Curt Guyette is an investigative reporter and Editor at Large for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan. He was hired to investigate the actions of the emergency manager installed in Detroit in 2013.
Guyette moved to the Detroit area sight unseen in 1995 to take a job with Detroit Metro Times. A white man with a wife and two small children, he remembers how realtors repeatedly told him to move north of 8 Mile—which given his unfamiliarity with the area, he didn’t know was code for “stay out of Detroit.”
The journalist notes that he remembers things were “bad” when he arrived, the city was still in the midst of a steep population decline. He notes that decline is “part of the key to everything Detroit’s dealing with is that massive population loss and all the racism that is connected to that and all the economic devastation that flows from that.”
It has been that legacy of racism and economic devastation–and community resistance–that Guyette has been writing about for nearly three decades. He credits climate change as one of the motivators for how he found himself writing in the alternative news space.
He was drawn to the fact that “both-sidesism,” is not a part of the alternative news world. As it relates to climate change, one side is based on science while the other is funded by the fossil fuel industry. “And so you’re really doing a disservice to your readers or your viewers if you treat those like they’re both equally valid.”
Guyette notes that while he is liberal-leaning and the stories he chooses to write about are as well, he notes that “the most important thing in terms of being successful as a journalist is credibility. If you don’t have credibility, you’re really worth zero. And so you cannot be a propagandist. You cannot just tell one side of the story, you really do have to… the fairness part of it is intrinsic to that, and to be credible. To be able to back up what you say with documentation or evidence to show that you’re not a propagandist. And it can be tricky sometimes. But as a journalist, you have to come down on the side of accuracy, fairness, and honesty.”
Guyette grew up with a grandfather who was a printer in a print shop and a father who was a Pennsylvania State Police officer and ended up being detective and an investigator. “Unionism was strong in my family,” he adds that his family’s strong beliefs in unions as well as having a younger brother who was diagnosed with diabetes at nine months old gave him a strong sense that there are people in life that don’t get a fair shake through no fault of their own.
“And it’s our obligation as a society to help. And I think that’s kind of a foundation of liberal philosophy,” he explains. “We’re all in it together, we all need to help each other. Those who are better off need to help those who aren’t. And so that’s all part of it. So I would say that part is ingrained in me.” Guyette adds that another of his greatest influences is being educated. He believes that “good education” should expose people to new ideas and that going to college is where he began to get to know more diverse communities after years of growing up in an all-white, protestant town.
“One of my co-workers is a brilliant African American guy, Mark Fancher. And I learned from Mark, if you are white, it’s really impossible not to be racist. And by that, he doesn’t mean overtly racist like we’re seeing white supremacist. But it’s almost ingrained in this idea of superiority that is learned almost through osmosis, because it’s kind of assumed and how things are projected in media and everything.”
“And so in terms of me coming to Detroit,” Guyette adds, “in terms of personal growth, it was the best thing that ever happened to me.” It has been here in Detroit and through his work with the ACLU that Guyette has learned about the complexity of racism.
The historic bankruptcy declared by Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr on behalf of the City of Detroit in 2013 is one moment that Guyette considers pivotal in his career. He credits his experience in alternative media for giving him the tools to tell the story in a way that mainstream media was not. He noted that the influence of working in alt press and telling stories that either others weren’t telling or telling them in a way that wasn’t being told “absolutely” altered his career experience.
It was his experience at the Detroit Metro Times where Guyette came to be best known in the city. He joined the weekly in 1995 and stayed through 2013, the year of the bankruptcy. He notes that what he brought to his tenure was a passion in sharing stories about “underdogs”–a theme that has remained with him since his youth.
In one story, ‘Dumb, Lazy …’ Detroiters: Kevyn Orr Gets Offensive, Guyette captured the sentiments that Orr perpetuated about the city to national press. “For a long time the city was dumb, lazy, happy and rich,” Orr told editorial writer Allysia Finley,”–Guyette wrote. This article and many others helped him be a voice for the voiceless who were subjected to the devastating effects of emergency management in the city.
That important work was the follow up to stories about several about the Detroit Public Schools were in the midst of an upheaval and what he calls the state engineered change in governance of the board. Since 1999, DPS had been subjected to various forms and iterations of state interventions that restricted local control and were responsible for increasing debt while decreasing enrollment and performance.
“One of the first stories I did was about what was going on with changes in the education system under Engler, which then led me to groups like the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which is a free market Think Tank.” His research led him to uncover how the DeVos family had been funneling money to various nonprofits and lobbying to undermine the public school system. “I was able to disclose the role that the DeVos family was playing in what they were seeking to do in terms of changes to education because they were pushing charters. And charters have had an unbelievable impact on Detroit,” he says. “As a result of part of what they pursued I think Michigan has more for-profit charters than anyplace else in America, because (the DeVos family has) so much money, and they’re able to be relentless. They can lose and lose and lose and keep coming back and coming back because they have almost unlimited amount of money to keep pouring into it.”
“And part of what they kept saying is, oh, we’re doing this to help the black kids in Detroit. They were openly saying that. And no, what they did was continue the assault on public education. Because the only thing that they want to do is weaken the power of teachers’ unions, with the decline of the auto industry, teachers’ unions became the strongest liberal force in Michigan politics as the UAW’s power declined. So, by creating charter schools that actively prohibit unionization, and having teachers migrate toward that, then you are significantly reducing the power and influence that teachers unions have.”
While the influx of charter schools has continued to have a negative impact on Detroit Public Schools, it was when Betsy DeVos was nominated to be Secretary of Education that Guyette was grateful that he did the legwork and the stories that he did. During her confirmation some of his work was used to show the family’s motivations. “So it ended up doing what he hoped it would do. But it was two decades later.”
In 2009, Governor Jennifer Granholm appointed Robert Bobb as emergency financial manager of DPS, who embarked on a campaign of mass school closures. From 2008-2015, the number of DPS schools was cut nearly in half from 198 to 103. One of the schools Bobb’s successor, Roy Roberts, targeted for closure in 2013 was Oakman Elementary-Orthopedic School, a well-loved and successful school designed to accommodate the needs of disabled students. The planned closure sparked organized resistance from parents, students, and activists–including Aliya Moore–who fought to keep the school open and challenged the autocratic power of emergency managers. Guyette covered these struggles within a broader accounting of the damages caused by emergency management in a two-part series for the Metro Times in 2015. He has also reported on struggles around water shutoffs and home foreclosures as part of his decades-long coverage of racist austerity politics and resistance in Detroit.
Michigan’s emergency management laws have been behind much of Guyette’s reporting on education. Detroit was one of several majority-Black cities, including Flint and Benton Harbor, that suffered disastrous consequences from having their democratic rights taken away by the state. In addition to school closures, emergency management also led to mass water shutoffs and the poisoning of the city of Flint. Guyette played a vital role in breaking the story of the Flint water crisis while many mainstream and national news outlets looked the other way.
In his new role as an investigative reporter for the ACLU Michigan, Guyette acquired a memo from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that claimed the lead levels in Flint’s water were higher than the city and state were saying. Guyette and others went door to door collecting water samples for an independent test by researchers at Virginia Tech, which revealed much higher levels than the state claimed. In addition to his reporting, Guyette and filmmaker Kate Levy produced a mini-documentary in 2015 called “Hard to Swallow: Toxic Water Under a Toxic System in Flint.” Guyette’s coverage helped break open the story by raising important questions about the state’s reliability with lead testing and culpability in poisoning Flint residents.
The experience taught him an important lesson as a journalist. “Exposing the truth of something is important, especially when people are trying to hide the truth,” he explains. “You know, the more they try to hide it, the more determined you become to uncover it…that’s what journalism is all about. So whether you consider yourself an advocate journalist or not, your goal, whatever it is, is to be telling the truth about what’s going on.”
Guyette’s work is guided by the words of Judge Damon J. Keith, who famously said “Democracy dies behind closed doors.” For Guyette, the role of journalists is “to break down those closed doors and to shine light where those in power don’t want light to be shone. So, it is crucial to the functioning of democracy that people are doing it.”
Curt Guyette, interviewed by Peter Blackmer and Oriana Yilma, May 3, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.