Access to a quality education is central to the health of a community. In the city of Detroit, amid privatization and disinvestment under emergency management, it’s the parents who often step into the role of activist on the frontlines of education justice. Yolanda Peoples is one of those parents. Yolanda is a resident of Jefferson-Chalmers, a riverside neighborhood on Detroit’s lower east side. When she was growing up, the neighborhood was full of small businesses and schools that the children could walk to, but now things have changed and something unfamiliar looms over the community. “It was what they call now a walkable neighborhood. We had shops, bowling alleys, movie theatres. Everything in our neighborhood on Jefferson between Connor and Chalmers; a lovely neighborhood that they’re now trying to take over,” she explained.
A historic neighborhood that occupies a premier location along the eastern riverfront, Jefferson-Chalmers has been targeted by the mechanisms of gentrification amid the displacement of longtime residents. Yolanda’s neighborhood is just a stone’s throw from Grosse Pointe, a predominately white, affluent suburb, whose racist inclinations were made apparent to her at a very young age when they would allow white children to use the recreational facilities but would turn away Yolanda and her sister. “There were some girls that lived down the street from us, we’d go over to the Grosse Pointe to play. They were white; we were Black. They would get in and nobody would ask them for residency, or where’s your parents, or anything.” Despite the omnipresence of racism, Yolanda’s parents forged a good life for their family in the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood. Her elders instilled in her the values that would guide her throughout her life as a parent and as an activist. “My grandparents were very strong individuals, taught us good work ethic, and what a difference it would make if you did not invest in yourself and your education,” she remembered. This foundation, rooted within intergenerational commitment to education and community, would prepare her for her role as an activist resisting the state-takeover of Detroit Public Schools and the transformation of her neighborhood.
Yolanda traces the beginning of her activism all the way back to grade school when even as a child she refused to sing the Pledge of Allegiance and questioned the teacher as to why a majority Black classroom wasn’t singing something more relevant to the demographics of the school. “You see all these black people in here,” she asked the teacher, “we want to do the Black national anthem sometimes. I got sent to the office. But see you have to stand up for something. My parents always stood up.” That was at Guyton Elementary, a neighborhood school she would fight to keep open years later when her own children were attending.
In the years following the first state takeover of Detroit Public Schools in 1999, Guyton became one of many schools slated to be closed by a succession of state-appointed CEOs and emergency managers. The first rumblings of closing the school came in 2003 and again in 2005, but were met with immediate resistance from parents and community members. Given the school’s importance in the community, Yolanda and a group of parents fought for years to keep the school open. “All the parents got together and we were like ok this is what they’re saying they’re gonna do. How do we fight it? So, we fought it by contacting the administrators of DPS downtown, telling them what we did want, what we didn’t want, what did that look like.” Because of their efforts, the school remained open another two years before emergency manager Robert Bobb shut it down in 2009.
Yolanda realized her struggle as an activist parent could use organizational support and in 2011 she joined Keep the Vote, No Takeover, an organization resisting the state-takeover of public schools in Detroit through emergency management. “Keep the Vote, No Takeover is where I went to when I ran into my brick wall, and other groups like that. That’s where you get your strength from. That’s where you get your information from, because they have researchers in there that have been doing this for years.” It was veteran activist Helen “Queen Mother” Moore who gave guidance to Yolanda and elevated her organizing work. “How do you approach them? How do you ask them questions? So, that is what Mother Moore taught me. She enhanced everything that was already there for me, and then took it to another level.”
By the time Yolanda’s own child had reached high school, Detroit had been under emergency management from the state of Michigan for more than 10 years. In 2012, state-appointed emergency manager Roy Roberts designated her daughter’s school, the Detroit School of the Arts (DSA), as a “self governing” school with a council chosen by him. The council partnered the school with the University of Michigan to supposedly improve DSA through a multimillion-dollar grant donated by the Knight Foundation. However, the notion that the school somehow needed improvement was puzzling to the parents and administration at DSA because it had been a consistently high performing school for years. In fact, it was one of the best high schools for the arts in the country under the leadership of Dr. Denise Davis-Cotton who founded the school in 1992. When Dr. Davis-Cotton retired in 2010, however, “all the vultures came.” Yolanda wasn’t buying that this new bureaucracy that alienated teachers and administrators was really for the benefit of the students. “How do you come here and tell us you’re gonna come here to do something, and it’s already been done?” said Yolanda. When they began removing teachers, shuttering programs, and money disappeared, it became clear that the board and UM were harming what had been a successful educational institution.
Yolanda co-directed a documentary with filmmaker Kate Levy called “Build & Unbuilt” that chronicled the history of DSA from its founding in 1992 leading up to “self governance” and the problematic relationship with U of M. “We asked for her assistance, because nobody would come hear the parents because we were talking about the great U of M,” Yolanda explained. “We had to let the children tell the story how they felt every year getting a new principal. Every year losing teachers. Every year losing programs.” In 2013, Yolanda spoke for the parents of DSA when she confronted the Board of Regents at U of M and formally asked the university to give up control of the school when parents were being kept from active involvement while having to suffer a revolving door of principals and teachers, including one who was an unqualified relative of a university employee. One of the most egregious offenses of emergency management’s involvement in DSA was the large sums of money missing from the school’s budget, which neither the board nor Roy Roberts had an answer for. “$500,000 was missing from DSA’s budget that nobody could account for. Roy Roberts was just saying the school is in charge of it. The board is saying Roy Roberts is in charge of it. Where’s the money? Why are you still closing our programs?” Yolanda asked.
One of the victories the parents were able to claim against the governing board and emergency management was an important one. “They tried to involuntarily remove nine teachers. We got eight of those nine back; the parents did,” Yolanda reflected. “We went to Channel 2 and they did a story on us. We were able to get eight of those nine teachers back.” These victories were hard won, though, and illustrate the challenges of sustaining grassroots organizing campaigns against such massive institutions. “It is draining, and they push you to the limit cuz they know you don’t have money. They know you don’t have financial resources, and pretty soon people get tired,” Yolanda explained. “All the parents I fought with at DSA once their kids graduated [said] okay we’re done. On to the next fight.” With parent involvement in organizing on the decline, Yolanda stayed active in struggles at DSA until 2015, two years after her daughter graduated.
What has become apparent to Yolanda in her organizing work is that whether it is neighborhood development or education, the people most impacted should have the most say in the outcome. Parents and students have had an abundance of experience with emergency management and it has been detrimental to their communities. “The movement comes from the parents and the students,” Yolanda explained, “that’s why you get students involved.” However, challenging the dismantling and privatization of public institutions, especially in the absence of material resources in the everyday struggle, requires commitment. “We don’t do this for fun. This is a commitment we make because it impacts our lives,” she said. “But to get through it, it takes tremendous strength. It takes networking and leaning on people who are going through the same thing.”
Yolanda continues her work with Keep the Vote, No Takeover and remains committed to resisting displacement and the privatization of education in Detroit. She is very clear on how that should look. “We would be able to make our own decisions. Our children would go back to soaring. They would go back to doing well. Our principals would be empowered again, able to make each campus great. When I was a kid in DPS, each school had something great about them. It wasn’t just three good schools; King, Cass, and Renaissance. Every school was great. Every school had something to offer. That’s what my district should look like. That’s what local control looks like.”
- Reginald Stuart, “Can Barack Obama Save Public Schools?”, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, January 12, 2009, https://diverseeducation.com/article/12159/; Diane Bukowski, “Parents beg reform board,” Michigan Citizen, June 26, 2005; Elizabeth Durfee, et al, “Sustainable Community Redevelopment: A Plan for Detroit’s Lower Eastside,” University of Michigan, April 2010.
- “DSA Parents Ask U of M to Leave.” Michigan Citizen, Sep, 2013. https://proxy.lib.wayne.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy.lib.wayne.edu/docview/1468206967?accountid=14925.
- Kelly, T. “DSA Parents: Imposed Board an Obstacle.” Michigan Citizen, Oct, 2012. https://proxy.lib.wayne.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy.lib.wayne.edu/docview/1138523894?accountid=14925.
Yolanda Peoples, interviewed by Oriana Yilma and Peter Blackmer, May 24, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.