Detroit River Skiff & Schooner Program - Detroit River Story Lab

Detroit River Skiff & Schooner Program

Launched in 2021, the Skiff & Schooner Program provides place-based, experiential learning opportunities to high school students in districts adjoining the Detroit River. Tall ship outings and boat-building workshops offer engaging, hands-on activities that invite participants to connect with the river and with its rich cultural and environmental heritage. The program’s deliberate focus on the Detroit River invites regional youth to rediscover the bounty of their river not only as a vital natural resource but also, crucially, as a cornerstone of community heritage through its roles as the ancestral homeland of the People of the Three Fires, a center of anti-slavery resistance before the Civil War, an industrial powerhouse that drove the Great Migration, and a site of effective community mobilization for environmental justice, among many others. By providing place-based, experiential learning opportunities on the river and its shores, our programs invite local youth to connect its stories to their own lives and lay claim to their place in shaping their region’s future.

The core goals of the Skiff & Schooner Program are to:

  • Provide healthy, structured outdoor activities for youth to help address public health concerns exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic
  • Activate the Detroit River’s potential to serve as a multi-purpose experiential learning classroom and opportunity hub for local communities
  • Cultivate cultural and environmental awareness and stewardship among community youth
  • Re-center the Detroit River as a site of community identity and civic life
  • Build a broad, lasting coalition to support the development of river-based educational and community heritage activities for the Detroit River region over the coming decade and beyond

Over the past two summers, the Skiff & Schooner Program has hosted 26 river-themed educational schooner sails on the Detroit River, along with three week-long, intensive boat-building workshops at the Dossin Museum and Riverside Marina. These unique activities provided our 650+ participants, some of whom had never before had the opportunity to experience the river, with opportunities to hoist the sails on an historical tall ship, row wooden skiffs they’d crafted with their own hands, and participate in hands-on learning labs, offered by community experts and U-M faculty, on topics ranging from principles of buoyancy and the resurgence of Great Lakes sturgeon to the many-layered histories of Belle Isle and the Midnight Station on the Underground Railroad. Our river-based activities attracted considerable media coverage and even a visit from a Fox television news crew; some of the resulting stories are archived on the Story Lab News page on this site.

The program is supported by a broad coalition whose core members include the Charles Wright Museum, the Detroit Historical Society, the Green Door Initiative, Healthy Kidz, Inc., the Inland Seas Education Association, and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. The University of Michigan has, since 2017, served as a convener of this coalition and a catalyst for the development of this project. Significant funding support has been provided by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan and by the University of Michigan, through the Office of the Provost, the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, and the Detroit River Story Lab.

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