Reviving Detroit: A Young Man With A Plan

Detroit is losing population, and residents have left in droves. But some young people see the city as a blank canvas, where they can help realize an urban dream. Among them is Charlie Cavell, a college student, founder of a nonprofit organization, charter school board member, and all-around Detroit enthusiast.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

We've reporting in the past that Detroit is shedding residents. Young people have been fleeing the city in droves. But some see Detroit, and its vast stretch of vacant neighborhoods, as a place that needs them.

NPR's Larry Abramson has this profile of one young Detroiter.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Last May, I attended a meeting for people who want to serve on the board of new charter schools being set up by the Detroit Public Schools. The room was full of middle-aged parents and professional-types trying to figure out how they could improve the city's education offerings. And then there was this tall, young man with a mop of unruly hair, and a big grin.

CHARLIE CAVELL: I'm Charlie Cavell...

ABRAMSON: Charlie Cavell, and why are you here?

CAVELL: Well, I want to - ooh, I'm nervous, okay.

ABRAMSON: Charlie does get a little wound up when he gets excited, which is pretty much all the time. But he had no trouble explaining why he was volunteering for a job that could doom him to months of dreary school meetings. Charlie is 20 years old, no kids, and only moved to Detroit three years ago to attend Wayne State University.

CAVELL: But I think I still have a vested interested, right? Because I want to be here in the city and I want to send my kids to the DPS. Right? So I want to be a part of the change that I want to see. Right? Like Ghandi said and all that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ABRAMSON: Flash forward to late July, when I returned to Detroit to see how those charters are doing. A handful of people gathered in a room at Loving Elementary School, which is being turned into a charter school. The five people selected to be on the board sat down, and there was Charlie again.

CAVELL: Hi everybody. I'm Charlie. I am a

ABRAMSON: ...charters are doing. A handful of people gathered in a room at Loving Elementary, which is being turned into a charter school. The five people selected to be on the board sat down and there was Charlie again.

CAVELL: Hi, everybody. I'm Charlie. I am a social work student at Wayne State. I also have a small nonprofit.

ABRAMSON: Charlie had not only gotten a seat on the charter school board, he quickly nominated himself to be president. He didn't get enough votes for that, but Charlie's chutzpa persuaded his colleagues to choose him as vice president.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

ABRAMSON: Later that day, we met for coffee. Charlie told me how jazzed he was about the school. Even the prospect of reading the school's elaborate business contract elicited his signature word, "yeah."

CAVELL: Yeah. No, it's great because, actually, I was just fingering through it and I already came up with eight questions to try and get answers to and so - yeah, I'm excited about it. Yeah.

ABRAMSON: Besides, the charter work is a good complement to the other stuff Charlie's doing, building his nonprofit, the Pay It Forward Initiative, which helps provide jobs for inner city kids. And he's been teaching at a Detroit public school this summer. He does all this without a car, navigating Detroit's spotty mass transit system, relying on a scholarship he gets to run cross-country at Wayne State.

Charlie does not pretend to know how to fix education, but he has a lot of ideas about what kids need.

CAVELL: As the parents, do you look up more to your teacher that you see for six or seven hours a day or do you look up to your parents who have always been there for you? And I really feel if you have more parent involvement, you have more accountability, definitely from the school board point of view, from the teachers' point of view.

ABRAMSON: Many experienced educators here would agree with that, but they have found it tough to get parents more involved. Charlie grew up on a farm in Manchester, Michigan and moved around a lot. He's a newcomer in a city suspicious of outsiders, but he boasts of Detroit's achievements as though he'd lived here all his life.

CAVELL: Hey, dude.

ABRAMSON: On a drive through downtown, Charlie greets friends on the street and bubbles about newly restored Capitol Park.

CAVELL: It was a beautiful park and you'll see, it's beautiful.

ABRAMSON: And he shows me all the hot new restaurants, toxic alleys turned into gardens, restored buildings.

CAVELL: Broderick Tower is a 34 story building that's been abandoned for 20-plus years. It is now going to be converted into a 130 apartments and condos and...

ABRAMSON: Charlie is part of a mini renaissance in Detroit, small groups of young people rehabbing a warehouse here, a storefront there, enjoying the low rents and the gritty feel. It has not been enough to slow the decline much. Everywhere we look, people are suffering.

CAVELL: Yeah. Rough times for some people, but I'm hoping to do what I can to fix that.

ABRAMSON: That ambitious goal has escaped the grasp of many people older and more qualified, but now it's Charlie Cavell's turn to try. Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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