Detroit as Phoenix

One of my favorite events these last few years since I retired is the annual meeting of the North Dakota Study Group.  The name confuses the uninitiated.  In its first years the gathering was held at the University of North Dakota, but for most of its 40plus years it took place in Chicago.  The full name is the North Dakota Study Group on Evaluation.  Their website says “The North Dakota Study Group (NDSG) is a diverse network of progressive educators dedicated to advocacy for useful, fair, and democratic ways to document and assess children’s learning and offering a criticism of educational reform and practice in the light of an enduring concern with democracy and the estate of childhood.” Jay and Helen Featherstone and Deb Meier drew me here, but every person I have met here keeps me coming back.

What I love about this group is the lack of pretense.  The people who come to this meeting really come to study, to reflect and to talk as honestly as they know how with each other.  It is small.  The only vendors are folks who are also attending the conference and have brought along a book they have written (or perhaps a video they have created :) ) We stay together the whole 3 days, and while the conversations can take people to their growing edge, there is a sense of caring that makes it more possible to step into the unknown.

A year before I started coming a remarkable community organizer from Detroit named Grace Lee Boggs came to the meeting.  They were still talking about her ideas the following year, and for the past two years the group has abandoned Chicago for Detroit.  Grace is closing in on 100 with her wits firmly intact, and a perspective on change that we young’uns just haven’t been around long enough to understand.    We saw this fascinating film about her life and ideas.  She is optimistic about this moment in history, and she is optimistic about Detroit.

How can that be?  Detroit is a mess.  Even more has gone wrong since our last visit.  But I have come to understand her optimism.  The short way to say it is “chaos leads to opportunity.”  Gardens grow in vacant lots.  Young people who spend time in Grace’s living room become ‘solutionaries.’  And the progressive public charter school they envisioned a year ago is up and running.

After years of planning it had almost not happened because they lost the building in the community where they had organized.  At the last minute they were able to get use of a former settlement house.  The staff, community volunteers and future school families spent the summer preparing it.

When we visited the students weren’t there, but you could feel their vibrant presence everywhere.  NDSGers didn’t just come to look.  We sat with the teachers and shared.  We shared our impressions, they shared their struggles, we listened, offered suggestions–and reassurance that they were on the right track: small classes, lots of emphasis on community and emotional development, building positive self images and working from their children’s strengths.  They will use a place based model for their experiential integrated curriculum, and they have plenty of material to work from just in the history of the building they are in. 

Back at the meeting place, frank talk about race, and white privilege…never easy, always another layer to get through.  People get passionate, express frustration, and keep talking.  Then we eat too many potato chips.  I really love this conference.



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