School of Social Work Professor Richard Smith secures grants from Ford Motor Company Fund for student-led community development projects

For two years in a row, School of Social Work (SSW) students enrolled in Advanced Community Building and Development classes, taught by SSW professor Richard Smith, PhD, have gained hands on community social work experience through projects at non-profit organizations.

“My students participated in Ford Community Corps, a career development program that links non-profit organizations to university students by Ford Motor Company,” said Smith who secured over $12,000 in grants for the projects, which involved partnerships with Demographic Inspirations and Southwest Economic Solutions.

Students got a chance to work with community organizations on projects that met a pressing need. They also joined the Blue Oval Network, an exclusive opportunity for career resources from Ford Motor Company. Amanda Dawnrich was one of the participants last year.

“This was my first experience with hands-on community assessments and organizational skill sets in a neighborhood and group setting,” Dawnrich said. “The experience catapulted my development of appropriate social interventions utilizing practice and Evidence Based Research (EBR).”

Demographic Inspirations, founded by Ronald Matten, was created to beautify and revitalize local blighted neighborhoods. Students in the 2021 Demographic Inspirations project conducted a community assessment to gauge priorities for the reuse of vacant lots as well as identify potential funders. They also assisted with various cleanup and maintenance activities.                                                    

“Students surveyed community residents and learned that while most knew Mr. Ronald Matten, several did not know he had created a non-profit called Demographic Inspirations. To increase visibility of the organization, our students created flyers to market various events,” Smith said.

Southwest Economic Solutions, founded by the late Monsignor Clement Kern, provides opportunities for individuals and families to achieve greater economic success. Students participating in the 2020 Southwest Economic Solutions project worked with Caitlyn Pisarski, manager of Adult Learning Labs, on a quantitative and qualitative analysis of program data from 2014 to 2020. They prepared a report and presentation for Pisarski.

On another project in 2020, students developed and analyzed a client assessment survey regarding digital access and technology preferences for residents of Southwest Detroit. Students created a PowerPoint training for staff on how to use Zoom with clients.

An additional project involved the Motor City Dance Academy, which needed $5,000 to replace the floor of its dance studio. Students reviewed the criteria from local grantmaking organizations and brainstormed ideas for fundraisers. “Since face-to-face activities weren’t possible due to the pandemic, they recommended a crowdfunding GoFundMe campaign. Spreading the word through their social networks, students helped raise $5,600 in 48 hours, enough for a new dance floor for Detroit’s youth," said Smith.

Smith called the projects both challenging and rewarding.

The most challenging part is navigating different expectations between the university and the community. It’s always rewarding working with students who are doing community social work. It requires communication, conflict resolution, and flexibility. - Richard Smith

Smith’s support and encouragement for his students to make a difference in the community made an equally significant impact on the students themselves.

“I was lucky to be a participant,” said Dawnrich. "Dr. Smith was a fantastic source of insightfulness and guidance on the project. I was given the freedom to creatively assess and organize for the well-being of the neighborhood and non-profit founder.”

Ford Fund ended the Ford Community Corps program in April after 10 years. In a statement, the Fund said “the program would not have been possible without the students who are dedicated to making a difference in their communities.” Learn more about Ford Fund and its programs here.

Author: Laura Hipshire,

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