Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Rx for Reading Detroit: Place-Based Social Justice Pedagogy

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Rx for Reading Detroit: Place-Based Social Justice Pedagogy

Article excerpt

While social justice models of service-learning improve on volunteerism that ignores structural inequality, they often neglect the critical role of local environments in which the service occurs. I argue that a place-based model of service-learning enables a diverse student body to move beyond compassionate service to social justice activism. In 2014, I founded Rx for Reading Detroit, a service-learning program at University of Detroit Mercy that works to promote children's literacy in Detroit. Augmenting critical service-learning models with a place-based approach offers students a theoretical frame with which to interrogate the complex intersections of geography and justice. Examining Rx for Reading Detroit as a case study in place-based social justice pedagogy, I argue that this paradigm is particularly useful for service-learning in Detroit and other urban contexts because it calls attention to, rather than effaces, the power dynamics inherent with service, including students' diverse relationships to the environments in which they serve.

"Talent is spread evenly across America, opportunity is not"

--Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, former Head Start student

"Frederick Douglass said that literacy is the path from slavery to freedom. There are many kinds of slavery and many kinds of freedom, but reading is still the path."

--Carl Sagan, Scientist and Writer

Despite various media outlets touting rebirth, rejuvenation, and renaissance, Detroit remains the most impoverished large city in America. According to the most recent census data, 40.3% of the city's residents live below the poverty line--$24,008 for a family of four. The median family income is $25,764, approximately half that of the state as a whole (U.S. Census Bureau, 2015 data), while Detroit's unemployment rate is 16.7%, more than twice that of the Michigan average (Michigan League for Public Policy, 2016). 81.6% percent of Detroit children qualify for free or reduced lunch (Michigan League for Public Policy, 2016) (1), and 29% percent of children in the city are living in extreme poverty--less than 50% of the federal poverty level (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2015). Moreover, while there has been a surge in development in the city, much of the economic investment is not benefiting its poorest citizens; in many cases it is pushing them further to the margins (Brookings Institute, 2016; Economic Innovation Group, 2016; Reese, Elkers, Sands, & Vojnovic, 2017; We the People of Detroit, 2016). From 2007 to 2014 Detroit jobs held by Detroit residents actually dropped by 35.5%, while jobs in the city held by individuals living in the suburbs, many of whom are White, increased by 16.6% (Reese &

Sands, 2017).

Detroit is also the most racially segregated city in America (Logan & Stults, 2011), an enduring legacy of housing policies that institutionalized racism and exacerbated economic disparities in the region. From 1934 to 1968, the Federal Housing Administration's notorious "redlining" policy undermined minority home ownership and contributed to economic collapse in Black neighborhoods (Silverman, 2005; Sugrue, 2014). Eight Mile Wall, a 6-foot high, half-mile long barrier built between a Black and White neighborhood in northwest Detroit, is only the most tangible artifact of FHA policy. Stark disparities between Detroit and its surrounding suburbs were amplified by White flight in the second half of the 20th century. In 1950, Detroit was 84% White; by 2010, 82.68% of the population was African-American (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010 data).

The metaphorical and physical boundary of 8 Mile Road continues to reverberate as a dividing line between suburb and city, White and Black, rich and poor. The startling extent of racial segregation in Metro Detroit is made visual in Cable's "Racial Dot Map" (2013), which represents every American with a colored dot indicating their race. …

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