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JPEE student Marquise Griffin teaches students how their communities connect with the Detroit River’s cultural and environmental heritage

October 03, 2022

The Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan featured the Detroit River Story Lab, an interdisciplinary initiative that partners with regional organizations to reconnect communities with the river and its stories. This summer, Detroit students participated in the Skiff and Schooner program piloted by the University of Michigan’s Detroit River Story Lab in partnership with Detroit’s Green Door Initiative. The program lets school-age students from throughout metro Detroit experience the river from the decks of a tall ship while learning about the environmental and cultural heritage of their communities.


Marquise Griffin, a U-M doctoral student pursuing a joint degree in English and education, led an onboard learning station about Detroit as a river city. He explained to the students that Black and Indigenous people were fundamental to harnessing the river’s resources to build the city. But, over time, their communities were pushed away from the Detroit River due to structural racism. 

Living deeper in the city—disconnected from nature and subject to concentrated industrial pollution and the criminalization of moving while Black— created chronic health conditions and a fraught relationship with nature for many People of Color, he said. Today, this legacy can impact their access and willingness to engage with nature through swimming, boating or hiking and lead to diminished well-being and quality of life, Griffin says. 

Teaching students how their communities connect with the river’s cultural and environmental heritage can create new ways of thinking about nature and how they fit into it, he says.  

“Your body contains a story. It can hold onto trauma that can be addressed through education, especially engaging all senses and the natural world,” Griffin says. “We’re impacting communities. We’re having what I hope to be an empowering effect. We can inspire students to dream.”