Learning About Lansing

By Louise Jezierski, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Social Relations and Policy, James Madison College
Member, Michigan State University CCED Faculty Board of Advisors

One of the sad truths about many of the Michigan State University (MSU) undergraduate students I have come to know over twenty-four years of teaching here, is that they never get to know the city of Lansing, really. We are rightfully proud that MSU has, perhaps, the best academic infrastructure to support education abroad and our students are supported in many ways to gain new perspectives about the world by participating in EA programs. MSU also has renewed and robust infrastructure for civic engagement and outreach, supporting increasing opportunities for internships, while a host of student organizations work with area youth, schools, and neighborhoods in important voluntary programs. But even my students who are involved in internships, especially in state government positions, and must travel the short distance between campus and the Statehouse, rarely engage in the city.

Once upon a time, our formerly Michigan Agricultural College was set in a somewhat distant and very different, rural, bucolic setting, and set off from Lansing with housing deeds written with restrictive covenants, as well as real estate steering practices that maintained racial segregation between Lansing and East Lansing. But a streetcar system connected Lansing with East Lansing and the campus. The Capitol City bustled with robust employment from the auto industry and state government, downtown shopping, and a good school system. Many MSU professors lived in Lansing and raised their families there. 

Michigan State University responded to the changing political, economic, and cultural climate of the 1960s by complementing our land grant mission Extension services with an urban extension mission and newly created College of Urban Development (the parent academic home for the Center for Community and Economic Development), which was restructured as MSU’s Urban Affairs Programs (1984-1997), headed by Dean Joe T. Darden, after state fiscal crises in the mid-1980s. Since 1997, urban scholarship and engagement in urban issues has decentralized within the university, and many units teach urban-related courses and have spear-headed initiatives, notably in Detroit and Flint. There are many connections that faculty, staff, and students have made in Lansing.

And yet, I was surprised that my own senior students of public affairs did not know anything about the history or the residents of Lansing when I began teaching a senior seminar on “Civic Engagement and Community Development in Lansing” starting in 2016. I envisioned the course as a seminar on local citizenship.

My students in James Madison College develop a strong understanding of U.S. and comparative policy, of the founding of the nation and its federalist structure, and of the U.S. Constitution, as well as Tocqueville’s early 19th century study, Democracy in America, which asserts that the sustainability of democracy in the U.S. was founded and maintained through local democratic culture and participation. My students are interested in participating in government, nonprofits, and voluntary associations, and they are often leaders in student government and service organizations here on campus. They work in multiple settings in internships across their undergraduate career. And they study topics like urban studies, racial and ethnic relations, democracy, and community sustainability. These are all important experiences that contribute to their becoming effective and productive citizens when they head back—or towards—their newly established “hometowns.”

In the seminar, we begin our study of community with learning the history of place, with the stories and narratives that tell about a place. We read about the history of Lansing, the “Auto City,” and read and watch films about immigration and race and ethnic relations in Lansing. Students often read—for the first time—Malcolm X, who is a son of Lansing. They also study the ecology of Lansing’s industrial and occupational structure, about how civic and other forms of organizational capacity can be theorized, measured, and applied to enhance the efficacy of initiatives to grow the city’s economy or social service or cultural and arts assets. They see how the mechanisms of governance work, including participatory budgeting deliberations, neighbors’ efforts to “Love (their) Block,” the call of the Movement for Black Lives, the reorganization of community schools, and the building of soccer teams and facilities, as well as community gardens. They understand why a local brewery may proudly create an “Angry Mayor IPA” based upon a mayor frustrated with recession, lost auto jobs and lost municipal revenue sharing. They begin to see lost history in ReoTown and the RE Olds Museum. They question why we don’t know more about local indigenous peoples who lived in this area and whether moving to Lansing will tip to gentrification in some neighborhoods. Finally, and almost too late, students get the chance to turn their focus to where they have been all along but are seeing for the first time.

As seniors, they begin to engage in Lansing on their own terms, with impressive analytic skills and a critical perspective to study various aspects of the ecology and contributions of community initiatives such as access to healthcare, public safety, community news, or resources for affordable housing or services for those with developmental needs. They are aware of the limitations of these academic efforts and that Lansing residents make their own history, that students are here only a short time, and that they cannot really navigate the geography or public affairs of the truly vibrant and rich city of Lansing that anchors our lives in the region. Together we all grapple with how MSU students and faculty can be better neighbors and allies with their Lansing neighbors.

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