Denault Reflects on Revitalizing Detroit

Chelsea Denault, a junior from Clinton Township, was one of sixteen Albion College students to participate in the Sleight Leadership Fellows Program in Detroit Jan. 11-15. Denault worked with Al Pheley, director of Albion's Gerald R. Ford Institute for Leadership in Public Policy and Service, last summer to develop the program. She hoped to introduce her classmates to Detroit and to inspire new hope for the city.

Chelsea Denault works with Alex Seasock at Earthworks Urban FarmChelsea Denault works with Alex Seasock at Earthworks Urban Farm.“I love Detroit.”

You should see some of the looks people give me when I say that. Studying off campus in Chicago last semester, people were always asking where I was from. Rather than explain to them that I live 20 minutes north of Detroit in a city they have definitely never heard of, I would simply reply “Detroit.”

That drew looks. They would then ask how I liked it. But they were not prepared to hear me wax poetic about the city that I do consider my home (besides Albion, of course). That level of affection for Detroit drew more than strange looks; I think some people thought I was genuinely insane. But that reaction isn’t reserved for Chicagoans. I’ve seen it from fellow Michiganders. From my own family.

It’s hard to deny Detroit has a bad reputation. The way the city is represented in movies like 8 Mile and TV shows like “Detroit 1-8-7” only contribute to this perception. And while it may not be entirely false, it’s also not entirely true: Detroit is full of vibrant neighborhoods, unique shops, amazing restaurants, and tons of other hidden gems. Working with Dr. Al Pheley in the Ford Institute last summer, we often complained to each other about Detroit’s bad rap. One morning, I was suddenly struck with inspiration—what if we started changing the perception of Detroit right here at Albion College? So we did.

Five months later, my morning of inspiration materialized into an actual event and I sat in the passenger seat as my dad drove me to the Fort Shelby Hotel for the first day of the Albion College Sleight Leadership Fellows Program. There, sixteen students of various majors and ages had been selected to spend a week learning about Detroit, the challenges it faces today, and how those challenges can be overcome.

However, we didn’t just sit and discuss what policies or actions might revitalize Detroit. We did. We explored. We experienced. We met young people, sometimes not much older than us, who are involved in revitalization projects. Like Phil Cooley, the owner of Slow’s Bar-B-Q in Corktown, who’s building a park in an effort to strengthen the neighborhood and create a gathering place for the community. Or Patrick Crouch, who works at Earthworks Urban Farm to bring food to local residents and educate kids about healthy eating. Or Emily Doerr, who’s opening Detroit’s first hostel in 25 years with the help of a completely volunteer workforce. Yet all of these amazing individuals left us with the same message: Detroit is unique among American cities today in that it offers the opportunity for anyone, even students, to make a real positive difference. They got their message across. We came curious; we left empowered.

Coming Away Inspired
Chelsea Denault is a junior majoring in history and minoring in Spanish and is a member of the Ford Institute and the Prentiss M. Brown Honors Program.Denault, a junior majoring in history and minoring in Spanish, is a member of the Ford Institute and the Prentiss M. Brown Honors Program.Even though all sixteen of us came from different backgrounds and had diverse interests, from student to student, the feelings were the same: this was one of the most memorable weeks of our Albion College careers. We made a difference. This, I realized, is what learning is all about: experiencing and doing. We all left inspired to take on a more active role in shaping Detroit’s future. Some of the students I spoke to afterward even told me they were moving to Detroit after graduation. Point-blank. No uncertainty, no wavering, no maybes. And I knew, at that moment, that they had caught the bug, too. Now, people will give them the same look they give me when I say, “I love Detroit.”

Yet even my perception of the city changed over the course of the week: As I took the drive down I-94 out of Detroit, I began to look at the familiar sights alongside the freeway—an abandoned warehouse, a tagged apartment building, a gorgeous old church, empty neighborhoods. Yet these familiar sights were somehow altered to me. They didn’t seem as tired and beaten down as they had before. Instead, everything seemed to be slightly tinged with hope. Hope for a second chance. As a history major, it was impossible for me not to compare the Detroit of the present to the Detroit of 1805. That year, the city got a second chance after a fire left everything a smoldering ruin. In the wake of that devastating event, the city adopted its motto: “Speramus Meliora. Resurget Cineribus,” or “We hope for better things. It will rise from the ashes.” With the help of determined and passionate individuals, Detroit did rise again and went on to become the city that drove the world in more ways than one. We can only hope that history does, in fact, repeat itself.