The City of Pontiac, once a pivotal force in Michigan’s automotive industry dominance, has come to symbolize the economic divestiture and the adverse consequences familiar to so many once prominent urban centers. Because of the downturn in U.S. manufacturing during the past several decades, Pontiac has experienced a population exodus, educational inequities, and alarming income gaps. Oakland University (OU), only five miles away from neighboring Pontiac, wanted to help rebuild the economic and cultural pillars of Oakland County while enhancing experiential learning opportunities for its students.
Established nearly a decade ago, the OU-Pontiac Initiative has emerged as a mutually beneficial partnership built on trust and an ongoing, open dialogue focused on how Oakland’s staff, faculty, and students can work with civic, cultural, business, and neighborhood groups to transform Pontiac’s prospects. The initiative’s collaborative goals are as follows:
- To be a catalyst for relationship-building and collaborative projects involving groups from Pontiac and Oakland University;
- To promote the university’s research agenda with a focus on mutually beneficial projects that enhance OU and Pontiac;
- To enhance the university’s curricular and co-curricular programs by connecting students with Pontiac-based opportunities for service learning, internships, volunteer experiences, recreation, and arts;
- To support Pontiac’s Economic Strategic Development Plan;
- To connect Pontiac-based entities with OU faculty, students, programs, and resources;
- To facilitate consistent, accurate, and timely communication between Pontiac and the university; and
- To identify and secure human and financial resources, including external grants, needed to ensure a sustainable model for community engagement.
To guide the initiative’s logistical programming and outreach, these six pillars were created: PK-16 education, civic engagement, economic and workforce development, health care and wellness, building capacity for nonprofits and neighborhoods, and arts and culture. Each pillar has its own team dedicated to support that need. Through the alliances between OU and the more than 30 community-based groups in the Pontiac community, university students are able to translate their knowledge and expertise in ways that respond to the practical, day-to-day needs of the city as it advances toward a new renaissance.
To ensure the sustainability of the OU-Pontiac Initiative’s programs and projects, rigorous metrics and ongoing feedback are employed to determine if these efforts are well focused, timely, and impactful. Each pillar’s team is responsible for tracking the qualitative and quantitative data for its contributions to the Pontiac community. The data include recording residential and student involvement and assessing the programs, services, and private-sector support. Each team submits their findings for publication in the OU-Pontiac Initiative Annual Report and shares them during a public town hall meeting.
In addition to data collection and analysis, the OU-Pontiac Initiative has pursued financial resources. Among them are grants from federal agencies and funds from private companies and nonprofit organizations.
Oakland University takes great pride in being a catalytic force in the ongoing development of programs and outreach efforts in Pontiac. Following are some of the outcomes of the OU-Pontiac Initiative based on the pillar.
The Pontiac Middle School/OU Tutoring Program was a collaboration between the students in the Pontiac School District and students in OU’s Reading Language Arts Department. University students provided one-on-one tutoring to children struggling with reading via an undergraduate independent study with 16 hours of instruction provided. Pontiac youth received 710 hours of tutoring from OU students.
OU mentors and their high school students joined Judge Cynthia Walker and Project Upward Bound to visit the 50th District Court, learn about careers in the court system, and conduct a mock trial with Walker leading the session.
In addition, the university faculty participated in a town hall on race and marijuana use that each drew crowds of around 100 people from OU and the Pontiac community.
Economic and workforce development
The Talent Development Coalition (TDC) provides training and jobs for unemployed individuals or underemployed workers. More than 27 organizations from government, industry, education and the nonprofit sector helped create high-need talent development programs in construction, advanced manufacturing, business and information technology, and health care. The first TDC pilot program was the Pontiac Alliance for Construction Education, a paid, 12-week, pre-apprentice program launched in 2019 and led by Habitat for Humanity of Oakland County and 1-800-HANSONS, a home remodeling company in Michigan.
With a grant from U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration, OU helped fund a study to determine the feasibility of a small business support center in downtown Pontiac. Conducted in 2020, the study examined, in part, how university, city, county, and state resources could be used to develop, sustain, and promote nontechnology companies. Included in this project were OU’s two business incubators, OU INC and the Macomb-OU Incubator, which provided mentors and other support for the small business support center.
Health care and wellness
The Passport to Medicine program (P2M), in collaboration with two OU student interest groups—the American Medical Women’s Association and the Pediatric Interest Group—seeks to promote health care careers among youth starting in middle school. Students in OU’s William Beaumont School of Medicine lead monthly in-classroom interactive sessions and health care-related experiential activities at the university’s School of Medicine and the Troy Beaumont Clinical Skills Center. In 2017, there was one classroom with 25 students, and in 2018, six classrooms with nearly 200 students. In addition, the OU students commit to a yearlong pen-pal/mentoring program during which they encourage the adolescents to discuss academic, career, social-emotional, or other issues.
Building capacity for nonprofits and neighborhoods
OU students volunteered to assist with training to help Pontiac nonprofits and community groups with grant writing. The trainings covered researching grant opportunities, key components of successful grant proposals, and basic management of awards. Fifteen students participated in 2019.
Arts and culture
University students and faculty members were among the musicians who participated in various music and cultural events. Among them are the Soul Food Concert and jazz performances.
The OU-Pontiac Initiative has demonstrated how this model of education-community engagement can transform underserved communities suffering from economic, cultural, and educational inequities.
The OU-Pontiac Initiative has been successful because the university and the city are engaged in a mutually beneficial partnership. Listening and collaborating took priority over prescribing and dictating. As a result, OU and Pontiac were able to agree to common goals and ambitions with the support and commitment of the university president and city mayor, both of whom were critical stakeholders. For the initiative’s programs and projects to be sustainable and relevant, collaborators must establish achievable goals and then build from them. They must review data and be honest and clear-minded about what is—and isn’t—working. Finally, OU and Pontiac participants in the initiative must understand that they are building a long-term relationship, whereby each is a passenger on an exciting journey.
“We are grateful to President Ora Hirsch Pescovitz and her team at Oakland University for helping form a strong partnership to revitalize the City of Pontiac.”
Tim Greimel, mayor of City of Pontiac
“The synergy and collaboration of resources between Oakland University and the City of Pontiac is providing life altering opportunities for Pontiac residents, while teaching Oakland students to learn and serve an urban community.”
Tom Kimble, General Motors executive (ret.) and co-chair of the OU-Pontiac Initiative
“I have been impressed with the way OU has approached Pontiac. There’s a real compassion for the community. There’s a real desire to maintain that cohesive partnership. There is a willingness to make sure that the partnership remains strong.”
David Bowman, Oakland County commissioner and a lead for the OU Pontiac Initiative’s health and wellness pillar
“The OU-Pontiac initiative continues to have an extremely positive impact on the city’s education, health care, culture, economic development, and civic engagement. Our faculty, students, and staff are working now alongside more than 75 civic, business, and nonprofit groups. We are committed to the Pontiac community in what is truly a mutually beneficial partnership.”
Ora Pescovitz, president, Oakland University