'Bringing Up Detroit' will tell full story of raising kids in the city

The full story of what it's like to raise children in the city of Detroit is not one that's often told. That's why we're excited to partner with Michigan Radio for a new year-long reporting series called Bringing Up Detroit. I chatted with producer Zak Rosen about what listeners can expect to hear through this series, which debuts today on Michigan Radio's stations during All Things Considered and Morning Edition.

KJ: Tell me about Bringing Up Detroit

ZR: It’s a documentary series on public radio that explores the inner lives of three Detroit families. The idea is I will be going back for interviews several times and get to know the dynamics in the homes and  the struggles as these families navigate the school system and other aspects of family life, like work, transportation, dinner. What I’ve found is you can’t talk about education without talking about the circumstances at home, and you and can’t talk about home without talking about work, and you can’t talk about work without talking about school. So this is an attempt to try to create a holistic picture of a whole family.

KJ: What interested you in this project?

ZR: I did my first long-form documentary in 2011, and that was first time I had a chance to go back for follow-up interviews. That was really impactful for me, because you can’t really get to know someone by spending an hour with then. The more time you spend with someone, the more their story opens up, and I realized that is the kind of storytelling I wanted to be doing. That was the seed of the kind of documentary work this is, and what made me want to do this series is the work I did at the (James and Grace Lee) Boggs school. I met a lot of families there, and thought, you know, I would spend year at this school telling its story, and I could deep dive and really get to know people. But even focusing on one school was too large for my ambitions. This series enable me to focus on a few families and take great pains to get to know what they are going through.

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Christopher and Ahzanae Gaston, walking home from school. // Photo courtesy of Zak Rosen

KJ: What kind of stories are you hoping to tell?

ZR: I think each story will sound different. The first is basically told by the grandmother of the family -- she is the glue of the family. She lives with her daughter and her daughter’s six kids. The story is really about how much they love their neighborhood school. But the family is on the verge of being evicted because the daughter lost her job. As much as they love school, they’re in jeopardy of kids not being able to go there, because they might have to move somewhere else. And they don’t have a car. Right now, the kids live within walking distance of school; they don’t like the neighborhood, but the school is keeping them there. And now they are in jeopardy of having to move. Their story will be told over the course of few weeks. We’ll find out, are they able to stay in their house? I don’t know where the story is going – that’s I think what makes it compelling.

KJ: What can you tell us about the other families you’re portrayed?

ZR: Another family is the Changs. They live in Osborn. A lot of Hmong families who used to live in Osborn have moved out to Warren and Center Line and Sterling Heights. Hmong people came in the neighborhood in the late 70s, and now there are just a handful of Hmong students left at Osborn High School. The Chang family has two kids at Osborn. Micah is the main character we will follow. She’s in 10th grade and is the only Hmong student in the whole grade. Her Dad went there when Hmongs made up a third of the student body at Osborn High. So we’ll be telling that story over a few generations: how the Hmongs ended up in Detroit, how they settled in Osborn, and then the out-migration story in general, about how they came for jobs but left for opportunities outside of Detroit. The Changs are interesting because they actually lived in Warren for a while, but the dad lost his job during recession, so it was a case of reverse migration, where they moved back to Detroit.

The third family are the Wrights. They were at Oakman Elementary, which was a school for anyone, but one that was particularly great for special needs. It closed in 2013. So I’ll be following a family who loved Oakman and was sad to see it close, and following what they’re doing in the wake of that closure and how they are dealing with new school, which is Henderson. It’s also a single-parent father family, which is a story we don’t often hear. This is a dad who is extraordinarily dedicated to his son, who has a disability. So we’ll be picking up with them in the wake of the closure and figuring out where they will take his kid next.  

KJ: What have you learned so far about bringing up kids in Detroit?

ZR: Good question. It’s kind of too early to have learned much other than parents are super dedicated. You hear that a lot, and it’s kind of become a trope that Detroiters are resilient, but it is so true. To see what families find themselves in and what they do to keep the lights on, make enough to pay rent, doing what they can so kids can have more opportunities than them, it’s amazing. A lot of these parents did not attend college themselves, but they’re devoted to getting their kids there.

Follow the series on Michigan Radio's web site here.

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