Allen: Bus ride to school with Detroit teen is eye-opener

Last Friday, I found myself standing outside in downtown Detroit shortly after 6 a.m., cold and sleepy and ready to go to school.

That’s right. School. Education organizing group 482Forward challenged members of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren to travel to school with a Detroit child to get a firsthand look at some of the challenges families in the city face while trying to get their kids to school safely.

I took them up on that challenge, as did fellow co-chairs John Rakolta Jr., Angie Reyes, and David Hecker and Steering Committee member Michael Brennan.


Dazhanae Hudson-Martin and Tonya Allen wait at a bus stop for a city bus to the east side.

I was paired with Dazhanae Hudson-Martin, a senior at Osborn High School on the city’s northeast side. She lives in Palmer Park, a more centrally located neighborhood, but travels to Osborn, her old neighborhood, for school.

She has to leave pretty early to travel about 10 miles away. It was very dark. But that day, thankfully, the bus she takes came on time. I was impressed with the bus’ overall appearance. Our driver was professional and kind, and the bus was warm and clean.

It was my first bus ride in a long time, and some things were no different than when I was a kid. I remember riding on the bus feeling vulnerable as a young woman when a group of rowdy older kids would come on. Dazhanae said she has the same experience, and while we rode, a group of loud and rambunctious kids made both of us a bit uncomfortable.

This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who takes public transportation frequently, but I had the feeling some of the riders were homeless people who ride the bus all day long to stay warm. I note this only I want to paint the full picture of what kids riding the bus to school see.

Dazhanae said that the bus service has improved in the last year, and that she can mostly depend on the bus to be on time and to have room for her.

Still, because she’s focused on graduating, she rearranged her schedule so she has a less important class in first hour, switching an English class to later in the day. She did so because she knew she needed that credit to graduate, and just couldn’t count on being there every day if she had it first thing in the morning.

While the morning commute took 50 minutes, getting home is different challenge for Dazhanae. The bus coming home is often so crowded that she has to wait an hour to two hours to begin her ride home. This impacts many things, from her ability to get in study time, to the opportunity to take part in after-school activities, to her ability to work extra hours at her part-time job.

The other co-chairs shared some of their experiences with me. One had to take two buses and took more than 90 minutes traveling with a mom and her two kids to two different schools. One questioned why a parent didn’t want to walk a mile and would rather wait for a bus that might or might not come on time and found out that not only is that mile littered with blight but also with feral dogs. Another felt frozen from head to toe — and it was nearly 30 degrees. My feet were freezing, too.

So often, as adults, we try to solve problems from a distance instead of stepping right in to understand. We think we know. After all, we went to school once. We rode the bus once.


Dazhanae Hudson-Martin and Tonya Allen ride the bus that takes Dazhanae to school in the Osborn neighborhood.

But there is something powerful about putting yourself directly in the shoes – or in this case, the bus seat – of the person you’re hoping to help.

Try this out sometime. Find a way to experience directly what Detroit kids experience. Most of us can’t fathom what they go through. Many suggest that kids should be focusing better in the classroom without really understanding their lives. I say this as someone who grew up in a poor family in Detroit. I didn’t experience the level of decline, disinvestment, and vacancy that Detroit has now. I have as much to learn as anyone.

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Tonya Allen is the president & CEO of The Skillman Foundation. Follow her on Twitter at @allen_tonya.