'Why the D?' seeks solutions

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 Symposium empowers youth to believe they can make a difference 

By Steve Thorpe
Legal News

Matthew Z. Robb, in addition to dealing with the formidable challenges of being a 1L Wayne State University Law School student, is determined to give back to the community that surrounds the school.

His efforts, along with others, resulted in “Why the D? Detroit Youth Offer Solutions,” a symposium at the school on Friday that hoped to address the city’s many problems.

“I wanted to connect these two worlds — law school and the school I was teaching at in Detroit,” Robb said.

Robb taught civics and economics last year at Cody and has coordinated the law school’s involvement in the project with Professor Peter J. Hammer, director of the Keith Center.

The symposium included more than 20 juniors and seniors from the Cody Academy of Public Leadership in Detroit and was intended for an audience of local business, legal and political leaders, and the community at large.

Presentations and breakout sessions were included on key topics including business and employment, education, housing and neighborhoods as well as public services.

“It will be oral and there’s a PowerPoint presentation at the end,” said Robb, describing the event. “It will start with history from the ‘30s and ‘40s, data on what changed from then to now, and then personal narratives. We’ll then break into small groups to talk about business, public services and education. Each room will have a short video on their topic and then each kid will tell how the subject of the discussion has affected their life.”  

For two months, 21 Wayne Law student volunteer mentors worked with the Cody students, helping them prepare a policy platform addressing the future of Detroit. Using historical research, data and personal testimonials they sought to create solutions for growth for the city. This policy platform was a key part of the students’ presentation.

“I told the kids that when the City Council sees the policy statement it should be something that they can run with and pass into law,” Robb said.

Robb believes that a big part of the solution is persuading the city’s youth that they can make a difference. 

“The underlying goal with the academic piece is that kids in Detroit need to know that when they speak, they matter and have power,” he said. “Growing up in Detroit gives you a greater education than you could ever get from textbooks. Those hard lessons that they learn from life will be powerful in a professional setting. Academically this program tries to help give them a skill set so they can take that next step to college and know what to do when they get there.”    

Another difference between the “Why the D?” program and the many other revitalization efforts currently afoot is the focus on the neighborhoods. Robb said that they need a much bigger share of the attention if the city is to return to health.

“The neighborhoods are vast and expansive and people live there,” he said. “Part of the goal is to show that while there are great things going on in Detroit’s business districts, ‘between the freeways,’ outside the freeways are some underlying historical, cultural, economic and racial problems that simply haven’t been talked about enough. Until you try to tackle that larger problem, the city can’t thrive.”

In addition to the potential benefits of the program to the city and students at Cody, Robb thinks there have been tangible benefits to his fellow law students who participated.

“For me, one of the most positive aspects of this project has been bringing my fellow 1L law students to Cody, because they had a great time,” Robb says. “They took time out of their busy schedules and helped the kids develop their research. The relationships they built left a lasting impression on both groups. To me, that’s the most powerful thing that happened.”

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