U-M students contributing to Detroit's comeback

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Freida Blostein, a junior evolutionary anthropology major, collects signatures at a Highland Park march and rally to stop water shutoffs. Image credit: Jared WadleyFreida Blostein, a junior evolutionary anthropology major, collects signatures at a Highland Park march and rally to stop water shutoffs. Image credit: Jared WadleyANN ARBOR—As Detroit seeks to rebound from bankruptcy and other issues, University of Michigan students are tirelessly using their research skills and enthusiasm to help the city's nonprofit agencies.

These students participate in the Detroit Community Based Research Program, spending 10 weeks with organizations on projects addressing issues such as urban development, environmental justice, food security, community assessment and sustainability.

Their efforts culminate with presentations Aug. 8 at a symposium at the U-M Detroit Center Orchestra Place, 3663 Woodward Ave., Suite 150. The event, which begins at 1 p.m., is free and open to the public.

U-M has maintained strong ties with Detroit, which is the school's birthplace, since its founding in 1817. From the health sciences, education and social work to admissions and alumni activities, the university has worked alongside Detroit residents to strengthen the community.

DCBRP started in 1998 and served all of Southeastern Michigan. In 2013, officials decided to shift the focus to Detroit. Twenty students live in the city and volunteer at 15 community partners.

"The DCBRP allows students to complete a project identified as a need by the community they're immersed in and to see the great work being done by organizations in Detroit," said Jenna Steiner, assistant director and the program's coordinator.

Students attend weekly seminars to develop skills for working in a community setting and conducting research. They work 35 hours per week at their placement, earning $3,500 for the summer.

As part of the program, students often work in small, underfunded and understaffed organizations, which gives them a great deal of autonomy and responsibility.

"While this can be a challenge in the beginning for many students, it also provides a taste of what the working world is really like and allows them to develop communication, interpersonal and critical thinking skills," Steiner said.

Students also see firsthand the obstacles community leaders face, such as unexpected news that changes efforts to assist the community and not being able to immediately reach government officials for information needed for their projects, Steiner said.

Freida Blostein, a junior from Royal Oak, Mich., originally collected data for the Food and Water Watch to combat the threat of privatization of the municipal water system. However, her duties unexpectedly shifted to helping the organization cope with the recent onslaught of water shut-offs for Detroit area residents who lagged in their bill payments.

What Blostein has had to reconcile is water as a human rights issue versus the cost to consumers.

"This has been a hard issue for me to process. It certainly wasn't what I expected coming into the organization," she said. "I was thrown into a complex and immediately relevant situation altogether different. Did I believe, at the very core, that water is a right and should be available at a reduced cost? I'm still fighting over the answer to that question."

After graduation, she will pursue her master's degree in epidemiology or health services/administration through the U-M School of Public Health.

"This experience has given me a tremendous amount of insight into how public systems and services can intersect with public health," she said. "It's also opened my eyes to the immense amount of work it takes to implement community organizing."

Another student, Kali Aloisi, is interning at Nortown Community Development Corp., a northeast Detroit nonprofit that promotes economic development and a better living environment in District 3. She has researched the history and photographed parks in the district, including Lipke, which might be sold to the Salvation Army.

"This internship has now become a part of my story and a part of me," said Aloisi, a junior from Westland, Mich. "I've loved the opportunity to share my experiences in this space with my loved ones."

Detroit Community Based Research Program is coordinated by U-M's Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, which celebrates its 25th year.

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