3/03/2015 Tom Knapp

Mr. Eddy's Detroit

This magazine article is part of Winter 2015 / Issue 80

Bart Eddy was on a Jack Kerouac-style, open-ended journey when he ended up in Detroit. The 1964 graduate of Franklin & Marshall College had no destination in mind when he set out to see the world. But when he got to Detroit in the 1980s, for all its economic depression, flagging industry and socio-racial strife, it felt like home.

He decided to stay and make a difference, using young people as his canvas.

“We all have a calling in life,” he says. “Let’s see if there’s a possibility to awaken that calling.”

Formerly the pinnacle of American industry fueled largely by automobile manufacturing, Detroit now is a poster child for urban decline. It once had the highest per-capita income in the U.S.; now, it’s plagued with crime, unemployment, poverty and depressed property values. Over decades, entire neighborhoods were abandoned and the city’s population plummeted as people fled a sinking ship.

Those who remain are trying to rebuild and revitalize. After declaring bankruptcy in July 2013, the city regained control of its finances in December 2014. New investments focused on entertainment, including sports stadiums and casinos.

But Brightmoor, in northwest Detroit, faces hurdles.

“By any measure, the Brightmoor neighborhood is one of the city’s worst,” John Carlisle wrote in 2009 for Detroit’s Metro Times. “It began in the 1920s as a planned community of cheap housing for autoworkers from the South. It devolved over the years into four square miles of wasteland.

“Ghetto stereotypes thrive here—broad-daylight drug dealing, pre-teen pregnancies, long-gone or never-known fathers, and houses falling apart or giving way to vacant lots. A third of its roughly 20,000 residents are under 18, and almost four out of five of them won’t graduate high school. Kids grow up here seeing failure of one kind or another everywhere.”

It drew Eddy in like a moth to flame. After 15 years of community activism and service in the city, he founded Detroit Community High School (now known as Detroit Community Schools) in 1997, offering project-based learning to help students make a connection between what they're doing in the classroom and what’s going on in their lives. He’s been helping students change their lives—and transform their city—ever since. The work has drawn praise from media outlets and educators around the world, from Detroit to Australia.

“This was not about copying what someone else was doing. This was about self-discovery, and through that self-discovery making a connection with what can be done in the world. It took me a long time to reach that point,” Eddy says. “I was 40, and it suddenly came to me in a flash: I am working with young people, and I am working in Detroit… Every young person that stands before you has a calling in life. We’re not here without purpose. What the educator must do is unlock those doors for those young people.”

A Teacher’s Mission

Eddy grew up in Weston, Mass., near Boston. He decided to attend F&M as a pre-med student but quickly decided that wasn't his track. He graduated with a major in English but had no career path in mind.

“I was not ready to focus in that way at that time,” he explains. “I decided to go out and meet the world. This was around the time of Jack Kerouac, so I hit the road.”

Eddy got involved in anti-war, civil rights and social equity movements. He worked for a while as a social worker and employment counselor in New York City, stumped for peace in Harlem, homesteaded in Colorado, gardened, refinished furniture, picked apples and did odd jobs where he found them. He spent time in California, North Carolina and the Pacific Northwest. Around 1970, he traveled the southwest administering surveys.

All of this, he says, “led to a certain point in my life where I had to say, ‘Wait a minute, I have all of this experience, learning to work with my hands. What am I going to do with this?’”

He was interested in the Waldorf model of education, which aims to create well-rounded students through a broad curriculum, so he enrolled in the Waldorf Institute of Southeastern Michigan. He chose Detroit, he says, only “because I had never been in the middle of the country before.” He then studied leadership, group development and organization in England.

“Really it was there, in England, that I realized I had an affinity for working with young people,” Eddy says. “I was working with high school leavers—they don’t call them ‘dropouts’ there—kids who found no meaning in a regular classroom.”

An internship in Holland exposed Eddy to “hand-oriented, craft-oriented” methods of engaging disaffected youngsters. “I was pretty much hooked,” he says. “I decided to go back to Detroit, and I decided I was going to create something with young people. I didn’t know yet how I was going to do that.”

He returned in 1982 with a mission, working initially on summer youth and training programs through a downtown church.

“That was pretty much the start of the Reagan era. It was not easy then to get funding for social projects,” he says. “It became apparent to me that the only way I was going to make any kind of impact was to get serious. If anything was going to happen, I had to get my teaching certificate and start my own school. You can’t just work summers with kids and make a difference.”

Eddy got his master’s at Detroit’s Wayne State University, writing a thesis on designing an urban high school. From 1988 to 1996 he taught at the Detroit Waldorf. He also put down roots, marrying in 1986, having children in 1988 and 1991.

Then the charter school movement got traction, and everything changed for Eddy. “Suddenly there was this possibility for teachers to start their own schools,” he says.

Working Toward A Better City

Eddy calls his work “Entrepreneurship in Action.” Focusing on standardized tests is “the tragedy of modern education,” he says. At its outset, the mission of his charter school was to balance qualities that are academic, artistic and practical. He now pursues that mission after school, on weekends, and through summer youth employment.

“One of the larger problems of education that you’ll see consistently in our youth is a lack of engagement in the traditional classroom setting,” he says. “You see kids who are bored, distracted, sometimes disruptive in the classroom. When you can engage them, you can give them some meaning, some encouragement, a sense of wellbeing and self-worth, and the knowledge they are doing something that will help their community.”

Project-based learning helps students develop a work ethic, he says. “The best way to develop a work ethic is awaken in a young person something that they love to do. That doesn’t take a lot of searching, really. Young people love to do lots of things.”

Find that link, he says, “and they begin to feel connected.”

He recalls a young man he worked with in 2011, clearing land for a park in a blighted neighborhood. “I asked him, ‘Kyle, what do you think we’re doing out here?’ He said, ‘We are taking something hideous and making it beautiful.’ He got it. Their lives are being impacted when they know they are involved in the transformation of their city.”

Besides the academics, Eddy’s students learn trades. They even sell their wares and take home a paycheck for their efforts.

Staples of the school include printing T-shirts, rebuilding industrial tricycles, carving signs and cultivating a beautiful market garden. “These are entrepreneurial endeavors,” he says. “In the last three years, we’ve done about $15,000 in business.”

A companion program offers a place for graduates who still need direction. “They need time to ready themselves; they need to earn money,” he says. “They have to be exposed to the world. They need more time for their imaginations to develop and grow.”

The Key to Change

An associate professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Art & Design, Nick Tobier is tasked with “getting students out of the school, off the campus and into the world to put some of their skills to the test in a real-world situation.” Eddy, he says, is “a big hero for me, and a frequent collaborator.”

They met in 2009. Serendipitously, Tobier was looking “for a partner who shared some of the same utopian visions of what education could be. Not so much higher test scores, but engaging people with their hands.”

Tobier worked for a year with Eddy’s students before introducing university students into the program. Their first project was crafting bicycle trailers from bamboo. Since then, students have started a magazine, fashion blog and silkscreen business. They built a mobile pizza oven. They make furniture out of abandoned tires and solar-powered bike lights from discarded plastic bottles, all while learning skills, earning money and gaining confidence.

“If they don’t choose to go to college, they can go right into business,” Tobier says. “That’s one of the great gifts Bart has: training kids to use their hands and giving them the self-confidence to make good decisions about their lives. This guy has undying patience. ... Other people might get frustrated, or move to a better-funded district, but Bart is committed. It's infectious.”

The program is equally beneficial to his university students, Tobier insists. “At some point in our educations, the creativity is squeezed out of us. We worry about being able to make a living,” he says. Working with Eddy’s kids helps them “reconnect with that exuberance.”

Another close colleague of Eddy’s is Dennis Talbert, chairman and CEO of Brightmoor Community Center. “I have known Bart Eddy very intimately about five years,” Talbert muses. “But Bart Eddy is a legend in Brightmoor. I’ve known of him for 10-plus years.”

Education is the key to change, Talbert believes, and Eddy makes a difference with “hands-on, active learning experiences” while recognizing that children learn differently. “He is working in the poorest community in the Midwest, and he is seeing results,” Talbert enthuses. “Bart is bringing something new to the table, and he is fearless.”

Riet Schumack promotes urban gardening through Neighbors Building Brightmoor. Her program, like Eddy’s, teaches kids “to take responsibility for their lives and to work with the gifts that they have to create something.” For instance, youngsters use the Brightmoor Youth Garden to grow vegetables, sell them at market and pocket the profits.

Their work, Schumack says, “addresses an enormous gap in youth development. There’s lots of emphasis on college-bound programs, but frankly we have a large population of children who are not able or willing to go to college. ... However, this city always needs skilled tradesmen. It always needs entrepreneurs.”

Eddy, she says, “really, really, really believes in what he does, and he believes in the children. He loves these children, he wants them to succeed. And he’ll never give up. These kids need that—someone to believe in them so they can start believing in themselves.”

‘He Turned My Life Around’

Tim Alexander, who started at Detroit Community in 10th grade and graduated last June, is still a little amazed that he—with Eddy’s help—will soon open his own bicycle repair and rehabilitation shop.

“I’ll say this: I really didn’t have any experience, any communication skills or experience working in groups,” Alexander says. “When I got into his program, he introduced me to ... well, everything. He turned my life around.”

Alexander admits he was heading down a negative path. “But Mr. Eddy, he’s very solid. He always knows how to make the best out of something. ... We need more people like Mr. Eddy.”

Lashay Pearson graduated from Detroit Community in 2013. This past summer she traveled with Eddy to China, through Sunbridge International Collaborative—a nonprofit Eddy helped found in partnership with Han Fang, a master’s degree colleague in landscape architecture from Tsinghua University—where she and other students ran woodworking workshops. Now, she studies criminal justice at Central Michigan University. She fondly recalls her first year with Eddy.

“He started us off making signs,” she says. “Soon we were landscaping, clearing out vacant lots, cutting grass, painting houses. I never thought I’d be able to do it.”

Eddy’s program opened new opportunities, Pearson says. “I’m a different person. I see things differently. ... I love Mr. Eddy. He’s a great role model, always someone I can call if I need help.”

Despite the uphill battle that is Detroit, Eddy says he’ll do what he can. “I’m looking at it in a very positive way, a very exciting way,” he says. “Detroit is, in my mind, one of those threshold places that is imagining a new future that will have significance for many other places in the United States. Maybe the world.”

Detroit has long had a reputation for violence, economic imbalances and racial unrest, he adds.

“It bothers me intensely: the income disparities, job disparities, between what are really two separate cultures,” Eddy says. “When I came back to Detroit, I did not have a huge connection with the city. I was compelled—that’s all I can say,” he recalls. “A part of me wanted to make that connection with the people who had lives in the city, who had to live there on a daily basis, and look to see if there was another way to work together.

“Now there is new momentum. The center of the city is experiencing a rebirth. New businesses are moving in. The imagination is there for a different kind of city.”


Classmates and friends wishing to connect with Bart Eddy ’64 can email him at barteddy45@gmail.com.

Photos: Dave Debalko 
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“The best way to develop a work ethic is awaken in a young person something that they love to do. That doesn’t take a lot of searching, really. Young people love to do lots of things.”
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