Making Friends

Dwight Wilson’s guiding principle as an educator is to “teach what you are.” If students at Friends School in Detroit are paying attention to their headmaster, they’d see a man who loves young people, cherishes family and cultural legacy, values the arts, drives an American car on principle as well as for pleasure, is proud of his country though pacifist by his Quaker religion, and genuinely believes that Detroit is beautiful.

Rather than evoking the stereotypical stern image of headmaster, Wilson is a warm, fatherly sort who embraces students even after disciplining them. He believes all of his students – really all children – are his responsibility.

“Reject” resonates as Wilson reflects on his youth in Middletown, Ohio, a steel town where he lived in poverty with a family of six. One day, a teacher referred to students coming from his background as “rejects.” No one in Wilson’s world is a reject, by any definition, especially in the classroom.

Reading has been a key component in his life. His mother read to him as a child, teaching him to read by age 3. He read to his children, and as an educator he schedules time each week to read to students.

“It’s a thrill to make a book come alive, especially for kids,” Wilson says. “I almost never know what the teacher is going to give me.” One particular book caught him by surprise. It was about a boy who kept getting in trouble, “and the mother kept saying, ‘but I love you.’ I was so close to crying. My mother has been dead for 30 years and going back (thinking of) all of the stuff that I did and she loved me all that time…”

A scholar and a gentleman

Wilson has had a remarkable career – including becoming the youngest person to become general secretary of Quakers in the United States, and the first African American. He has been involved in various educational endeavors for over 25 years. He was named a Leonardo da Vinci Scholar by the National Endowment of the Humanities, and recently was selected by the National Association of Inpedendent Schools to recruit teachers from China, one of whom is at Friends School. Aside from his academic work, Wilson, who has written two novels involving the Underground Railroad and published more than 500 haiku poems, appreciates fine art and jazz.

Although his career is impressive, his youth hardly predicated success. He ran in gangs and engaged in petty theft until getting caught. He stopped stealing, stopped fighting, and at age 17 became a Baptist minister, then later joined the Quaker faith. He graduated from Bowdin College and Bangor Theological Seminary.

When Wilson came to Detroit in 2002, he took an $18,000 pay cut in what others thought would be a career stepping stone. Friends School in Detroit, the only one of 83 Quaker Friends schools located in an urban setting, was his only choice. “This is the one that’s closest to what we say we believe. That’s why I’m here.”

Friends School reflects Wilson’s ideal of the educational setting, “the way America is supposed to be, where race doesn’t matter, where it’s not assumed that if you’re a person of color you’re not intelligent, where you can reach your potential and feel comfortable, where you don’t have to worry about someone calling you nigger or whitey or whatever.”

The racially mixed school is comprised largely of Detroiters, about half from the Near East Side. Nearly half of the students are on financial aid. All assume the rigorous demands of the school, which includes a Chinese and Spanish language requirement from first through sixth grade and a community service requirement. The school’s culture is “rooted in the Quaker tradition of cooperation and community spirit,” which also includes the Quaker value of silence.

Optimistic about Detroit

Wilson came to the school to be headmaster, but also to live in Detroit, where he resides in the Green Acres neighborhood. Despite the grim economic and social news that permeates Detroit, Wilson brings an outsider’s optimism and perspective often lost among those who have been here awhile. He cites the space – especially the parks, the low housing costs, the cultural opportunities, the variety of restaurants, and the highway system.  What he values most is “the people… how they smile at you.”

Of course, he also values the city’s children. When members of his board of trustees expressed concern that there aren’t fences to keep neighborhood kids off the playscape and school grounds after hours, he reminded them that Friends School is about making friends and about serving kids beyond the walls of the school. This, like his other values, stems from childhood.
“When I was growing up, Armco Steel Corporation took away almost every playground we had.  There was no place for us to play, other than in the street. And I’m going to put a fence around this place so these kids don’t have a place to play? What’s it for if it’s not to be used?”

Wilson’s vision for Friends School is to take it to the next level of educational opportunity, enhancing arts programs and the aesthetic appearance of the building, and, of course, raising even more money in a tighter economy. Last school year, Friends teamed up with Model D's Dave Krieger for a photography project that helped bring in money at the annual Wade McCree Jr. Scholarship Fundraiser. Photos by Friends' students were later published as a pictorial essay in Model D.

A colleague, trying to figure out why Wilson chose to remain in Detroit for the long haul, once observed, “You want to make a legacy.”

“Yes, I do,” he says.

Dennis Archambault is a regular contributor to Model D.

Dwight Wilson and Friends School students
photographs copyright Dave Krieger

Read more articles by Dennis Archambault.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.
Signup for Email Alerts