U-M Technical Assistance Center Lends Hand in Neighborhood Recovery

by | Oct 7, 2014

By Mike Morland
Communications Director, U-M Detroit Center

The University of Michigan – it’s a name that’s synonymous with leaders and innovators. Best known for its world-class education, superior health system, and dominant athletic programs; it’s the lesser-known stories of perseverance and creativity that continue to drive one of the nation’s oldest public institutions.

Founded in 1817 at what is now the corner of Bates and E. Congress streets in Detroit, the University of Michigan moved to Ann Arbor in 1841.

Fast forward more than 150 years, where in 2005, the University of Michigan opened the Detroit Center, less than three miles from the University’s original location.

As of 2014, the University of Michigan Detroit Center is home to 18 academic departments from the Ann Arbor and Dearborn campuses with outreach and research projects in the City of Detroit. From Urban Planning to the Semester in Detroit program and everything in between – students, faculty and staff at the Center spend a mixture of time between their Midtown home-base and the neighborhoods of Detroit.

The University of Michigan’s Technical Assistance Center (TAC), a specialized unit of the School of Social Work, is one of the most active units with community-based partners. Founded in 2006, the TAC provides support to the Skillman Foundation’s Good Neighborhoods Initiative by delivering tactical assistance to six target neighborhoods across Detroit: Brightmoor, Cody Rouge, Southwest Detroit, Chadsey/Condon, Northend Central and Osborn. The primary focus of the TAC is to help establish and promote socially just communities, while providing support to Detroit residents as they continue to strengthen and improve their neighborhoods.

In addition to these efforts, the TAC provides meaningful engagement in Detroit by offering communication and collaboration support amongst U-M projects and community-campus partnerships. With a balance of field and office work, TAC staff members Sonia Harb and Rachel Williams, led by co-investigators Dr. Larry Gant and Dr. Trina Shanks, are extremely passionate about their community work.

“It is an honor for me to interact with residents of Detroit who are committed to neighborhood revitalization and community change,” says Rachel Williams, TAC Associate Program Manager. “It’s interesting to see how they find innovative ways to meet the needs they identify in their communities.”

Recently staff from the TAC, Semester in Detroit program and Detroit Center met with Osborn community leaders at the Matrix Human Services Center (The Matrix Center) to learn about the progress and challenges facing the neighborhood.

Nestled in Osborn between the intersection of McNichols Road and Gratiot Avenue, The Matrix Center serves as a community hub providing assessments, supportive services, and referrals to people of all ages in an effort to break the cycle of poverty. With more than 150 partners, Matrix Center programs are designed to meet the needs of the Detroit residents and their surrounding areas.

Located on the city’s northeast side in between the streets of Eight Mile, McNichols, Gratiot and Van Dyke, Osborn was selected by the Skillman Foundation as part of their Good Neighborhoods Initiative beginning in 2006.

Although ranked as one of the five hardest hit U.S. neighborhoods during the 2007 housing market crash, Quincy Jones, Executive Director of the Osborn Neighborhood Alliance (ONA), is optimistic the neighborhood is heading in the right direction.

“The community is making it happen through grants and a lot of hard work,” says Jones. “We’ve been doing a lot of infrastructure work: cleaning up blight, removing illegally dumped tires, and renovating Beland Manning Park.  It’s definitely made a difference.”

The ONA is just one of many community partners assisting in Osborn’s renaissance. The Mohican Regent Homeowners Association also plays a significant role in this community. George Preston, President of the Mohican Regent Homeowners Association is motivated to see the neighborhood thrive.

“My motivation is that I live in the community,” says Preston. “As President, I have solidified a base for the association and we have a number of positive projects that we are working on.”

The Association, which is currently in the process of renovating a community park, also coordinates neighborhood patrols, community newsletters and movie nights for kids. An Osborn resident for over 25 years, George Preston has taken a proactive approach in his community.

“I have no intention of moving,” says Preston. “The only way to make positive things happen is to get involved.”

The collaborative efforts of these organizations aren’t seen exclusively in the community, but in the digital world as well. Liveinosborn.com, a neighborhood-based initiative, promotes and archives the activities of the Osborn community. By covering the people, places, and events of the community, the website hopes to appeal to a broader audience and highlight the benefits of living in this tightly knit community.

Providing assistance to these initiatives is Nikki Petty, a University of Michigan School of Social Work intern. Petty ensures the program is driven by parent mentors, which includes holding weekly meetings to evaluate progress, address concerns and provide resources as issues arise.

“The most rewarding part of my internship has been working with parents and residents from Osborn who are involved with the Parent Mentor program, the Education Committee and Education Organizing in general,” says Petty. “Being able to learn from their experiences [including] passion for their kids and community has been rewarding and invaluable.”

In addition to providing assistance for parent mentors, Petty also builds relationships with local organizations that cultivate new resources for parents and students.

“For me, the most enjoyable part of working in Osborn has been the people; the people who live there and the people who work there,” says Petty. “Many people I have met have not only been incredibly warm and inviting but have taught me a lot about how to come into a community and work with folks.”

With ongoing U-M efforts in Osborn since 2006, relatively new members to this initiative are able to see the strides that have been made over the last decade.

“I am a newcomer to the work in Osborn,” says Sonia Harb, Director of the U-M Technical Assistance Center since 2013. “However, the synergy between different organizations, committees and block clubs clearly has taken time and energy to cultivate. I see Osborn having a plan for their economic comeback, and are steadily working towards their goals.”

Whether community efforts have been lead or aided by the Technical Assistance Center, one thing is clear, the University of Michigan has made quite an impact.

“We have received Michigan with open arms,” says Quincy Jones, Executive Director of ONA. “Adding the educational aspect of University of Michigan, along with their great staff and interns has been the icing on the cake as our community moves forward.”