From the Dean: A Bright Future

From the Dean

In important ways, the city of Detroit is a bellwether. Like many American cities, it was hard hit by the globalization of markets and labor in the late 20th century, and further battered by the Great Recession of 2008. As the first major American city to file for bankruptcy, Detroit can be considered a cautionary tale for the nation. That’s why its future matters so much. Detroit reminds us that cities are living organisms, and the only way they can succeed is if their residents are engaged in a healthy economy, live in healthy neighborhoods, and have access to first-rate health care and to safe, healthy, affordable food and water.

The durable threads of Detroit’s long and rich history are readily discernible, and they’re being woven into a bright future, not only for Detroit but for southeastern Michigan and, indeed, for the entire state. The earliest of those threads include the Native Americans who recognized the area’s potential for hunting, fishing, planting, and trade, and the French explorers who, after navigating the St. Lawrence Seaway, found in le détroit du Lac Érié (“strait of Lake Erie”) a place to exchange goods and build commerce.

Detroit has always been a place of promise. It’s the birthplace of the mass-produced automobile and of the original “catholepistemiad, or university, of Michigania,” later the University of Michigan. As a terminus on the Underground Railroad, Detroit was a symbol of hope and economic opportunity for countless Americans fleeing slavery. A century later, the city gave rise to a thriving middle class of color—one of the country’s first. Many in that community came here as part of the Great Migration, itself a movement shaped by hope and opportunity. 

Michigan’s largest city has historically been a model for what can and what ought to be. As a mid-century emblem of middle-class African-American prosperity, Detroit refuted the idea that blacks lived only in ghettos or rural areas. Long before “diversity” became a mantra, Detroit exemplified the term, as evidenced by its many houses of worship representing communities of faith from places as disparate as the United Arab Emirates, the Caribbean, and the American South—not to mention Michigan. 

Among the durable threads of history that have persisted through good times and bad are the abiding relationships between members of the Detroit community and the University of Michigan School of Public Health. These relationships have enriched our collective understanding of what we can—and must—do to reduce health disparities and expand access to care in urban settings. Through their resilience, ingenuity, and commitment, our Detroit partners have been nothing short of inspirational to us all, and it’s no accident that so many members of the SPH community—students, graduates, faculty, and staff—are today working for Detroit’s future.

A vibrant Detroit depends on the promise of a thriving, forward-looking, 21st-century metropolitan area. It depends on the strategic investment in the education of young people, and on the creation of a robust and fertile environment where those young people can stay healthy and engaged, through good times and bad, spring and, yes, even our bright, crisp winters.

To eliminate inequities, we have to build new economies and enterprises that allow people to do good and do well. I am deeply encouraged by the concentration of new entrepreneurs in Detroit who are bound by a triple bottom line. They seek profit, yes, but only if it comes with environmental sustainability and social equity. They realize that it is no longer acceptable for us to consign one segment of the population to living in substandard housing and polluted neighborhoods so that another sector can get rich. By example, they remind us of the biblical injunction that all of us bear responsibility for “the least among us.” Of the many important lessons Detroit has to teach, this is perhaps the greatest.

And so in this season of renewal, I am filled with optimism. Optimism that Detroit will fulfill its legacy of promise as a place of shining opportunity for workers, the middle class, the struggling poor, and enterprising entrepreneurs. Optimism that the numerous and varied efforts across Detroit to build health and community will enrich and enhance each other and, along with the city’s world-class arts and music and food and sports, help to make Detroit once again one of the nation’s most desirable places to live.

Martin Philbert
Dean and Professor of Toxicology