The City’s Movers and Shakers

by Anna Clark, ’03 | Winter 2017

Thousands of Michigan grads are taking leading roles in transforming the urban landscape of one of America’s most interesting cities. We cannot begin to list all of those grads here, but we can profile a small cross section of Detroit’s movers and shakers.

Jerome Vaughn, ’87
NEWS DIRECTOR AND HOST OF “ALL THINGS CONSIDERED,” WDET

As news director at Detroit’s public radio station, Vaughn tells the story of his hometown. He provides people in and around the city with the tools they need to be engaged citizens, whether it’s telling them news about their neighborhoods or their elected officials. Vaughn says he also takes joy in working with young people through WDET’s internship program to “foster the next generation of public radio journalists.” The media business has changed a great deal since he started 25 years ago—he remembers writing stories on a typewriter and pulling wire stories off a dot-matrix printer. But his purpose is the same: “Tell the truth. See what’s going on in the neighborhoods. Meet people committed to their communities and tell their stories.”

Alycia Meriweather, ’95
DEPUTY SUPERINTENDENT, DETROIT PUBLIC SCHOOLS COMMUNITY DISTRICT

After growing up in the city and teaching science in Detroit public schools for more than a decade, Meriweather moved into a leadership role. With Michigan’s largest district returned to local control after years of state-appointed emergency management, she has a chance to see her vision through. That means navigating challenges in both classroom education and policy. Meriweather only recently began her new role as deputy superintendent (after serving as interim superintendent), but she’s leaning hard on the heart and resilience of people in the city who have been rooting all along for the district to succeed. “My greatest hope is to have some role in creating a better Detroit for young people, who will then contribute to a greater Detroit for everyone,” she says. 

David Di Rita, ’86, JD’89
FOUNDER AND PRINCIPAL, THE ROXBURY GROUP

The firm that Di Rita and his business partner, Stacy Fox, ’74, JD’83, founded has been reshaping Detroit since 2005. Roxbury was instrumental in redeveloping the 100-year-old David Whitney Building and, in the old Globe Building, the Outdoor Adventure Center on the riverfront. From the beginning, Di Rita believed that “Detroit could repurpose its remarkable historic downtown.” But Roxbury was ahead of the curve. He remembers a ribbon-cutting in 2006 for an eight-unit apartment building downtown that made front page news. “There was … more than a little amazement that there were eight people who apparently wanted to live downtown,” Di Rita says. “Today, I look out the office of my window at over a dozen such developments underway within five city blocks.”

Lisa Nuszkowski, MPP’03
FOUNDER AND EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, MOGO DETROIT BIKE SHARE

Nuszkowski knows well that this auto-centric region has not invested sufficiently in public transportation. But that’s starting to change: Detroit’s first bike-share system opened this year, and its distinctive red bikes are now in regular use. It’s designed to be accessible to a broad range of people. Those receiving state benefits can get an annual pass for $5, and the system accepts cash payment for those who don’t use debit or credit cards. Nuszkowski hopes the program inspires people to think about transportation as a choice. “Instead of driving alone to work, perhaps you could take the bus into the city,” she says, “and use a bike for the last mile or to get to meetings throughout the day.”

Erin Einhorn, ’95
SENIOR DETROIT CORRESPONDENT AND FOUNDING EDITOR, CHALKBEAT DETROIT

Einhorn’s journalism career included work at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer, while authoring her book “The Pages in Between: A Holocaust Legacy of Two Families, One Home.” She then moved to downtown Detroit in 2014. Einhorn founded Chalkbeat Detroit, a local iteration of a nonprofit news organization that covers education. Through Chalkbeat, she untangles the complexities of school politics in Detroit and gives voice to “people who too often are not given a chance to be heard,” she says, including the city’s youngest residents, its hardworking teachers, and parents who want the best for their kids.

Larry Williams Jr., ’00
JUDGE, 36TH DISTRICT COURT

From the bench of one of the nation’s busiest courts, Williams wants to see people treated fairly. That might be more likely nowadays. He says that the justice system is more focused on rehabilitation and addressing core causes of bad actions than when he began as an assistant prosecutor in Wayne County in 2004. Beyond that, Williams is working to make the busy and sometimes intimidating 36th District Court in downtown Detroit more open and easier to navigate. “I want to make sure that there is equal access to justice,” he says, “no matter who you are or where you are from.”

Mark Wallace, MPP’04
PRESIDENT AND CEO, DETROIT RIVERFRONT CONSERVANCY

Twenty years ago, Detroit’s international riverfront was dominated by the concrete and metal detritus of industry. Now it’s a destination, featuring a vibrant promenade that will soon stretch 5.5 miles from the Ambassador Bridge to Gabriel Richard Park. Wallace leads the nonprofit tasked with building public access to the riverfront, which is regularly filled with children and adults playing, strolling, cycling, fishing, and picnicking. “Projects like the Detroit RiverWalk taught (the city) what we can do when we push back against a scarcity mentality and work together,” Wallace says. It’s a “a tangible reminder that we live in cities because life is more interesting when people from different backgrounds gather together in the same space.”

Tonya Allen, ’94, MPH’96, MSW’96
PRESIDENT AND CEO, THE SKILLMAN FOUNDATION

As head of The Skillman Foundation, Allen leads one of the most powerful forces in Detroit’s education landscape. The organization aims to build opportunities for children in a city where a disproportionate number grow up in poverty. Allen was the architect of Skillman’s 10-year, $120 million Good Neighborhoods Initiative, which worked with six neighborhoods to create the conditions for children to succeed. “I am proud that my work creates a platform for a cross sector of Detroiters … to improve conditions for youth and families in our city,” Allen says. It’s hard work, but there’s hope. Weathering the hard years, she says, has strengthened “a civic muscle within our city that is getting stronger and stronger.”

Arlene J. Frank, ’77
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, ISAAC AGREE DOWNTOWN SYNAGOGUE

Frank, a lifelong resident, is creating a new future for the last free-standing synagogue in Detroit. The Downtown Synagogue is an egalitarian community rooted in Jewish tradition, with a proudly diverse congregation that engages Jews and non-Jews in programming across the city. This includes urban gardening, soulful Shabbat services, dance parties, and, in partnership with a Christian congregation, deep-dive conversations around issues of race, class, and faith. This year, the synagogue returned its High Holiday services to Detroit after years of holding them in the suburbs. The move was the congregation’s way, Frank says, “to affirm our commitment to Detroit, to building relationship with our neighbors, and to historic spaces in the life of the Detroit Jewish community.” 

Sultan Sharrief, ’06
FILMMAKER, EDUCATOR, AND SOCIAL ENTREPRENEUR

Sharrief uses media and technology to promote greater diversity in the entertainment industry. At U-M, he created a new filmmaking model, Student EFEX, a three-tiered mentorship program in which U-M students and professionals work alongside youth in metro Detroit. “Bilal’s Stand,” which Sharrief made using this model, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010. After making two more feature films (“Mooz-Lum” and “Destined”), he received funding for “Street Cred,” his PBS youth reality show. “It is about the potential and power of Detroit high school kids,” says Sharrief, who is also a guest instructor at U-M and a curator for the Cinetopia International Film Festival.

Elizabeth Palazzola, ’07, MPP’12
GENERAL MANAGER, HOUSING AND REVITALIZATION DEPARTMENT, CITY OF DETROIT

After five hectic years working for the city of Detroit—years spanning two mayoral administrations, a state-appointed emergency manager, and the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history—Palazzola has learned how meaningful projects are developed. In the Housing and Revitalization Department, she relies on collaborative relationships. The best example, she says, was after devastating floods in 2014. “It was probably the first time that this region experienced very clearly the life-threatening results of climate change,” Palazzola says. Her office got an $8.9 million federal grant to improve resiliency with green infrastructure in Detroit neighborhoods. She also helped design the city’s first Office of Sustainability, which is bringing better opportunities, infrastructure, and amenities to all 139 square miles of the city.

Ryan Myers-Johnson, ’04
FOUNDER, DIRECTOR, AND CURATOR OF SIDEWALK DETROIT

Since 2012, Detroit’s Brightmoor and Old Redford neighborhoods have been the scene of a vibrant summer event called Sidewalk Festival. Founded by arts administrator and choreographer Myers-Johnson, the goal of the multiday event is to activate alleys, community gardens, storefronts, parks, and sidewalks with colorful installations and site-specific performances. “I wanted to create a grass-roots environment where people would appreciate the landscape and culture of Detroit through interactive, place-based performance,” says Myers-Johnson, who grew up on the northwest side of Detroit where the festival takes place. She is also assistant director of Kresge Arts in Detroit.

Nicole Stallings, ’07
DEPUTY DIRECTOR, WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT, MAYOR’S OFFICE, CITY OF DETROIT

It’s Stallings’ job to get Detroit working again—literally. As deputy director, she wants to provide Detroiters with “the right mix of resources and exposure to great local jobs so they achieve their career goals and are active participants in the city’s economic comeback.” Along with her team, this former president of U-M’s Michigan Student Assembly (now the Central Student Government) revitalized the Randolph Career and Technical Center. That involved rehabbing a building and doubling enrollment in a program for high school students to train for careers in the construction and building trades. The school aims to enroll 900 students in three years and 900 adults in additional courses.

Matt Cullen, ’78
PRESIDENT, ROCK VENTURES

After a long career at General Motors, Cullen has spent nearly a decade on revitalizing his hometown of Detroit. He leads Rock Ventures, which oversees more than 100 companies owned by Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert. It has invested at least $2.2 billion in downtown Detroit real estate since 2010. Cullen also assisted with redevelopment of the riverfront and QLine, which debuted this year as the first streetcar in Detroit in more than 60 years. He also helped guide General Motors’ acquisition of the iconic Renaissance Center. “My hope is that Detroit will once again take its place as one of the great cities in the world,” Cullen says, “a place of innovation, inclusion, and accomplishment.”

Jackie Victor, ’88
CO-FOUNDER AND CEO, AVALON INTERNATIONAL BREADS

In 1997, when Victor and her business partner started Avalon in Detroit’s Cass Corridor, the area was considered one of the poorest, most crime-ridden parts of the country. “Outside, there were 300 people sleeping in tents on their last social safety net,” Victor recalls of the organic bakery’s early days. “We thought Detroiters deserved something better.” Now, even with other outposts—including a 50,000-square-foot baking facility in Detroit and a restaurant in Ann Arbor—Avalon’s original mission remains the same: to nurture the community, earth, and employees. Eating a slice of sourdough bread at the original site on West Willis Street, where the tables are still filled with neighborhood patrons, you can taste Victor’s success story.

Stephanie Chang, ’05, MPP’14, MSW’14
MICHIGAN STATE REPRESENTATIVE

Since 2005, when Chang moved to Detroit, downtown development has awakened hope for the city—and also concerns about excluding longtime residents from the revitalization. Chang—the first Asian-American woman to be elected to the Michigan Legislature—wants to fight for equity. Now in her second term in the Michigan House of Representatives, she balances statewide policy, like the bill she sponsored to provide re-entry services for the wrongfully imprisoned, with direct services. Her Detroit center counsels residents on how to stave off tax foreclosure and hosts community baby showers for low-income mothers. It’s a model that Chang hopes will “instill greater confidence in government and for those who feel government isn’t working for them.”

Aaron Dworkin, ’97, MMUS’98
FOUNDER OF THE SPHINX ORGANIZATION

Afa Sadykhly Dworkin, ’97, MMUS’99
PRESIDENT/ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF THE SPHINX ORGANIZATION

The husband-and-wife team behind the Sphinx Organization share a lifelong commitment to diversity in the arts. Sphinx focuses on education and access, artist development, performing artists, and arts leadership. The organization’s programs reach 10,000 annually. In 2016, Michelle Obama presented the Sphinx Overture program with a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program award for providing free violins and lessons to all public elementary schools in Flint, Michigan, and some schools in Detroit. Aaron, former dean of U-M’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance, now teaches entrepreneurship.

Stephen Henderson, ’92
EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR, DETROIT FREE PRESS
HOST OF “DETROIT TODAY” ON WDET

When Henderson won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2014, the citation described his columns as “written with passion and a stirring sense of place, sparing no one in their critique.” The Detroit native has worked at other papers. But he returned to his hometown in 2009, just in time to cover the city as it moved through cataclysmic economic change. “Hands off our stuff, you soulless, greedy, scavenging vultures,” read the headline of his piece about creditors who were eyeing the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts during the bankruptcy. Henderson has since expanded into public radio, hosting an in-depth news show every weekday, and he founded The Tuxedo Project, which is turning his childhood home into a writer’s residence and literary center.

Anika Goss-Foster, MSW’94
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, DETROIT FUTURE CITY

In Detroit, Goss-Foster relies on her early experience working in East Peoria, Illinois. “I learned how to take my very urban revitalization expertise and transfer those skills to a 99 percent white, rural, very low-income community that had many of the same issues as the big cities,” she says. There’s no substitute for connecting on a human level, she learned. That’s why community participation is the cornerstone of her work at Detroit Future City, which shepherds the city’s 50-year strategic framework for land use and development. It is informed by more than 100,000 Detroiters who participated in the process to plan the city they want to see. “This resurgence of community voice is both refreshing and empowering,” Goss-Foster says.

Raquel Castañeda-López, MSW’07
COUNCIL MEMBER, CITY OF DETROIT

A Detroit native, Castañeda-López became the first Latina elected to the Detroit City Council in 2013. She also was the first in her family to graduate from college. The 36-year-old puts her skills as a social worker to use on the council’s Public Health & Safety Committee and as the liaison to Detroit Public Schools. She co-founded Detroit’s Immigration Task Force, which works to make the city a more welcoming and global place, and she’s a leading advocate for environmental justice. “The passage of the fugitive dust ordinance after four years of hard work is something I’m incredibly proud of as well as our community outreach through door knocking or our mobile office and service center.”


Anna Clark, ’03, is a journalist living in Detroit. Her book, “The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy,” will be published in 2018.

Sharrief photo by Doug Coombe | Allen photo by Shawn Lee | Cullen photo courtesy of Jack Entertainment | Myers-Johnson photo courtesy Of Ryan Myers-Johnson | Castañeda-López Photo By Jacob Lewkow | All other photos By Brad Ziegler