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Below the radar, amazing things are happening in Detroit

I spent lunchtime the other day with a highly educated suburban woman named Amina, who lives in the white-collar suburb of Canton, in the same county but light-years away from Detroit. Her husband is a professor at Lawrence Tech, and she has degrees in both post-childhood development and in education policy with a focus on global studies.

Now thirty-six, she’s lived in many places, but was born not far from where she lives now. She’s thoroughly American, but a bit different from many of her neighbors. She has four children, which isn’t that common these days. She also spends much of her time with other kids in a part of Detroit where her neighbors might never go in a million years.

There, she’s executive director of Project Healthy Community, which is trying to make a difference in the lives of a few hundred people in Northwest Detroit.

Five years ago, a rabbi at Temple Israel and a Jewish cardiologist at the University of Michigan hospital founded this, in the belief that the best way to help Detroit was in partnering with the community to develop programs to improve both the availability of food and knowledge of nutrition, plus boosting education in general.

This area was the heart of Detroit’s Jewish community half a century and more ago. Most of those who grew up there live in Oakland County now, but they still care about it.

Recently they hired Amina to get them to the next level. She told me about children who have hardly ever seen fresh fruit and vegetables, in part because they live in something of a food desert, where groceries come from liquor and party stores.

But it is also because their parents often know little about nutrition.

Project Healthy Community tries to not only supply food, but share knowledge about it. They have a major food pantry at the Northwest Activities Center, and also operate an after school program for about 35 kids at the nearby Schultze Academy. It includes educational enrichment and field trips and a healthy supper, and is wildly popular.

So, by the way, is Amina, even though she is different in another way from both the Jewish folks who founded her program and the African-American community she serves.

Amina Iqbal is devoutly Muslim, whose parents came from Pakistan and who wears a hijab and traditional dress. She had been operations director for the Michigan Muslim Community Council, where she built partnerships, raised funds and pioneered the use of blogs and surveys. She’s perfectly bilingual and studied for a year in Pakistan.

But she is also a complete Metropolitan Detroiter, who worries about the mood in the country, but worries more about the possibility that many more schools in Detroit could be closed. One of those in danger is Bagley, an iconic elementary school for many in the Jewish community, and where she’s been planning to start a second after-school program.

“Where will these kids go?” she asked me.

I don’t know. But I do wish that people in power could see this partnership between a bunch of Jews and inner city black kids in a program led by an amazing young Muslim woman. This may not meet the test for journalistic objectivity.

But I really do want them to succeed.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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