After years of work, the University of Michigan is launching the Detroit River Story Lab. It’s a multi-faceted partnership between the university, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and several local environmental organizations. The project was created by David Porter, an English professor at the university, who says that the goal is to put regional perspectives and storytelling at the heart of project.
“I am a great believer in the power of story to help us interpret our past and interpret the place in which we live.” — David Porter, University of Michigan English Professor
Porter tells WDET’s Annamarie Sysling that he came up with the idea after spending time watching Detroit’s riverfront transform over the last few years. That was also part of what inspired him to create a campus-wide themed set of courses and programs about the Great Lakes last semester. “Those two pieces of my recent experiences kind of came together in developing a focused initiative at the university on the Detroit River where we could try to partner with existing community organizations that are working on telling the stories of the river and try to work to amplify those stories,” says Porter.
As far as the value of putting storytelling at the center of this project, Porter says that as an English teacher, he believes that story and narrative are “one of the most important ways in which human beings make sense of the world,” adding that storytelling is an “incredibly powerful cognitive technology” that we all have the ability to tap into. “I am a great believer in the power of story to help us interpret our past and interpret the place in which we live,” he says. In the context of a project like that, Porter notes that storytelling associated with the Detroit River seems like a natural place to start when examining the history and culture around the river.
In discussing other organizations and groups involved in this project, Porter says one of the most important is a community collective called The Detroit River Project, which was founded by Kimberly Simmons more than a decade ago. Porter says that Simmons has been working with historical organizations in Detroit and Windsor “to research and amplify and celebrate the history of the Underground Railroad as it’s connected with the Detroit River.” He notes that Simmons work is centered on trying to get the Detroit River designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site to recognize and commemorate the river’s role in what Porter calls “one of the opening chapters in Civil Rights history.” The University of Michigan is also working with the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, Historic Fort Wayne, the Dossin Museum, Friends of the Detroit River and others.