Detroit Needs Better Leadership; Marygrove's Working On It

If it sounds too good to be true it probably is. These are certainly words to live by, but on some rare occasions, an offer that sounds too good to be true can indeed be legit. Carl Farrington, a political science major at Marygrove College in Detroit can attest to it.

Back in September, Farrington found himself facing his senior year without a clear sense of what he wanted to do once he graduated. He says he was having a conversation with a Marygrove staff member about whether he should pursue law, education, or politics, when the school's president, David Fike, overhead the conversation.

"He said, 'You know what, you might just want to go to law school. All I heard you talk about was politics.' Then he said he might be able to get me a fellowship if I was interested and asked me to send him an e-mail. I'm like yeah right, e-mail the president of a university and he'll get right back to you," says Farrington.

"He responded the next day. That told me it wasn't just lip service. They are serious."

Farrington got the fellowship, through the Center for Progressive Leadership in Royal Oak, and later landed an internship in the office of U.S. Rep. John Conyers, where he continues to work. He is set to graduate in May and is now trying to decide between law schools at the University of Texas or a little place called Harvard University, having been accepted to both.

"The advice was simple. Find out what you're passionate about. Find out what you're good at. They're usually the same thing. Then find a way to do a whole lot more of them," Fike says of the counsel he provided Farrington.

Fike and the faculty at Marygrove are on a mission to develop more "urban leaders" and this is just one example of how they're getting it done.

The goal is to push students like Farrington to find their voices and inspire them to want to make their communities better.

Lead the way

What's different about Marygrove's urban leadership work is that the school is encouraging all of its students to pursue opportunities to lead. That means art students, future teachers and everyone else on campus.

The college's strategic vision was first unveiled in 2006, and ramped up significantly after Fike took the helm of the West Side Detroit Catholic college last year.

The concept of urban leadership is about getting more people engaged in the community — from the grassroots level, in neighborhoods, and into the political arena — in ways that touch lives, improve neighborhoods, spur economic development and drive positive changes in cities across America.

Of course, there is a primary emphasis on Detroit, and administrators want to see graduates stay here and assume leadership roles in area communities. About 70 percent of the college's students are from the region.

City roots

Since its founding over 100 years ago by the sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Marygrove has had a deep commitment to the city and its residents, through changing demographics and tough economic conditions, through the 1967 civil unrest and the related issues that shook up the city, and despite pressures to move north in past years – its leadership has not budged.

"Their commitment to social justice is what's driving us," Fike says.

Administrators at the college are currently working on several key elements of the urban leadership strategy they've laid out.

"There are a series of things that are already in the works that we're looking to coalesce and expand," Fike says. Those components include:
  • The Institute for Detroit Studies
  • The Women's Leadership Institute
  • The Masters of Social Justice program
  • The Marygrove Urban Agenda
  • Community service learning opportunities

The Institute for Detroit Studies is a one-of-a-kind interdisciplinary program launched during the city's tri-centennial in 2001. It seeks to broadened students' knowledge of Detroit through a combination of classroom study, lectures, exhibits, performances and various research activities.

The Women's Leadership Institute consists of a series of courses and activities designed to equip female students with stronger leadership skills.

The Masters of Social Justice program was started a couple of years ago and is one of the first of its kind in the nation. It attracts students and professionals interested in getting involved in promoting social justice and positively changing communities.

The Marygrove Urban Agenda is a recent project spearheaded by political science faculty who brought 200 high school students from five schools to campus for a day-long exercise that they used to identify issues important to them and explore possible solutions.

"Sustaining that type of engagement with the high school students and linking them w/ the type of training and development that they develop the skills to make a difference is the type of activity that we might see being run through the institute," says Fike.

Through service learning opportunities, the school hopes to get more students involved as volunteers in soup kitchens and as mentors, or to start block clubs and participate in community-based efforts. Of course there is a bit of a challenge here, in that students at the private school often have to maintain jobs to help pay tuition, but administrators are sensitive to the issue.

Expect to hear news about new programmatic activities at the Institute for Detroit Studies over the next six to nine months, and additional details about the grander strategic plan is about 12 months away.

In the meantime, the college is trying to connect with projects currently underway in the city like the Next Detroit Neighborhood Initiative, which targets six neighborhoods for economic development and revitalization projects, and looking to form or further partnerships with the foundation and business communities.

Building leaders

Having seen campus leadership in action for himself, Farrington believes Marygrove will succeed because administrators and faculty are walking the talk. As a result, he sees more students stepping up to the challenge, and with more of his peers empowered to lead, a greater number will eventually assume the mantel of community leadership in coming years.
Last fall, when Farrington wanted to hold a town hall meeting on campus to call attention and spark dialogue on HR 676, calling for comprehensive health insurance coverage for all of the nation's residents, and sponsored by Conyers, college officials encouraged him to go for it. The student considered the event a great success.

"They accommodated my speakers and everything. That's just an example of how they support leadership. They push you to lead," says Farrington. "I've been to the seminary and to community college and I've never seen that."

Fike says this is just one of many examples of how the college is pumping up students to take charge of projects in which they have interest, then supporting them in their efforts to make a difference

"If it doesn't ultimately change the lives of our students or change the lives in communities in which we are working, then it's not worth doing," says Fike.

Rodd Monts is a Detroit-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Model D.


Carl Farrington at Marygrove College

Marygrove College Liberal Arts building

High school student leaders at The Marygrove Urban Agenda -  Photo by Tresa Meyer, staff graphic designer, Marygrove College

Carl Farrington Jr., speaks to local neighborhood students at The Marygrove Urban Agenda -Photo by: Tresa Meyer, staff graphic designer, Marygrove College

Photographs by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.

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