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Fans of the 826Michigan franchise may have felt a little like Charlie from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, wondering when the long-anticipated Detroit Robot Factory would officially begin operations. Fear not, friends of fiction (and nonfiction!), the time is near! 826Michigan will soon open the doors on its Detroit location (after a ribbon-cutting and soft opening that celebrated the completion of construction on October 5th), with the downstairs storefront open for business on December 3rd, and regular drop-in tutoring hours beginning in January 2017. As soon as this month, the freshly-renovated space located at 1351 Winder Street in Detroit’s Eastern Market will begin hosting its first field trips.

 “That’s when the whole class comes here during the day,” said Nancy Sizer, Development Director for 826Michigan, on a tour of the expansive upper-floor learning lab space, still in a state of unpacking. “So they’ll have all this workspace, and their little projection and demonstration space there. And then the middle space here will have lots of paper and binding machines to make books on site, and that kind of thing.” 

Guests in DRF1The newly-finished space, full of visitors at the soft-opening for the Detroit Robot Factory. Photo courtesy of 826Michigan.The back of the suite provides work space for the 826Michigan staff, which includes Sizer, Executive Director Amanda Uhle, Program Director Brandan Pierce, Program Coordinator Sheena Crenshaw, and Program Assistant Sydney Morgan-Green (among others).

ComiqueCon SRS826Michigan staff, volunteers and budding authors during the ComiqueCon workshop "A Day in the Life of a Villain: Alternative Perspectives in Comics." Photo courtesy of Sarah Rose Sharp.Pierce, Crenshaw, and Morgan-Green were on hand at ComiqueCon 2016 on October 22nd—a one-day comic book convention celebrating women in comics hosted by the Arab American National Museum. As just one of their many active programs, which include in-class curriculum and more informal events, 826Michigan facilitated a writing workshop titled A Day in the Life of a Villain: Alternative Perspectives in Comics—a creative writing workshop in which attendees gave the bad guys a chance to tell their tales. This activity had 826 written all over it—combining a reading and writing activity with a subtle exercise in empathy and trying to understand a different point of view. Whether it’s regular staff orchestrating structured programs, or 826Michigan’s healthy corps of volunteers standing by to assist in schools (currently multiple classrooms within four or five Detroit schools and 11 in Washtenaw County) or during tutoring drop-in hours, the organization is led by a desire to meet students where they’re at, and offer them whatever support they need to connect with inspiration.

“The way our organization works is, everyone is giving what they have,” said Uhle. “They’re giving their time, they’re giving their experience as a student in school, they’re giving their writing skills.” 

826Michigan has been operating for about 11 years, largely serving Ypsilanti students and operating out of the Robot Repair Shop storefront in Ann Arbor. Like all chapters of 826National—co-founded by best-selling author, philanthropist, and multiplatform publishing powerhouse Dave Eggers—the 826 hub connects students with access to free supplies, tutoring, and encouragement to help keep them on track with their schoolwork and creative ambitions. These learning spaces are cleverly hidden behind storefronts with wacky themes; in Ann Arbor, it’s the Liberty Street Robot Supply and Repair shop, expanded in the Detroit location to be the Detroit Robot Factory in a nod to the city’s history of industrial manufacturing. 

“Four years ago, maybe a little more, we wanted to see whether our work would resonate in Detroit,” said Uhle. “It was a desire of ours, but we didn’t know whether it was a desire of the community. We started in a slow, tiptoe way, which has been, in my opinion, just a beautiful way to do it. It has had so many benefits over the rushing-in kind of style. And I think we’re really proud of that, and how it’s unfolded.”

Cassidy cuts the ribbonAt the October 5th ribbon-cutting. Photo courtesy of 826Michigan.Fundraising has been a necessary aspect of the Detroit Robot Factory, and the organization is currently on the cusp of achieving a final push to raise $25,000 in the 826 hours since the ribbon-cutting. There are a couple of additional opportunities to contribute to 826Michigan’s efforts on the horizon. Thursday, November 10th is “Eat Your Words,” an evening of food and stories in Eastern Market’s Shed 5, which will benefit the Detroit programs—providing supplemental teacher-directed support to build capacity in crowded classrooms. For music-lovers, there’s Mittenfest 2016, an Ypsilanti music festival which benefits 826Michigan, and returns December 29th through 31st for its 10th annual installment. Mittenfest—which is currently organized by Linda Jordan and Dina Bankole of the all-female musician alliance, Seraphine Collective—has raised $130,000 for 826Michigan over the past decade. All of this fundraising and careful planning might be seen by some as frustrating delays, but Uhle is quick to present a different perspective on the time its taken to open the Detroit Robot Factory.

“We approached things in the way we ask our students to approach things—with curiosity, humility, and openness,” she said. “And we just kept hearing yes, let’s do it. Over and over, let’s do more. And that’s why it’s such a nice thing to be here, even though to some who have known us for a long time, it seems like it took us forever to get our doors open—that’s just exactly the way we wanted to do it.” 

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