Students spend summer conducting research at Detroit nonprofits


Laura Vicinanza is using her analytic and research skills, sprinkled with Spanish dialogue, to give a voice to issues of importance to the Hispanic community in southwest Detroit.

The University of Michigan sophomore is spending her summer at the Detroit Hispanic Development Corp., helping the staff with programs designed to uplift the community. One project involves providing information to teach men to become better fathers. Another is meeting with other nonprofit agencies to learn what programs have been successful, she said.

“That’s one problem … in the Hispanic community in all of the United States, but in Detroit especially, is that they feel sometimes they don’t have a voice,” she said, noting some challenges are due to language barriers or immigration status.

Vicinanza is one of 24 students conducting summer research for Detroit nonprofits and public agencies as part of the Detroit Community Based Research Program, which is administered by the U-M Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program.

UROP creates research partnerships between undergraduate students and U-M faculty.

Students will present their work Aug. 7 at an exhibition in the U-M Detroit Center Orchestra Place, 3663 Woodward Ave. The event, which begins at 1 p.m., is free and open to the public.

They spend 10 weeks becoming immersed in the Detroit community through research projects addressing issues such as environmental justice and sustainability, economic development and food security. They live in the city and can see firsthand how the policies and programs they are researching impact the community.

“It really doesn’t make sense to not actually talk to people in the community, live in the community and get to know people in the community,”  said Dominic Russel, a junior political science and economics major who is working for Metro Matters, regional policy advocacy that unites Detroit and suburban leaders.

Dominic Russel discusses his experience with the Detroit Community Based Research Program.

Through contributions by donors, LSA and Ford Community Corps, UROP is able to pay students for their summer work, as well as cover housing and transportation costs.

Both nonprofits and students benefit equally from the partnership.

“Nonprofits usually work with a small staff, and having the students work full-time for 10 weeks can make a big difference to projects, which can lead to grant funding,” said Jenna Steiner, UROP assistant director who coordinates the Detroit program.

Participating in the summer program allowed Damaris Doss to learn more about her hometown.

She works at Nortown Community Development Corp., a northeast Detroit nonprofit that promotes economic development and a better living environment in District 3. Doss and another student are creating a database about nearby parks and their condition and history as a way to improve them. She is also creating a directory about businesses in the community.

“I (saw) the condition of Detroit and knew it faced many challenges, such as blight and abandoned homes,” Doss said. “Nonprofits need help and I think that having UROP come in and place students in their program gives them a helping hand. They are short on staff … having interns in the summer plays a big role in their production.”

Damaris Doss discusses her experience with the Detroit Community Based Research Program.

During the program, all students meet twice a week at the Detroit Center for seminars aimed at developing practical skills for working in a community setting and conducting research. But time spent at the center also allows students to share stories in person and get feedback.

They also share their experiences through the program’s blog. In her July blog post about a June bus tour in a neighborhood, senior psychology major Danielle Wallick described her feelings as “overwhelmed” seeing the blight and abandonment.

“I wonder where one could even start to make it a safe and livable neighborhood again,” she wrote. “My supervisors constantly seem overwhelmed and frustrated, as they have to jump through so many hoops just to get a simple start on the big visionary plans and ideas they have to make the community a better place.”

Danielle Wallick discusses her experience with the Detroit Community Based Research Program.

Wallick, who is also at Nortown, still considers Detroit “nice and friendly.”

“There’s plenty to do,” she said. “Certainly there are problems and Detroit gets a bad rap in the news, but there are good points about the city.”


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