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Dustin Dwyer

Reporter/Producer

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.

In 2010, Dustin left journalism to be a stay-at-home dad. Now that his daughter Irene is turning two, he's happy to be back at Michigan Radio, where there are far fewer temper-tantrums. 

Ways to Connect

Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio

The tiny white ball arcs against the cold gray sky, almost too hard to see.  

"That's a good ball," says Devon Kitchen, eyes focused as the ball drops quietly on the still-soggy fairway at Lincoln Golf Club on the northern edge of Muskegon.

It’s one of those days when spring backtracks, feels more like winter. Not a great day for golfing.

But it doesn’t seem to bother Kitchen. The 17-year-old is just happy to be on the course again. He's dressed in a bright orange cap, dark gray pullover and black pants. Tiger colors. Kitchen is a student at the Muskegon Heights Public School Academy, home of the Tigers. Before Kitchen showed up at the school, the Tigers didn't have a golf team. Now they do. 

"It was a challenge," Kitchen says, "but we got here."

Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio

"Used to be a church right here," Jamiel Robinson says, nodding toward a storefront on South Division in Grand Rapids. 

"Yeah?" I say, eyeing the business. "Now they do tattoos. Ain’t the same at all."

"It’s not the same."

We're standing at the corner of Division and McConnell. Next to us is a gray, boarded up building Robinson’s grandfather once owned. It had a barbershop, a candy store, a pool hall and apartments upstairs. But it was old and needed repairs. In 2005, Robinson’s family sold it.

Then the building boom in the area happened.  

Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio

Grand Rapids is changing.

Michigan’s second-largest city is in the middle of a development boom. All around town, new buildings are going up, or old buildings are being renovated.

It’s a welcome sight for many who endured the long years of Michigan’s devastating recession.

But the new development in Grand Rapids has raised new questions about whether everyone in the city will benefit from the boom times. And, as is often the case, many of the questions revolve around racial equity.

This week and next, State of Opportunity will dive into those questions to see what’s happening, and what can be done about it.

Tracey Addison moved onto Logan Street in Grand Rapids when she was seven years old. I met here as she walked her little black dog Coco on a sunny day.

She had on a long coat and sunglasses while she pushed her walker through a neighborhood that’s starting to look a lot different from the one she moved into all those years ago.

flickr.com/hckyso

Education is one of the best ways to get ahead in America. So, why do so many young people from poor backgrounds drop out? An economic paper published this month by the Brookings Institution suggests one possible answer, and it has nothing to do with grades or test scores. Maybe, for kids who grow up poor, with evidence of inequality all around them, dropping out of school just seems like the rational choice. 

It should be the opposite. Most economists would say, kids who start out at the bottom of the economic heap should have the incentive to get as much education as possible. Many economists believe the problem really comes down to skills. Young people trying to climb up out of poverty want to be highly educated, the thinking goes. They just don't get the right skills and training along the way. In this model, the education system itself is where the problem occurs, and that's where the fix is needed.

But the new Brookings paper by economists Melissa Kearney and Philip Levine (who we previously mentioned here) suggests the problem lies elsewhere.

Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio

Nearly every day, a silver Subaru makes its way through the tiny towns and white pine woods of Wexford County, in northern Michigan.

Behind the wheel is Jeannie Schnitker, a nurse with the state’s Maternal and Infant Health Program.

Last week, I tagged along for a ride.

flickr.com/caelestis

It was November, and the first snowfall had already arrived, reminding everyone of another long, cold winter yet to come. The passengers boarded the train at Union Depot in Detroit, 432 of them in all, bound for Mexico. They had arrived in Michigan in better times, back when the state was so desperate for workers, sugar beet farmers had sent recruiters driving down to Texas to offer jobs to any Mexican immigrants willing to make the trip north. Working the sugar beet farms beat picking cotton, and there was less racial tension up north. Thousands of Mexicans took the offer.

Once they arrived in Michigan, many discovered there were many more opportunities beyond the sugar beet farms. So they headed to Detroit, to be a part of a booming new industry, making automobiles for Henry Ford. Historian Zaragosa Vargas recounts their stories in his book Proletarians of the North : Mexican Industrial Workers in Detroit and the Midwest, 1917 – 1933. Vargas writes that 15,000 Mexican immigrants were living in Detroit and working in its factories by 1929.

Then the stock market crashed.

woman in cap and gown
Schlüsselbein2007 / Flickr CC / HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0

It was February 2006, almost exactly 10 years ago, when then-governor Jennifer Granholm used her weekly radio address to urge state lawmakers to pass a new set of rigorous high school curriculum requirements.

"We have to increase the skill level of our students," Granholm said. "We have to increase our efforts to give our children, who are our future workforce, the math and science education they need to succeed in the 21st century."

The Legislature acted, and the next school year, the Michigan Merit Curriculum went into effect.

Now, nearly 10 years later, we may finally have an answer on whether it worked. 

courtesy Vanessa Gutierrez

Vanessa Gutierrez doesn't remember Mexico.

It's there in her baby pictures, in family albums. She's seen what it looks like, and she knows she was born there, but she doesn't remember it.

Her parents brought her to the U.S. when she was three. They worked hard, she says, they paid their taxes and went to church and gave her a great childhood.

Then Gutierrez got to high school, and started thinking about her future.

Gutierrez says it was right around the time her friends started signing up for driver’s ed.

"And I remember talking to my parents about it," she says. "And number one was the cost. They couldn’t afford it, for me to take that course. And, number two, when I started asking other questions, such as 'can I enroll in college?' that’s when I started to find out those answers."

Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio

It’s 8:45 on a Saturday morning, and I’m following along with one of the co-founders of Reach Out to Youth, a long-running program that brings elementary age kids into medical school for a day.

The idea behind Reach out to Youth is that many kids are interested in getting into the medical field, but very few kids get to go inside a medical school.

"If you want to learn a language, you go to a country," Dr. Carolyn King says. "If you want to learn a career, you go to the place where the careers are."

flickr.com/nichd

Colin Parks gets an email alert almost every time a baby in Michigan dies in their sleep.

Parks is head of Michigan’s Child Protective Services, and he tells me he gets far too many of these emails; they arrive almost every other day.

“In Michigan,” he says, “we lose about 140 to 150 infants a year, and that’s a number that’s been pretty static over time.”

It’s been static, even though Parks, and everyone else who works on infant safety has been desperately trying to get the message out. The message is for all babies to sleep alone, on their back and in an empty crib. To simplify, they use a slogan - ABC - alone, back, crib.

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