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Work

We are family

Listening to Detroiters to learn our history

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Published 8/20/2008

Using research and interviews on the streets of Detroit, Ileana Cortez is trying to figure out how her city has changed over time. She is learning about the past from older residents who have lived here their whole lives and is hoping to apply their lessons to the future.

Through Michigan State University, from which she graduated with a degree in interdisciplinary studies, community relations and sociology in December, Cortez, 22, is working on an oral history project. She hopes that "Remembering Detroit: Oral Histories of Commercial, Educational and Recreational Sites for Family Life" will help make Detroit a better place.

While Cortez is most interested in family life and its dynamics, she asks interview subjects about topics from recreation and education to historical events in Detroit and the impact on its residents. The project only interviews residents 35 and over to help get perspective on changes.

"I think all interviews are helpful," said Cortez. "You get a sense of the different types of people and mind-sets. You understand how people think differently and perceive things differently."

"Overall, most people have said that the quality of family life in Detroit has gotten worse from when they were growing up, but there's always contradictions," said Cortez. "You think you know if everything is going for the worse or if everything is going for the better, but it's a little bit of both. It's not black and white. Being able to finally dig into that grey area is one of the things that drives me."

It seems that most residents agree about the importance of family life. "Without the family life it's like everyone is out on their own ... there's no connection," said Cortez.

Ultimately, Cortez, who lives in Southwest Detroit, wants to bring people together in different communities of Detroit through their shared issues.

One goal of the project is a website to showcase some of the interviews and individual stories which Cortez believes make up the history of Detroit.

On the site, residents could learn about people who might live in separate communities but have similar issues. There would also be resources which list organizations that can help within the particular communities.

"It is one city," said Cortez. "It's just these divisions that create issues and struggles but overall it's one. People might not see that and people might not know about it but it's true."

"If you know your own history, you can solve your own problems," said Cortez.

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