Reimagining the Meanings of Service on the Streets of Detroit

Faculty members doing public humanities service for the community and the university have to make sure that they themselves aren’t ill-served.
By Maria Cotera

A few months ago, I found myself at a local haunt in southwest Detroit, a coffeehouse on the corner of Vernor and Scotten. I had ducked in to grab a café con leche before my regular meeting with community partners to discuss the future of a joint project: El Museo del Norte, a museum and cultural center focused on Latino life in the Midwest. As I was leaving the coffeehouse, I ran into an acquaintance from Wayne State University. When I told him that I was running off to a meeting to discuss the museum project, he made an offhand quip about my university affiliation: “Ah, yes, you come from the University of Michigan, home of drive-by research.”

The joke, like all other such speech acts, was funny because it touched on an element of truth: the success of partnerships between universities and communities, especially partnerships involving Research I universities, is often undermined by divergent goals and timetables. Whereas a community organization might imagine its timetable for achieving a certain goal (in this case a museum and cultural center) in years or even decades, the goals of faculty members working at high-pressure institutions might be relatively short-term and even provisional, ranging from the production of an article, book, or white paper to the development of a service-learning class or undergraduate research experience. While one set of goals places the community at the center, and is therefore focused on outcomes that serve the community, the other must weigh the professional demands of the institution to publish, to teach, to create first-class research. This view of the variant demands of service to communities outside the university and the demands of research within it is, of course, an abstraction, and because it is an abstraction it cannot possibly encompass the complex and varied nature of such partnerships. But it nevertheless captures the central anxiety that structures most institutional approaches to community service, even as it illuminates the central tension that underlies the humor in my acquaintance’s quip.

Indeed, this view of opposing community and university goals is especially strong in “new” arenas for community-engaged scholarship—like the humanities— that lack both the long-standing research models and the reward systems available to scholars in professional fields like education, public health, and social work. In these fields, collaborative, communitycentered scholarship has been central to the development of methodologies, practices, and theories that integrate scholarly and community work, and it has shaped the system of rewards (tenure, merit pay raises, research funding) that make life in the academy viable. By contrast, in the humanities, community-centered and collaborative research is seen, more often than not, as a distraction from serious scholarship, and consequently is rarely rewarded. And though some of the norms regarding areas of legitimate inquiry, methodology, and audience are shifting in response to the increasing scarcity of tenure-track jobs and the economic pressures on university presses, humanistic scholarship still conjures images of the scholar ensconced in the archive, the library, or the study, gleaning arcane bits of insight from relatively stable cultural forms—insight that is framed as a unique and singular “contribution to the field.” This vision of humanistic scholarly work seems very far away from the kind of work that sustains a community project: the messy collaborations and dialogues, the delicate networking between multiple domains of power, the inevitable translational practices that make one’s scholarly research legible to the community, and, vice versa, one’s community work legible to the academy— not to mention the hundreds of e-mails, phone calls, and meetings; the grant writing, exhibition design, and publicity and marketing; and all the other minutia involved in getting a project like El Museo del Norte off the ground. This is work, but is it service? And to whom?

New Life for an Old Dream

The Museo del Norte project is both a grassroots community initiative and an effort to build a sustainable relationship between the state’s flagship institution and its surrounding Latino community. The origins of the project are in the community of southwest Detroit, which has been home to a long-standing though largely ignored Latino presence. This presence has been documented by scholars like Zaragosa Vargas (Proletarians of the North), Dionisio Valdes (Al Norte: Agricultural Workers in the Great Lakes Region), and others. But it has also been preserved by grassroots community endeavors, including the important work of cultural organizations like the Comité Patriótico Mexicano, an organization active since at least the 1940s that supports Mexican cultural life in Detroit through public events like the annual Cinco de Mayo celebration, and Fronteras Norteñas, an organization founded in 1998 by community organizer and public historian Elena Herrada to document the massive deportation of Mexicans from Michigan in the 1930s. Indeed, it was Herrada’s public history project (which resulted in a documentary film and several transnational encuentros between repatriated citizens who had returned to Detroit and their counterparts who remained in Mexico) that gave birth to this particular iteration of the museum project.

I say this “iteration” because the idea of a “Latin American” museum in Detroit was not new when we We wanted to shift the tone of the conversations about Detroit, insert the city’s Latinos into that dialogue, and claim a space for them, both in terms of the city’s “deep history” and in terms of its future. initiated the project in 2009. In fact, culture workers in the area had long discussed the need for a museum that preserved the history of Latinas and Latinos. In the 1960s, Lucy Gadjec, an entrepreneur involved in several social service and cultural organizations (La Sed, Comité Patriótico Mexicano), had even established a small storefront museum, El Museo Indigenista, in one of the buildings she owned. By 2005, these discussions had culminated in a community-led feasibility study to investigate the creation of a “Michigan Museum of Native Latin American Cultures,” but the demanding logistics associated with the establishment of a museum of national standing derailed the project.

In 2009, when Elena Herrada, Aimee Von Bokel (an American culture graduate student who served as project manager during our first year), and I first called the community together to discuss reviving the museum idea, we understood that we were doing so in the midst of an extremely complex moment in the history of Detroit. The city had become a symbol in multiple narratives about the “decline” of postindustrial society as well as possible approaches to the revival of urban culture. These narratives all too frequently centered on the drama of black-white relations, which made invisible the complexity of Detroit’s multiethnic history and misrepresented the role that ethnic communities—particularly Latino and Arab American communities—have played (and continue to play) in the life of Detroit. Moreover, southwest Detroit’s mostly Mexican Latino population was under constant threat from a constellation of political, social, and economic forces, including the rise of a localized nonprofit industrial complex, which increasingly pulled foundation dollars away from grassroots Latino-led initiatives and created deep divisions between community organizers who had once worked together; pervasive media depictions of Detroit as a hollowed-out wasteland, which generally ignored the entrepreneurial vibrancy of ethnic enclaves like southwest Detroit; and yet another round of urban restructuring in the form of Detroit mayor Dave Bing’s ambitious but potentially dangerous plan to “rightsize” the sprawling city.

The Challenge of Public Humanities

The public humanities project we envisioned, which was funded by the University of Michigan’s Arts of Citizenship program, involved a yearlong community conversation about the role of museums in public life and the centrality of history and storytelling to cultural citizenship and belonging. We wanted to shift the tone of the conversations about Detroit, insert the city’s Latinos into that dialogue, and claim a space for them, both in terms of the city’s “deep history” and in terms of its future. Our dialogue between university and community not only engendered a great deal of excitement about the role that a Latino museum could play in enriching and sustaining Latino communities in Detroit and throughout Michigan; it also revealed the multiple tensions of life in a city dominated by outside interests and entrenched political power structures that continue to marginalize the growing Latino community.

Given this complex social and political landscape, it is not surprising that we initially encountered distrust about yet another “outside” force—this time the University of Michigan—coming in to “save” southwest Detroit. Working through these feelings of distrust and developing a relationship of reciprocity between the university and the community were tasks in themselves, but they were made even more challenging by the shifting institutional demands of the university. When the museum project was initiated, our primary funding source, the Arts of Citizenship program, was undergoing its own sea change. Originally focused on encouraging university-based scholars and artists to engage in public humanities projects that resulted in scholarly products that would also benefit the communities where they were elaborated, the Arts of Citizenship program was housed within the Ginsberg Center for Community Service Learning and funded by the provost’s office. Over the course of our yearlong grant, the Arts of Citizenship program underwent an institutional review of its mission. When the provost’s office decided to withdraw its financial support, the dean of the Rackham Graduate School stepped in to save the program, shifting its management and oversight into the graduate school.

With this change came a shift in funding priorities and, not surprisingly, a shift in how faculty service was envisioned in community-university partnerships like El Museo del Norte. Our rationale for funding, which had centered on scholarly products and community outcomes, now shifted toward graduate student training. In practical terms, this meant that the bulk of our minimal funds would go to training and compensation for graduate students. In some ways the shift was good for our project, enabling the extension of our grant beyond the initial two-year limit and, perhaps more important, acknowledging the real work that graduate students like Aimee Von Bokel and later Jennifer Garcia Peacock (who took over after Aimee left the project to write her dissertation) were doing to advance the goals of the museum and compensating them for that work. But the shift in priorities also presented new challenges for the project.

While the funds to continue graduate student management of the project helped us to move it forward, they also raised questions among our community partners (now including CLAVE, an organization dedicated to the preservation of Latino arts and culture) as to whom, exactly, the project was serving. The Herculean efforts of our graduate student project managers to sustain and nurture the initiative mitigated these concerns, but the questions of our partners nevertheless pointed to a fundamental contradiction in the newly envisioned Arts of Citizenship program: Was the goal of public humanities at the University of Michigan to develop humanistic scholarship in the public domain, or was it to develop a new cadre of academically trained culture workers who might find jobs in the public humanities either within or outside the academy? And while the shift indicated a welcome acknowledgment by the university of public humanities as a viable career path that deserves attention and support within its graduate programs, it also recalibrated the ways faculty labor in public humanities projects could be imagined. Indeed, in this new model of public humanities as a professional training ground for graduate students, faculty labor in the community risked being made even more invisible.

I have found the work of mentoring graduate students as they engage with the communities they care deeply about to be as enriching as my own work building relationships with a community that I have come to see as my own. But it would be foolish to imagine that the work any of us does to mentor graduate students is adequately compensated, and this is especially true for faculty members from underrepresented groups, who spend long hours with students talking about the things that sustain us, things that don’t always involve classroom work, oral exams, or dissertations. It would be equally foolish to believe that community work, which doesn’t always involve the production of institutionally “legible” products like articles, books, or conference papers, is visible (much less financially compensated) within institutions increasingly guided by economic measures of productivity. For some scholars in ethnic studies, which has a long tradition of community-engaged scholarship, this fundamental problem has determined their advancement in the field, especially if they find themselves in institutions that envision productivity strictly in terms of research and publication.

The Intersection of Service and Scholarship

In the context of the institution, the work that we humanists do in the community is often figured as a labor of love, something we do outside of our service to the professional communities that we inhabit but which enriches our intellectual lives in ways that are often hard to tabulate. For example, while my work in Detroit has not led to an obvious research trajectory focused on the history of Latinos in Michigan or to a scholarly analysis of the cultural work that museums do in communities (other scholars, far better equipped than I, have done and are doing this work already), it has transformed my perspective on Latino communities and led me to ask different kinds of questions in my research and teaching. It has expanded my horizons in ways that bring subtlety and nuance to my work, which is just another way of saying that it has made me a better scholar. The lines between service and scholarship blur here, and in some ways, I resist the notion that such work must be measured and compensated, because to do so would be to concretize a divide that is, after all, a product of rigid institutional frames that separate the work we do as scholars from the ways we inhabit the communities to which our scholarship should matter. There are, however, institutional models that recognize the imbrication of our labors within and outside of the academy.

Indeed, in the 1960s and 1970s, emergent ethnic studies programs placed community relations and student support at the center of their institutional agendas. For example, El Plan de Santa Barbara, the founding document of the radical Chicano student organization Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA), called for the establishment of programs and departments that radically reenvisioned the relationship between the university and the barrio:

Colleges and universities in the past have existed in an aura of omnipotence and infallibility. It is time that they be made responsible and responsive to the communities in which they are located or whose members they serve. . . . Community members should serve on all programs related to Chicano interests. In addition to this, all attempts must be made to take the college and university to the barrio, whether it be in the form of classes giving college credit or community centers financed by the school for the use of community organizations and groups. Also, the barrio must be brought to the campus, whether it be for special programs or ongoing services which the school provides for the people of the barrio. The idea must be made clear to the people of the barrio that they own the schools and the schools and all their resources are at their disposal.

The directives of El Plan de Santa Barbara shaped the institutional and scholarly agendas of many early Chicano studies programs and departments, which responded to its call to eradicate the “the artificial distinction” that existed between “students and the community” by developing student support programs, “barrio schools,” and hiring and promotion practices that acknowledged community work as essential to professional advancement. While these programs challenged the separation between universities and the surrounding community, and called for greater accountability between Chicano and Chicana scholars and the communities they studied, they were also subject to crippling ideological battles over the nature and purpose of scholarly inquiry. Since those early days, Chicano studies programs and departments have retreated from the systems of community engagement and accountability called for in El Plan de Santa Barbara and increasingly turned toward more traditional institutional models in which research and publication are envisioned as the primary duties of tenure-track faculty members. Many have argued that while this process of institutionalization has brought credibility to Chicano and Latino studies as scholarly pursuits, it has also resulted in the loss of the fields’ insurgent ethos and its transformational potential.

So where does this leave us today? With the strain of an ever-constricting academic job market and the ever-growing need for responsible institutions of higher education to step in and serve communities that have been left behind by declining federal and state revenues, scholars may soon find themselves at a turning point as profound as the one that gave rise to the new visions of engaged scholarship proposed in El Plan de Santa Barbara. And while other forces, primarily economic but also ideological, are placing increasing pressures on institutions to find ways to monetize humanistic scholarship, there will always be some things that we do in the name of our scholarship and personal commitments that defy corporate models of valuation, which tend to focus on “products” and “productivity.” Can I expect the university to acknowledge and adequately compensate me for the time I put into something as delicate as forging relationships of trust and reciprocity within a community that it has largely ignored, or worse, objectified? Are there “metrics” that can be used to judge my commitment to a process that may result in something as ephemeral as an expanded sensibility to the communities with which I share scholarly and familial ties? And in the event that our wild dream of a Latino museum in Detroit is realized, can I, or the University of Michigan, claim to be an author of a “product” so long in the making, a dream-place of culture, sustenance, and survival that generations of Detroiters have labored to make a reality?

These things can’t be precisely measured in a salary or promotion meeting, but my work with the Latino community of southwest Detroit has never been about professional advancement; it has been about survival (theirs and mine). In and through our exchange I work to heal the split between the places where I first developed the desire to know and the places that shaped that desire into authorized ways of knowing. For many of us in the academy, community work represents a return—a way of giving something back to the communities that helped to make us the scholars we are today. But it also involves a profound process of unlearning, a process that reclaims what we have always known in our bones from the discourses and spaces that have transformed that knowledge into a product available to only a select few. Which is to say that I do this work because it is the only way I can imagine being in this world, or rather being in these two worlds, which are currently divided but might someday come together again.

Maria Cotera is associate professor of women’s studies and American culture at the University of Michigan. Her book Native Speakers: Zora Neale Hurston, Ella Cara Deloria, Jovita González, and the Poetics of Culture was awarded the Gloria Anzaldúa book prize by the National Women’s Studies Association in 2009, and she is currently working on Chicana por mi Raza, a national digital humanities project. Her e-mail address is

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