U-M story lab to amplify Detroit River narratives

Michigan News

Two years in the making, the Detroit River Story Lab lifts off at the University of Michigan this semester with grant-funded partnerships and several multidisciplinary courses devoted to the international waterway’s long and deep store of sustaining narratives, past and present.  

As envisioned by David Porter, professor of English and comparative literature, the multiyear project spans both sides of the river and collaborates with many groups including the Detroit River Project, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, National Park Service, Dossin Great Lakes Museum, Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and others.  

The Story Lab, which grew out of the recent Great Lakes Theme Semester on which Porter also worked, was awarded $50,000 as part of the Contronting and Combating Racism grants from the Center for Social Solutions and Poverty Solutions at U-M earlier this month. The grants will go toward supporting community efforts. 

“The project sets out to develop creative ways to leverage the resources of the university community to help research and amplify stories of the Detroit River, and to make the rich history and current challenges facing the river and adjoining communities more present, more palpable, more real,” he said. “For a long time, the importance of the river to the history and identity of our region has been underrecognized.” 

Porter said that the idea to harness the Detroit River story for current and future generations occurred to him after stumbling on a news story about Kimberly Simmons. She is the executive director and president of the Detroit River Project, a public history organization, and a local activist, historian and Underground Railroad descendent.  

“One of the more eye-catching objectives of the Detroit River Project is to secure  UNESCO World Heritage Site designation on the grounds of its role in the Underground Railroad,” Porter said. “As a vision, I find this incredibly compelling as a way to make the river’s story more accessible and meaningful to more people.” 

Students will hear from Simmons and Irene Moore Davis, who both contributed to the 2016 book “A Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Resistance, and the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River Borderland,” and others.

The book is being used by three U-M classes this semester. In partnership with the Detroit River Story Lab, the Michigan Engaging Community through the Classroom at Taubman College has coordinated a number of courses this semester to focus on the Detroit River’s history. MECC brings together students from different disciplines to work on stakeholder-based community projects. 

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