First Graders Rebuild Detroit

A new charter school inspires kids to reinvent their community


Detroit, Michigan

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Over the last several decades, the once-thriving city of Detroit has become synonymous with three troubling words: unemployment, crime, and bankruptcy. These problems have forced thousands of families to leave Detroit—and most don’t come back.

Since 1950, the population of Detroit has fallen from 1.86 million to 700,000 residents. About 80,000 buildings in the city remain abandoned.

Shoshanna Utchenik, a local artist and art teacher, is one of the many who left, but one of the few who returned to the Motor City.

While working in Chicago, Utchenik kept meeting people from Michigan. “I became really concerned with that phenomenon,” she tells us. “If we’re all here, who’s there? And who’s been left behind?”

After she returned, she quickly became involved in the city’s rebirth. Despite the problems Detroit faces, she says, there is a resurgence happening, making it “a really exciting place to be.”

One of the creative projects that is helping to reinvigorate the city is called Detroit Soup, a community-building initiative that brings local artists and entrepreneurs together to pitch and vote on art, social justice, education, and technology projects meant to rejuvenate the city.

For a donation of $5.00, attendees receive soup, salad, bread, and a vote. Four presenters share their ideas and attendees vote on the project they believe benefits the city the most. Winning projects include Next Top Chef-Detroit, an education initiative which seeks to engage Detroit youth in food system advocacy through a culinary arts competition and Adopt‐A‐Plot,” a community project where volunteers adopt public or blighted property, clean it up, paint, plant seeds, and restore it to its original beauty.

Schools across Detroit are also diving into the community-building movement. One of our favorites is the James and Grace Lee Boggs School, a new charter school named after two influential and well-respected community activists in Detroit.

At the core of the elementary school’s mission are creativity, critical thinking, and community-building, the latter of which was most significant to both James and Grace Lee Boggs. The vision is for students to seek an education that is not a means to get out of Detroit, but rather a way to make Detroit a wonderful place to live.

Utchenik is the Engaged Arts teacher there and has played an integral part in bringing the community into the school.

“There’s a legacy of schools being separate from what is happening in the community and not relating to the community in a real way, and we want to change that,” Utchenik says.

The teachers and staff at Boggs are accomplishing this through place-based education, a method of teaching that immerses students in local heritages, cultures, landscapes, opportunities and experiences, and uses these as a foundation for the study of language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, and other subjects across the curriculum.

Growing an urban garden at the school and giving kids the opportunity to take African drumming classes taught by community “elders” are two examples of this method in action.

The teachers and staff are also hopeful that Boggs, which has a diverse population of students, will symbolize “a reimagining of how to live together.” In Detroit, there is still a strong racial and socioeconomic divide.

Creativity, Utchenik says, also plays a big role in making this happen.

However, to get to that creative place, teachers and staff first need to build the students’ confidence. For many of these kids, the perils of poverty and a stressful home life have lowered their self-esteem and inhibited their ability to learn and create.

“If you have so many limitations within and around you,” Utchenik says, “you can’t be creative, you can’t make a move, you can’t communicate openly in a way that’s productive. Really, nothing is possible without that sense of openness that I associate closely with creativity.”

All three classes at the school took part in the 2013 Global Cardboard Challenge. To kick it off, Utchenik combined the experience with the school’s monthly theme of “Friends and Family.”

The older kids were tasked with making a game for, or inspired by, a specific friend or family member. For the younger kids, Utchenik took a different approach. She had been talking with the students about celebrating and embracing the vantage point that comes with being small. In accordance with this theme, the students spent time making cardboard mice puppets and a tiny town where they all lived.

Boggs School students show off the art projects they made during the 2013 Global Cardboard Challenge. (Photo c/o Shoshanna Utchenik)

Boggs School students show off the art projects they made during the 2013 Global Cardboard Challenge. (Photo c/o Shoshanna Utchenik)

“They just had so much fun,” Utchenik says, “and you could see from how ecstatic some of them were that they had never done anything like that before.”

A month after the Challenge, the students, their parents, teachers, and members of the community came out to play the games and celebrate the kids’ work. And because of the Cardboard Challenge, and the overall school environment, the teachers and staff have already seen positive changes in their students. “They smile more easily, they’re more relaxed, more able to focus, and more interested in what teachers are offering them,” Utchenik says.

“You first heal the wound, and then you can grow and move forward.”

Imagination Made This Campaign

All over the world, people are using creativity and imagination to transform their communities. This is why we are launching the Imagination Made This campaign. From June 17 to July 17, we want all of YOU to take a photo of something you love about your city or neighborhood (something creative, special and unique) and share it with the world via Instagram. Make sure to include a caption and the #ImaginationMadeThis hashtag with your photo. We’ll collect our favorites and share them at the end of the campaign. Invite your friends to join in and let’s celebrate the creativity and imagination that has gone into building and transforming cities around the world!

This story was written by Jenny Inglee, the Imagination Foundation’s Imagination Curator and The Storybook Editor. The first collection of stories in The Storybook focus on the work of inspiring individuals, schools, and organizations that participated in the 2013 Global Cardboard Challenge.

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There are a lot of exciting things happening in Detroit right now. If you're interested in learning more about the revitalization efforts or would like to gain a greater understanding of the place-based education model, check out these links. We've included a link to PolicyMic's list of 13 young entrepreneurs who are rebuilding Detroit, a place-based education downloadable guide, and a TED Talk on re-envisioning Detroit from well-known urban planner Toni Griffin.

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