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Unrelenting means not giving in. Not letting up. “Unrelenting” is a dance number choreographed by Marygrove College Dance alumna Zandria Lucas, ‘12 and recently performed on campus for visiting Fellows from the Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance (KFLA) Forum 2012. Nine minutes of captivating movement told a story set to the lyrics “Will I?” from the Broadway musical, RENT. Nine minutes of perpetual motion penetrated the hearts and minds of its riveted audience.

“Will I lose my dignity?…Will I lose my tomorrow?”  The athleticism and strenuous requirements of the dance are second only to the unfolding story of community that was enacted—a story familiar to anyone who has ever had a conflict in life and sought to resolve it with the help of others— only to come out of it feeling exhilarated, proud and resilient. [Resilience.]

There were moments when the spectators in the studio were overcome with emotion. Beauty can do that. But the tears that day were a profound reaction to a message that was more like a whisper, eluding the ears and the brain and leaping straight to the heart. Even after several months, the dancers said they weep at times, too. It is a platform that is hard to put into words, because it really transcends them.  [Transcendence.]

Throughout the performance, Marygrove Dance Company Manager and Dance Recruitment Counselor Jonathon Cash watched intently from the back. He says Unrelenting is a work that is so difficult, many dancers simply do not have the physical strength to perform it. A recent Marygrove graduate himself, Cash currently scours the country for urban dance students willing and able to make their marks on this fine, established dance company.

Known for their poignancy, Marygrove’s Dance programs never disappoint. As the students’ bodies were rising and falling to their knees—rising and falling, it begged the question: how many times has Detroit risen from the ashes? “Unrelenting” peels back layers of triumphs and challenges, exposing what it’s like to build community, revealing what it takes to be an urban college. And like Detroit, Marygrove is transforming. [Transformation.]

A city rises from the ashes.

In 1827, Detroit chose its motto written by Father Gabriel Richard: Speramus Meliora: Resurget Cineribus. Very loosely translated this means, “We hope for better days. It will rise from the ashes.” Detroit has risen from the ashes on a number of occasions—after the fire of 1805, the cholera epidemics in the mid-nineteenth century, the riots of 1943 and 1967, and the economic downturns of the Great Depression and 2008.

A big part of Detroit’s history was examined at the KFLA Forum 2012, which actually began that morning at the Book Cadillac Hotel—a gorgeous venue that has a transformation story of its own.

Marygrove College President Dr. David Fike talked about the importance of collective action. The College’s Director of Urban Leadership, Brenda Price and Professor of History /Director of the Institute for Detroit Studies (IDS) Dr. Thomas Klug tag-teamed an extensive presentation created by members of the IDS faculty, including Professor of English Dr. Frank Rashid, and Assistant Professor of Sociology Dr. Mary Byrnes, focusing on the Detroit that most people, to wit, the popular press, rarely discuss. “Detroit: Challenging the Narrative” was served up like a much more sophisticated episode of MythBusters, but no less compelling, shattering commonly held beliefs about the causes of the city’s decline, which are largely due to deindustrialization, housing inequality and bad public policies.

Sadly, if you wanted to divide a city, simply construct a major interstate highway right through it. If you wanted to encourage middle class people to relocate to the suburbs, entice them with government subsidies in the form of Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgage loans to make it so affordable, that suburban overbuilding and urban flight become foregone conclusions.  Poor decisions on the part of corporate and governmental officials have played a tremendous role in Detroit’s social and economic problems. But this day was not about blame. It was about information sharing. And rising above.

Back at Marygrove College, provocative scenes from Detroit’s story greeted our special guests in Madame Cadillac Hall as they arrived from the hotel. Courtesy of the Michigan Roundtable, Executive Director of the Center for Social Justice and Community Engagement and Dean of Community-Based Learning Dr. Brenda Bryant secured an interactive display that was a beautiful, three-dimensional pictorial view of Detroit’s housing inequality. The College’s Contemporary Vocal Ensemble led a sing-a-long including a few Motown favorites to kick off what promised to be an intriguing afternoon.

Reading is beyond fundamental. It’s a matter of justice.

A panel presentation led by Marygrove Associate Professor of Education Vivian Johnson, Ph.D. was a treasure trove of facts. But if literacy can be heartfelt, Dr. Johnson delivers animated read alouds that take your breath away. She and panelists talked about the connections between behavior problems and literacy in K-12 schools, and the stunning statistics around incarceration and functional illiteracy.

Grassroots leader Alma Greer spoke about her efforts to stamp out illiteracy which are just as noble and necessary as a firefighter going to battle an out-of-control blaze. Except, she is igniting fires. The good kind. The kind that burn in the bellies of people who want to change their lives, or use their lives to do something more. She’ll tell you that the illiteracy rates in her hometown of Highland Park hover around 57 percent. That’s why Greer champions Real Men Read, a program she initiated there eight years ago.

Literacy Learning in Education Graduate Student and Marygrove Administrative Assistant of Social Work and Religious Studies Kim Henderson reiterated the social reality of illiteracy in her talk, “What does the face of illiteracy look like?” She says it’s hard to define, since people who never learned to read are practiced at hiding themselves. It is a form of oppression that is silent in its indignity. And many live their entire lives in just that way.

“DO SOMETHING!” Dr. Johnson orders in a manner that only she can. So she does.

Mentors reshape lives through education and hope.

One of Marygrove’s resident progeny, Vaughn A. Arrington, a Senior Social Work Major, spent the entirety of his high school years in prison, yet has managed to transform his life through a combination of elbow grease, education and faith. He recounted his time in solitary confinement, sharing how he received his meals daily through a hole in the door. He lived in this state of isolation for roughly six out of his ten years behind bars after a felony conviction at the tender age of 16.

Arrington told of a recurring voice of a little girl that would haunt him as he sat alone for days on end. He would read and write and talk to himself to keep from going insane. “Letters from my mother and best friend Stephanie kept me engaged, knowing there were people who cared on the outside,” he said.

This bright, articulate young man who admitted he was nervous before giving his speech had the audience hanging on his every word. There were no nerves in this presentation. Just truth. The truth can be amazingly healing, as society learns more about the dirty little secret that is the school to prison pipeline which disproportionately affects African American boys.

A successful Mentor today, Arrington serves as President of Team Strength Detroit, a budding non-profit that offers proven alternatives to “zero tolerance” policies by modifying student behavior through in-school detention. He also serves as the Director of Community Engagement for the Detroit City Council President Charles Pugh, another special guest, with whom he is collaborating to shape his non-profit work. The Council President serves as the Senior Advisor of Team Strength Detroit.

Arrington and team member Sarah Mayne, a Marygrove College Social Work Major, demonstrated how in-school detention would work through role playing. The facts are, when the concepts their team employs were used in a high school detention program in Washington State from 2009-2011, the district saw a 77 percent reduction in police intervention.  And suspensions and expulsions dropped dramatically: about 87 percent.  It’s worth doing, whether you measure the costs in dollars or lives. Dollars are the only things stopping this powerful team, as they seek funding to begin this already accepted program into Detroit’s Frederick Douglass Academy.

Art integrates expression back into lives.

After a short break, Director of the Marygrove Institute for Arts Infused Education, Mary Lou Greene, M.F.A. facilitated a dynamic breakout session with KFLA Fellows and community artists who work in the cross-section of the arts and civic engagement. She charged the groups to investigate and explore art as social activism by asking, “If we want whole, happy, healthy, and creative adults in the future, what systems and practices do we need to support and develop for our children today?” and “If we want students or constituents to develop resilience, what practices do we need to support?”

Invited participants included Dr. Terry Blackhawk (Inside/Out), Dr. Shaun Nethercott (Matrix Theatre), Jennifer Lee (Allied Media Projects), Marygrove Art and Business Major Robert Tompkins, and Activist and Marygrove Assistant Professor of Social Work Kalimah Johnson.

Johnson described the value of art and expression for children who are having difficulties, either at school or at home. She says the arts are a wonderful way to help integrate expression back into the lives of those who have been hurt, silenced or immobilized. “Creating visual works of art, music or poetry can help channel children’s energies toward something positive and meaningful,” Johnson said.

As the event draws to a close, the chorus of “Will I?” resonates long after the Fellows leave the candlelit reflection in the gallery. “Will I lose my dignity? Will someone care?” Through leadership and compassion, there’s no question that Marygrove College is deeply committed to the strong spirit of this city. It’s what the founding Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary would want for their beloved school.