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Detroit River Story Lab

The project: The Detroit River Story Lab sought to partner with local organizations in their ongoing efforts to strengthen the narrative infrastructure of the Detroit River corridor in order to reconnect communities with the river and its stories. The term “narrative infrastructure,” as used by the story lab, refers to the fabric of shared stories that binds a given community together. Investing in a community’s narrative infrastructure entails elevating and celebrating community stories – especially those traditionally marginalized – and supporting projects that incorporate those stories into the public self-image of a place.

The process: The story lab worked with regional organizations to co-produce and disseminate historically nuanced, contextually aware, and culturally rooted stories recasting the role of the Detroit River in the lives of adjacent communities from an anti-racist perspective and documenting its history as part of the Underground Railroad.

Results: As of December 2021, the Detroit River Story Lab has:

  • Piloted a three-week curricular module for middle schools in Michigan and Ontario that covers the regional history of the Underground Railroad and local Black vigilance committees;
  • Offered a pair of river-themed experiential learning programs — including sailing on a schooner on the Detroit River and a wooden boat building workshop on Belle Isle — to introduce students to new potential career pathways; 
  • Partnered with the Detroit Historical Society to support an ongoing, multi-year effort to retell the story of Belle Isle and the surrounding waterways from Black and Indigenous perspectives; 
  • Partnered with a half-dozen nonprofits and municipal agencies working on signage projects for river-facing parks and greenways, which may include “story stations” accessible by QR code that highlight site-specific resources;
  • Funded internships that placed graduate students with extensive research and writing experience in nonprofit news organizations, such as BridgeDetroit, Planet Detroit, and Detroit Public Television, to assist staff in the coverage of river-related stories;
  • Supported the Detroit River Project in its efforts to build Congressional and coalition support for the designation of the Detroit River as a UNESCO World Heritage Site; and
  • Submitted an article on the research findings to the Journal of Great Lakes Research.

David Porter, professor, English Department, University of Michigan