives on what's wrong or how to fix it, we offer something else: thousands of the one-on-one moments that make our programs so powerful. Last year, one of our interns became the heroine of a mystery story written by a fourth grade student at an Ypsilanti elementary school. A few weeks ago, a Muslim first grader chased one of our volunteers into the hallway. The volunteer was also wearing a hijab, and the student was delighted and astounded to see someone "like her" at her school.

We know that moments like these can not only can change attitudes about education, but can also provide hands-on experience to community members that will educate, inspire, and ultimately strengthen the community. While we're unlikely to convince all 40 percent to stick with Detroit for the long haul, we hope that 826michigan's influence can increase academic and creative opportunities for students and can elevate all Detroiters by providing an essential means to connect.

To learn more about 826, follow them on GOOD. Want to volunteer at your local 826 center? Click here.

Photo courtesy of 826michigan

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