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The Marygrove Partnership: An unprecedented model of neighborhood revitalization


Thank-you, Sister Jane. Let me begin by expressing our profound gratitude to you and the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, for your principled, courageous, and steadfast leadership during the trying path Marygrove College has traveled over the last two years.  You have embodied the century-long commitment of the Sister to expanding the life opportunities for tens of thousands of Detroiters who have passed through these gates . . . and to making Marygrove College a pillar of this neighborhood.

We have a lot to celebrate today, but we should not lose sight of the central role that these amazing, courageous women have played in bringing us here.

And thanks to each of you for being here this morning, as well.


As the presence of so many community members here today suggests, Northwest Detroit – and particularly Bagley, Fitzgerald and neighboring communities – are vitally important to this city. I also believe that these neighborhoods will soon stand as a potent example to the nation of Detroit’s singular commitment to balanced, equitable neighborhood development. We’ll hear from the speakers assembled here just what that looks like.

Today is about new possibilities. As the facilitator of a partnership that has been two years in the making, The Kresge Foundation is thrilled we can finally share the full details with you.

Detroit’s future now includes a cradle-to-career campus that brings an inter-braided, coordinated approach to educating students – from early childhood to kindergarten, through high school, and beyond.

Today, we also bear witness to a new level of engagement in Detroit by one of the world’s premier institutions of higher education. And that, in the city where it was founded more than 200 years ago. It gives special meaning to the term Detroit Homecoming.

We will see emerge on this campus a new Teaching Residency Program committed to training teacher-leaders uniquely prepared to enter classrooms in Detroit and across the nation.

And we are marching down this road with you – community residents – as we locate exemplary education at the heart of your neighborhood’s revitalization.

It fair to ask, “Will it work?”

The answer is, unequivocally, “Yes.”

Here’s why. When Kresge and others began a concerted effort a decade ago to invest in downtown Detroit, in the Riverfront, and in Midtown, there were many – skeptics and naysayers alike – who asked the same question.

To be sure, we expressed confidence that new public, private, and philanthropic partnerships could attract new ideas, resources, and vigor to the city’s core . . . and that that kind of success would be a building block for the city’s wider re-birth and renewal.

But there were no guarantees that we were right. All we could do was to say, “It has to work, and we will bend every effort until it does.”

We also knew that as monumental as these early bets were, they would ultimately not be enough. A vibrant core is essential – to build tax base, to put people to work, to demonstrate that we could accomplish big, transformational projects. But it is simply insufficient unless and until health and stability and vibrancy radiates into every Detroit neighborhood, touching all city residents.

Well, the time for that pivot to the neighborhoods is now. You see it in every move Mayor Duggan’s administration makes, crystalized in the transformational Strategic Neighborhood Fund. And you see it in Kresge’s investments over the last number of years to promote neighborhood small business development, strengthen community development organizations, underwrite arts and cultural activities, support early childhood development, and fund granular neighborhood revitalization projects.

Our belief in the neighborhoods in Northwest Detroit led to the formation three years ago of the Live6 Alliance. Anchored by the University of Detroit Mercy and its gifted president Dr. Antoine Garibaldi, the Live6 Alliance was created to stabilize the neighborhood where it needs steadying, to enhance this geography’s unique sense of place, and to spur new investment.

Since the Live6 Alliance launched in 2015, we’ve seen Mayor Duggan and the city of Detroit initiate the ambitious Fitzgerald Forward project to renovate and rehab vacant houses. . . . We’ve joined with philanthropic partners such as J.P. Morgan Chase on commercial corridor revitalization. . . . We’ve brought to Detroit a national philanthropic consortium called Reimagining the Civic Commons to partner with the city in creating a greenway of housing and open space linking this campus to UD Mercy.

Kresge’s commitment to the Livernois-McNichols community framed our thinking 2½ years ago when I received a call from Dr. Elizabeth Burns, president of Marygrove College, asking if we could convene Detroit foundations to consider helping Marygrove turn a corner. What none of us could know – what Dr. Burns didn’t realize at the time – was That her appeal would become a request for life-support for an institution beset by years of falling enrollment and crushing debt.

It was unfathomable that Marygrove’s 90-year legacy as a progressive educational force might come to an end. It was inconceivable that this gorgeous 53-acre campus could go dark just as the surrounding community was starting to gain momentum. And Yet, without philanthropic help, the college would have wound up dismembered in a bankruptcy, or, almost as frightening, immobilized for years under a cloud of creditor litigation.

Kresge accordingly concluded that Someone had to step up immediately, and that we had the necessary tools to do that.

Over the next 18 months, we stood alongside the college administration as they made some of the most difficult decisions imaginable. The largest and most painful: ending Marygrove’s undergraduate programs to reposition itself as a graduate-level and certificate-granting institution.

The pain-points along the way were excruciating. Kresge used its financial team to restructure the college’s most pressing debts and to stave off creditors. We made grants to maintain academic and campus operations. We cushioned the transitions for faculty, staff, and students as the college ended undergraduate studies and evolved a new focus on graduate-level education. And we helped establish the Marygrove Conservancy to steward this campus on behalf of the community.

All in, it was a $16 million investment.

Even as Marygrove closed out one chapter of its history, however, a silver lining began to appear – an opportunity to preserve, and perhaps even elevate, Marygrove’s educational and community-centered legacy.

At Marygrove’s request, we sought out organizations and institutions to help think through the possibilities. Big ideas and small ideas. Crazy ideas and really thoughtful ideas. But One idea eventually emerged that was so powerfully compelling . . . so deeply resonant with Marygrove’s legacy . . . that we knew instantly that it was correct. We committed to using all our imagination and resources to bring it to life.

And when I say “we,” I simply have to pause and salute, in particular, one of “us.”

A key architect of our neighborhoods strategy, and an indispensable, passionately committed driver to this project in this neighborhood has been Kresge Detroit Program Managing Director Wendy Lewis Jackson.

In her decade at Kresge, she has been indefatigable through every dark hour – from the financial crisis, to the bankruptcy, to Marygrove’s near-death experience.  Yet she is ever-focused on the promise of what life in this city can be.

Earlier, I spoke of Kresge’s pivot to neighborhoods. Wendy has been the pivot point, the fulcrum, in that shift.

She works not only for the city, but she is of the city, living here, raising her daughters here and sending them to DPS where her husband is a social worker.  Kresge’s commitments to Detroit’s neighborhoods and racial equity are lived out in her leadership of the Detroit Program team. Thank-you, Wendy, for what we are here to announce.

I’m pleased to share today that Kresge, the University of Michigan, the Detroit Public Schools Community District, and Starfish Family Services have made a formal commitment to birth a new Marygrove partnership – to create an unprecedented model of neighborhood revitalization centered on the programmatic inter-twining of multiple educational investments on a single campus.

We envision that when at full capacity in a few years, this will be a campus serving more than 1,000 students and their families … from early childhood through high school and beyond.

Kresge will build a state-of-the-art early childhood facility just east of where we sit – its programming will be a model for whole-child and whole-family support for our youngest learners.  And in close collaboration with our partners in the Hope Starts Here initiative, that center will become a hub of supports and wrap-around services for early childhood centers throughout the Livernois-McNichols community.

We will renovate the former Bates Academy, which stands on the southeast corner of this campus, as the site of the extraordinarily innovative collaboration between the Detroit Public Schools and the University of Michigan you’ll hear about in a moment.

To these ends, Kresge is committing another $50 million over the next seven years for capital costs and operating funds to Marygrove College, the Marygrove Conservancy, and the early childhood center. This is one of the foundation’s largest investments in its almost 100-year history. Its size and import stand on par with our lead investments in the Detroit Riverfront, in the revitalization of Midtown, in the creation of M-1 RAIL, and in the Grand Bargain that brought the city out of bankruptcy.

To my knowledge, this commitment marks the largest philanthropic investment ever to a single neighborhood revitalization effort in Detroit.

We hear a lot of talk about “two Detroits.”

We hear talk about a burgeoning, ever-more-prosperous downtown and Midtown, juxtaposed with talk about the rest of the city falling further behind.

There are painful realities underneath those narratives.

And yet, that reductive, binary mindset obscures and does disservice to the tireless tenacity, creativity, and passion of countless residents working to change the trajectory of their communities.  So today, we recommit to their aspirations for a just, equitable, and prosperous future.

These actions are the essence of what will be necessary to overcome the narrative of “two Detroits.” They are the bedrock on which we build today.

They make clear that the transformation of Detroit neighborhoods will not be defined solely by the bricks and mortar of new apartment buildings, coffee shops, or boutiques. It will be defined, first and foremost, by investments in people – in the human capital that has always represented the essence of this city – its creativity, its grit, its resilience.

That is what the future of this campus represents. A deep and enduring investment in the children and families of Fitzgerald, Bagley, the University district, Martin Park, Littlefield – and through them, an investment in the future of the city as a whole.

Let me be clear, though. We need – and are asking for – help from you – the residents of this community. There are countless decisions in front of us – and we need your involvement, wisdom, and guidance on each and every one.

I noted that when the University of Michigan and the Detroit Public Schools Community District stepped forward to propose a path for Marygrove, it was immediately clear that this was a once in a generation opportunity – a big, audacious, visionary idea. But ideas that big from institutions of such complexity take leadership from the very top.  Make absolutely no mistake: University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel and Superintendent of Schools Nikolai Vitti provided that leadership.

Before I introduce Dr. Vitti, a quick story about President Schlissel. When President Schlissel, Dr. Vitti, and I talked this summer about whether each of our institutions was genuinely committed to consummating the arrangement that would birth the Marygrove partnership, President Schlissel didn’t miss a beat. He reminded me that not only was the University of Michigan founded in Detroit in 1817, but it also had committed to Detroit’s renewal across all of its units in scores of ways over the last decade. But He then leaned into the table and said: “Make no mistake. This is the moment we have been waiting for. The Marygrove campus is crucial to the mission of the University, and I believe it will be transformational for the city of Detroit. Our commitment is absolute.”

Dr. Vitti was no less resolute. He understood that he would have to navigate the thickets of curriculum protocols, teacher assignment rules, neighborhood attendance-area policies, school board sensibilities, and on and on. But, like President Schlissel, he sat up ramrod straight and said, “Those are all important details. But we will deliver. I guarantee it.”

So, two leaders exhibiting textbook illustrations of making things as simple as they should be, but not simpler. We are blessed to have them in this partnership.

It is my honor to introduce Dr. Nikolai Vitti.