Project Community’s first beginnings are said to have begun with the powerful words of then-Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech atop the steps of the Michigan Union. In urging Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country, ” JFK called for a new era of peace and a free society. His sentiments echoed throughout the hearts of the nation and Michigan students alike.
In particular, psychology undergraduate Charles “Dick” Richard Sleet was motivated by the notion of change and equality. Coupled with the growing Civil Rights movement, Sleet saw an opportunity here in Ann Arbor to create community action with fellow University of Michigan students.
Initially titled the Tutorial and Cultural Relations Project, Sleet’s mission was simple. He recognized his younger siblings’ education lacking compared to their White peers. His siblings and other marginalized young minds were not offered the equal chance at an education. To remedy this issue, Sleet proposed a student group – The Tutorial and Cultural Relations Project – that would act as both mentorship and tutoring assistance to local elementary schools. It was Sleet’s hope that the experience would encourage young students from racial minority backgrounds to pursue a college education and reduce educational inequalities in the local community. Concurrently, Sleet mused the Tutorial and Cultural Relations Project would be an enriching opportunity for Michigan students; to have the chance to make an impact in the greater Ann Arbor area, including Ypsilanti and Detroit.
The Tutorial and Cultural Relations Project was met to praise from students and faculty. Although beginning as a student-led organization, the program soon gained backing from the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts so that students could gain credit for their volunteering experiences. Dr. Mark Chesler was the first faculty member to allow students to earn credit, and before long, Project Community was housed as a program under the Psychology and Sociology departments and the School of Education. Community programs expanded from elementary schools to other populations in need.
Throughout the 1970s, the program continued to grow, including the eventual name change to Project Community. At this point, Dr. Chesler was appointed as Program Director and was able to bring on a full-time staff. Community projects included collaboration with the Madeline Pound House, the International Center, as well as the conception of two of Project Community’s most notable projects: The Inmate Project and Black Liberation School.
The Inmate Project began in 1972. The aim of this endeavor was to foster a positive environment for those affected by the criminal justice system; providing resources, entertainment, and furthering a sense of community. Throughout the program, sites existed at various juvenile halls, detention centers, jails, and prisons in the area. Due to the overwhelmingly positive response from the communities of Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Detroit, Project Community students, and those impacted by the criminal justice system, The Inmate Project thrived many for years. Today, Project Community students are still dedicated to serving this population through the Criminal Justice program area.
The Black Liberation School originated in 1970 with the ambition of addressing inequalities existing regarding the education that Black students received. Project Community had developed the Black Tutorial Program to attack a similar issue. However, because those taking part in the Black Tutorial Program were predominantly White, it was felt that the program was unable to combat the heart of the problem. Thus, the program was revamped and renamed the Black Liberation School, going under full leadership of Black parents, teachers, and Project Community students. The program consisted of weekday breakfast with Saturday tutoring sessions during the school year, as well as summer programs. Additional activities, such as rollerblading, dance, and crafts were also included. Students were encouraged to express themselves via arts and essays and discussed the narratives of Martin Luther King Jr., Eldridge Cleaver and others. Principles of Black Liberation School are remain central to the Education program area today, which is committed to after school academics and social enrichment.
Since this time, Project Community has evolved to reflect changing times within the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and the United States. Sites have reflected the needs of the community, and the program itself has adapted with administrative changes at the University. Through it all, Project Community has expanded to serve as much of the community as possible while allowing students to gain valuable learning experiences. Though things have changed throughout the years, one motto still rings true: Project Community is “…where service and learning intersect.”
Impact and Legacy
Project Community has been involved with other on-campus programs, including Project SERVE, Markley 21st Century Scholars, and Michigan Community Scholars Program. Project Community has also seen homes in various spots on campus, including the Office of Community Service and Learning and the Ginsberg Center for Community Service Learning.
The program has also produced a number of scholarly works using Project Community as case studies. PC faculty members Jeff Howard and Joe Galura published the PRAXIS series on service learning through the OCSL press, which was one of the first works of its kind. Mark Chesler has been responsible for several articles regarding Project Community and the implementation of service learning in various settings. Multiple articles have been published in the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, including works by numerous faculty members. All of these works have helped to express the importance of service learning to a larger audience, allowing programs similar to PC to sprout up across the country.
Project Community Today
Project Community sites have evolved and changed throughout the years, allowing the program to establish positive bonds and impacts throughout the communities of Ann Arbor, Detroit, and Ypsilanti. Current sites, such as Ann Arbor Public Schools and the Washtenaw County Jail, have been worked with Project Community for decades, some since the 1970s. Current sites are spread throughout three program areas: Criminal Justice, Public Health, and Education.
The current structure of the Project Community exists as two, fully-graded courses housed within the Sociology Department. Sociology 225: Project Community: Sociology in Action, acts as the exploratory course integrating on-site work in dedicated program areas and in-classroom sessions including important discussions regarding the work and experiences of Project Community students. There also exists another component of Project Community in the form of an additional course, Sociology 325, that acts as an seminar-based advanced continuation of work previous Project Community students have done. Project Community is currently housed in the Sociology Department, with Dr. Rebecca Christensen serving as Director.
Despite its changes throughout the decades, Project Community remains dedicated to serving populations, creating social change, and incorporating sociological concepts in an effort to benefit the communities as well as the students partaking in SOC 225 and SOC 325. In essence, Project Community seeks to create positive social change in the classroom and in practice, and to create mutually beneficial relationships for both students and community members.
Written by Cassidy Guros, December 2018. Cassidy is a former Sociology Opportunities for Undergraduate Leadership (SOUL) Research Assistant and Project Community student, who obtained her BA in Sociology and Women’s Studies in May 2020.