In the area surrounding Denby, 37 abandoned properties sit within a two-block radius. These, along with alleyways and very few, if any, working streetlights, lead to the area being compared to a war zone. That analogy often rubs Detroit city leaders and residents the wrong way, but Wilbourn refuses to back down from it.
“It’s worse than a war zone on so many levels,” Wilbourn said. “You have better odds as an African-American male going to Afghanistan than surviving the streets of Detroit. So when these young people show up every day, I get it.
“We’re talking about children that are in poverty, the highest level in the United States right here in Detroit.” On April 22, Wilbourn and her son led a group of Denby High students, along with volunteers from the nonprofit organization Better Detroit Youth Movement, in boarding up and cleaning three abandoned duplexes across the street from the school.
While she respects the hard work the city has done in trying to bring back downtown, she stands by her position that the city’s “comeback” has a lot of work left. “Truthfully speaking, I would say Detroit is coming back, but who is it coming back for?” Wilbourn said.
“Just like we speak of ‘No Child Left Behind’, there are communities and groups of people who are being left behind. Until we have that conversation about what it means to be disenfranchised, what gentrification looks like and who will be displaced, then we’re not ready to have the true conversation about what it means for Detroit to come back.”
Wilbourn is not the only principal who feels this way about the conditions surrounding her school and the city. She is just the most outspoken. The neighborhoods around nearby Osborn High School, along with Cody High School on the city’s west side, have deteriorated as well. She sees the myriad of issues as systemic throughout DPS and the city itself, and feels that the city has not taken enough ownership.
“I think we have begun to give other groups of people too much credit for why we as a people are in this situation,” Wilbourn said. “I think for the city of Detroit in some ways, and I know some folks won’t like to hear what I’m saying, is that we’ve forgotten about the back of the bus. If you remembered the back of the bus, you would fight like hell to have your place in the front of it.”
She also feels that an inordinate amount of blame has been placed on teachers for many schools’ problems: “It takes an entire village to have both hands, both feet, heart, head, and habits of mind on creating a better community.
“The young people who robbed Pastor Winans, those are the same kids who sat in somebody’s classroom in Detroit. If they have the mindset to be so brutal with (Winans), imagine what a teacher has to deal with everyday? The city of Detroit is perfect. It’s the systems and the people in it that gives [sic] it the reputation.”
Her love for her students and the school come through in how emotional she becomes while talking about them. She credits her assistant principal, Tracie McCissick, and the rest of the faculty with much of her success, but knows there is so much more work to be done at Denby, as academic standards have not improved nearly to her or anyone’s liking. The school tested in the bottom five percent in the state in 2010.
“If I have to hold a parent accountable for his or her child and get them to the place where they move beyond their current socioeconomic and academic status, that’s what we’re going to do. We need to have that hard conversation with parents, community, and ourselves to why we are failing.
“Relative to the city of Detroit, it’s going to take new leadership. It’s going to take vision. It’s going to take some of the stuff that Coleman Young was made of. It’s going to take come of the stuff that Mayor Dennis Archer brought to the table.
“Whether people want to hear it or not, it is even going to take some of the stuff that Kwame Kilpatrick brought to the table — the positive elements. This city is not the ‘diamond in the rough,’ it is the actual diamond.”
Follow Jay Scott Smith on Twitter at @JayScottSmith