Bringing art back: U-M’s Seven Mile offers free after-school music, art and coding to kids in Detroit

Trina Pal (far right), director of Seven Mile’s art programs at Conant Ave

Trina Pal (far right), director of Seven Mile’s art programs at Conant Avenue United Methodist Church, meets with three of her students. Left to right: Lamont James-Reed, Jada Jordan and Maliyah Gladney. Photo by Scott Soderberg/Michigan Photography.

Eight-year-old Chase Singeltary first picked up an instrument when he was 5. After three years of weekly lessons at Mission:City, a community center in Detroit’s historic Brightmoor neighborhood, he can now read music and play several songs.

Patricia Jackson, who co-founded Mission:City with her father in 2010, says kids like Singeltary have inspired her to make music a top priority at the center, which offers a variety of resources for community members of all ages.

"Early on, we had a 5-year-old girl that came here that didn’t talk much, and I decided to enroll her in piano classes,” said Jackson, a clinical therapist who community members affectionately refer to as Ms. Pat. "She started playing on a keyboard and I watched her pour herself into it-the music really became her voice. That’s when I knew that I had to do everything I could to keep these programs going no matter what kind of budget we had.”

Those first music classes offered at Mission:City were organized by Sam Saunders, a University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance alumnus who originally came to Jackson and co-founder Pastor Semmeal Thomas in 2013 to see how he could help make up for the harsh cuts to arts programming in Detroit Public Schools. That’s when they both became hubs for Seven Mile , a student-run organization and registered nonprofit founded by Saunders that offers after-school programs and summer camps for kids in Detroit.

Since its founding, the organization has given free lessons to hundreds of children in Detroit ages 5-16, and has grown from working with one community center to two. In addition to Mission:City, Seven Mile added Conant Avenue United Methodist Church as a partner in 2016, and while they continue to teach music lessons, they have also expanded their offerings to literary and visual arts, as well as coding.

"Each class is different in its own way and each instructor has different teaching styles,” said Maliyah Gladney, a rising seventh grader who has taken art and coding at Conant for the last few years. "I like playing video games, so learning coding was a lot of fun. We worked a lot with Scratch and Roblox [programs that introduce coding to kids].”

"We’re seeing more and more kids that are particularly interested in coding, which they don’t get to do in school,” said the Rev. Willie F. Smith, pastor of Conant Avenue United Methodist Church. "We need this type of program because it gives our kids a chance to express themselves. I’m amazed at the things they do.”

Clare Affinito, an instructor and co-director of coding for Seven Mile, is a recent U-M data science graduate who didn’t learn to code until her freshman year of college.

"Computer science is a huge field-and I am passionate about getting kids interested in the opportunities and creativity that it offers at an earlier age than I did,” she said. "We’re trying to connect the dots between what they see on their phones and computers and what goes into making that. We’re also trying to build confidence, reaffirming that there is no foolish question and that curiosity should be rewarded.”

During an average year, Seven Mile comprises roughly 70 student volunteers from all different majors across campus who, like Affinito, raise funds, recruit and train other students, create curriculum, purchase supplies and carpool once each week to Detroit to teach the material.

"Seven Mile students aren’t always studying education, music or art like a lot of people think,” said Trina Pal, a recent ecology and evolutionary biology graduate who hopes to continue to work with underserved communities someday as a medical doctor. "For a lot of us, it is a serious passion or hobby that we wanted to continue through college-I am an artist and this was my way of staying connected to that part of myself.”

Many of the U-M students involved in Seven Mile, including outgoing Seven Mile president Samantha Redlich, spend all four years with the program, and often find that becoming part of these strong, close-knit communities is more than just a volunteer opportunity.

"I joined during my freshman year and it has been the greatest part of my time at U-M,” she said. "I think I’ve learned more from the kids than what I’ve given to them. They’re so open-minded and smart and brave, and I know we talk a lot about how we need to be a consistent force in their lives, but I don’t know what I’d do without them.”

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Seven Mile students were determined to continue their programs virtually this year. At the beginning of each semester, they traveled to both community centers and distributed instruments, computers and boxes full of art supplies for future lessons. In addition to instructing students on Zoom each week, they organized their annual showcase, which also took place virtually.

"Since COVID, I think it’s even more important that they’ve had this artistic outlet because it was just me trying to homeschool them,” said Cynthia Wells, Singeltary’s grandmother, who also has a 12-year-old granddaughter in the program. "They enjoy having someone else to talk to, and it gave me a break.”

While Singeltary and his sister Chelsey are anxious to get back to in-person lessons this year, he recognizes that learning to play an instrument helped him get through a virtual school year and has boosted his confidence in other areas as well.

"I got the hang of it,” he said. "And I recognize that I can get the hang of other stuff, too, when I do something new.”

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