November 20, 2017

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A 92-Year-Old Activist to the Rescue in Michigan

Doris-Rucks

Doris Rucks

Sitting on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, Muskegon Heights—once a bustling manufacturing center—is now part of the rust belt, and one of the most impoverished cities in the state. The Muskegon Heights schools had been facing deep budget cuts, and in 2003, the district, which has recently been through series of emergency managers, no longer had enough funds to employ staff librarians at its four campuses.

But Muskegon Heights is also home to an active base of community advocates. One of the driving forces is 92-year-old Doris Rucks, a retired professor of sociology and African studies and former organizer with the Urban League. Twelve years ago, Rucks founded the Coalition for Community Development (CCD); among its many committees is the Friends of the Muskegon Heights Branch Library.

Concerned about school libraries, Rucks reached out to fellow members of Creative Compassionate Community (C3), a progressive spiritual group based in nearby Grand Haven, an affluent and mostly white community. “She brings people together, black and white,” says children’s author Margaret Willey, a member of C3 and the Friends. “It’s impossible to say no to her.”

Volunteers began running the elementary school library in 2010 and over the years have expanded their efforts to other campuses. The high school library re-opened in 2015, and now, two dozen people donate their time to keep four campus libraries staffed. Each library is open two days a week, with community members cataloging books, decorating the rooms and reading with kids.

Rucks believes the library environment and the support of the volunteers can stimulate and motivate students, even those who may not be identified as academically successful.  “To have a book with pictures that express African Americans in our situation, African American heroes and stars, sometimes those students who have not been identified as [successful] may become that kind of student,” she says.

For the past four years, volunteers and the Friends have also raised money to bring an author to speak at the schools each fall. Author G. Neri, whose books often center on the experiences of urban boys of color, visited in the fall. The author received the 2011 Coretta Scott King Honor for his graphic novel Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty and the Lee Hopkins Promising Poet Award for his free-verse novella Chess Rumble (Lee & Low, 2010 and 2007).

After his presentation in the auditorium, Neri met with about 20 students with an interest in writing or other creative arts, and the teens opened up about their experiences. A few weeks before Neri’s visit, another high school had abruptly cancelled a football game at Muskegon Heights Academy (MHA), due to fears of violence. One girl was “so angered by the misperceptions the outside world had about her school that she was shaking,” Neri says. “People thought if they went there, they’d be killed. But she and her fellow students were bright and kind.” The author encouraged MHA students to write their own narratives about the community.

The MHA student body is 95 percent black, and volunteers are overwhelmingly white, many of them retired teachers and librarians from nearby wealthier communities. But “they look at these kids the same way I do,” Neri says. “We’re all equals here.”

While the volunteers have made strides in bringing the libraries back to life, organizers know they may not always be able to keep up their efforts. “It’s getting harder to recruit people,” says Kathleen Kleaveland, CCD literacy chair. “When we started there were a lot of people willing to do this. Every August, when we start looking at volunteers, it’s been harder to keep them. And I worry about that.”

As the Muskegon school system stabilizes, organizers hope that the school libraries won’t be completely dependent on the kindness of neighbors in the future. “One of my wishes and hopes is that we can interest the school system as seeing this as an integral part of any learning,” says Rucks. “So that in their budgetary discussions, they will allot money for the libraries.” The greatest sign of success for the volunteers may be that their services are no longer needed.


Grace Hwang Lynch is a freelance writer in the San Francisco Bay area. She blogs at hapamama.com.

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Comments

  1. Margot Haynes says:

    The Coalition for Community Development provides library classes for elementary schoolchildren so they have a chance to check out books and hear books read to them once a week. In addition, they provide mentor adults who work with individual children in kindergarten and first grade who are selected by the teachers as needing extra one-on-one time. Thanks for getting this going, Doris!

  2. Kathryn Riggs says:

    I worked many years for Muskegon County and with Ms. Rucks. Her strength and community spirit is truly inspiring. She is a role model for all.

  3. Who do we get in touch with if we’d like to help in some way?

    • Ellie Williams says:

      If you live in the Muskegon Heights area, I can put you in touch with the literacy volunteer coordinator.
      Message me.

  4. Keith A. Bovee says:

    Doris I have always respected your willingness and ability to get things done. This is just another example of what you have given to the community. May God Bless you.

  5. I would love to read what the students wrote about Muskegon Heights

  6. Carol Schwemin says:

    Doris is one fiesty lady! If she sees a problem she TACKLES it head on vs. complain and criticize!! We love her leadership! What an inspiration she is for everyone!!!!

  7. It’s so uplifting to hear stories-real stories of people like Doris. Kudos to you and to the people who commented, who know Doris – the great, compassionate and caring person she is.

  8. Why is that the majority black communities in Michigan seem to be the ones with “emergency managers” and cuts to basic services a state, and local government should provide to its citizens?
    Muskegon County is using volunteers instead of paid professional librarians, Detroit school buildings are unsafe, and worst of all is the water crisis in Flint. I applaud Ms. Rucks, but it seems to me that the voters of Michigan should be holding their elected state and local government accountable for failure and band together to throw out the officials running the state and the policies they are enacting.