UMSI to assess community mentorship program on Detroit’s lower eastside

Can a community-based mentorship program provide role models for low-income residents who grew up without such supportive figures in their lives?

To help answer this question, the University of Michigan School of Information (UMSI) has been invited to evaluate a new mentoring program in a low-income area of Detroit. They also hope to identify ways to support future mentoring programs with digital tools.

The Eastside Community Network (ECN) in Detroit recently secured seed funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to set up the Lower Eastside Economic Mobility (LEEM) program. LEEM will connect low-income residents with mentors, and its directors sought help from UMSI researchers to evaluate and, if necessary, improve the program. The mentors will be young and mid-career professionals and retirees who live in the same community.

The UMSI study, “Supporting Economic Mobility Through Community Mentorship” is one of eleven projects funded in 2018 though U-M’s Poverty Solutions program and one of four Community-Academic Grant Awards projects co-sponsored by the Detroit Community-Academic Urban Research Center.

Tawanna Dillahunt

Principal Investigator Tawanna Dillahunt, assistant professor of Information at UMSI and for the College of Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, is working on the project with Earnest Wheeler, a UMSI PhD student.

This project is “what good, community-based participatory research is,” Dillahunt says. “It’s not us telling them, ‘This is what we want to do.’ It’s them coming to us and saying, ‘Here is what we want to do.’”

LEEM’s goal is to provide the kind of social supports enjoyed by residents in more stable neighborhoods. Such supports, which come from family members, neighborhood friendships, and business and community mentors in general, are crucial for success later in life.

Dillahunt, Wheeler, and Angela Wilson, ECN director of Family Mobility, will examine what past literature has identified as the most significant barriers to employment and economic independence: hope, self-efficacy, social support, and psychological self-sufficiency.

Dillahunt specializes in such community-based research. Wheeler says his interest in the project “stems from reflecting on my personal history. Much of my success has come from having had strong mentors, and I want everyone to have that opportunity. When we heard from ECN about the LEEM program, it seemed like a natural fit.”

ECN CEO Donna Givens and Wilson are the designated community partners for the project.

The need in the Lower Eastside area cannot be overemphasized. Population has declined significantly. Less than 20 percent of residents own their homes, and about a quarter of the houses in the area are vacant. Median home value hovers at $35,000, and average annual household income is about $23,000.
Less than 20 percent of households are reported as having two parents in residence.

None of this surprises Wilson, who grew up in the area and still lives there. “I was blessed to grow up here when my role models lived on my block. It was a safe, family-oriented, ethnically-mixed community.

“Over time, people moved away, houses were demolished, jobs and businesses began to leave and blight crept in. I have stayed here because I love this community and I believe the children who live here deserve to live among role models, like I did. I try to be that to them.”

Dillahunt says the study emphasizes just how important mentorship programs are in disadvantaged communities.

“In these communities, people say, ‘There is no way for me to connect to those I need to connect with to do what I want to do.’”

This study aims to evaluate the LEEM program’s impact on increasing employment and economic self-sufficiency. Broadly, the results of the project will lead to a more refined approach to mentorship programs that support economic mobility.

Posted February 9, 2018