Because they Could

Birthday party near Burt Elementary, shuttered in 2010, displacing 275 kids. Photograph 2017.

Education is an important lens through which to dissect narratives of blame and cycles of violence. In under-resourced communities of color, public education is rendered ineffective by lack of funding and testing mandates, and locally-elected officials are blamed for these problems. At the same time, schooling in Detroit has been constructed in the image of capitalist notions of productivity, discipline and punishment.

In Michigan, when a city or school district faces fiscal distress, the state can appoint an "Emergency Manager" to usurp the power of locally elected officials, and oversee all financial and political decisions of the district. His only mandate is to balance the district's budget.

From 2009-2016, a series of six gubernatorial-appointed emergency managers closed over 100 Detroit Public Schools.  Through public records research, I calculated that this displaced over 25,000 students. School districts in Michigan, including privately-managed charter schools compete for dollars, based on enrollment. Closing the public schools pushed the students into districts outside of the city, or for-profit charter school within the city, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that drained enrollment and funding.

The Emergency Managers cut thousands of service and teaching jobs within the district, and neglected routine building repairs. They reduced the number of boiler operators in buildings, which posed a great risk to safety of children. Because They Could is an in-depth look at these policies and gives voice to the students, parents and teachers adversely affected by these policies. The series also attempts to subvert tropes of romantic imagery of closed schools that imply that Detroit's dilapidation is a natural process. The work of the project included investigative research, sharing findings with academics and communities, facilitating group storyboarding sessions and screening the work for targeted audiences.

 One of the many closed schools was Oakman Orthopedic—the only public school outfitted for special needs children. This school defied the discipline-centric model of public education—in a therapeutic setting it accepted a spectrum of differently abled children, cultivating an environment of tolerance for the most vulnerable. I worked with the parent group and Pedroni to produce Because they Could, which chronicled the school’s closure.

In 2015, I was commissioned by the Leonard Kaplan Education Collaborative at Wayne State University to produce a participatory documentary film project with Detroit Public Schools parents. The film Built and Rebuilt details the history of a public high-performing arts high school through a 25 year history of education reform, the charter school movement and the trials and tribulations of the Detroit Public Schools district. It was co-directed by parent-activist Yolanda Peoples. I invited students whose video production class had been discontinued, to participate in shoots. I also commissioned an illustrator whose drawing class had been cut, to produce the drawings for the film.

 In 2016, the ACLU of Michigan commissioned me to produce Structural Flaws, a multiple-part photographic essay on discrepancies between school buildings across Michigan districts. This inequity is due to a capital expenditures funding formula that relies solely on a district's tax base. If a city has low property values, due to mechanisms beyond the resident's control (such as the legacies of economic racism, or changes to employment opportunities), their students are educated in sub-par school environments. 

In Hamtramck, Michigan (left), the median home value is $68,000. In Birmingham, MI (right) the median home value is $430,000.

In 2017, I began a project to photograph every school closed under Emergency Financial Management from 2009-2016.

While most schools were still standing vacant, some had been converted to charters. In a few instances, brand new charter schools that looked more like prisons than schools were constructed directly adjacent to the vacant building shells that were. 

 Throughout this process, I found three constants: Detroiters were using their own meagar resources to maintain vacant buildings that their taxes had funded to build, and then dismantle, without their say. When schools close, people move, which puts additional burdens on a neighborhood, and through block clubs and other forms of collective work, neighbors work tirelessly to maintain their homes. Second, as a white woman with a camera, I was asked repeatedly if I was going to buy the school. At this point, I would strike up a conversation with the passerby about Emergency Management and school closures. Of the 60 of over 100 schools that I photographed, whenever I encountered a neighborhood resident (which was more often than not), I asked about the situation of the school prior to its closer.  Without exception, I was told that the school was a wonderful environment for children, enrollment had been constant, despite claims of the district of underenrollment.

In early 2017, the State of Michigan threatened another round of mass school closures. As a founding member of the We the People of Detroit Community Research Collective I partnered with the Michigan Network of Equity in Education and the collective to produce The Last Cut a nine-minute film that follows former Oakman student Timothy Wright through multiple school closures, and quantifies the effects of state-mandated closings on low income children of color. The film was used as an educational tool for state law makers and parent groups, during a threatened wave of school closings. The closings were eventually postponed, but are still imminent, as the state has strict parameters based on test scores in order for schools to remain open.  Based in part on my research for the ACLU of Michigan's Structural Flaws Project, the collective also produced a series of pamphlets outlining Michigan school funding inequities to distribute through the Detroit Independent Freedom Schools Network. My series of photographs of every school closed under Emergency Financial Management provides imagery for the Research Collective's upcoming publication analyzing and mapping Michigan school policy.

 Information pamphlet to which I contributed research, from We the People of Detroit Community Research Collective, which I helped to co-found. This pamphlet was distributed through Detroit Independent Freedom Schools. 

Back side of an Information pamphlet to which I contributed research and design, from We the People of Detroit Community Research Collective, which I helped to co-found.