How Detroit Teaches Resilience

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Emilio Alonso-Mendoza summerDear Alexander Graham Bell Community,

Transformation is always challenging and often uncomfortable, but it can bring outstanding rewards.

This week I have been in Detroit, attending the annual meeting of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), the professional development resource for association leaders. Joining me from AG Bell were Lisa Chutjian, Chief Development Officer and Susan Boswell, Director of Communications.

It was my first visit back in a number of years, since before Detroit's economic downturn. Certainly, few people expected the city to make a comeback after declaring bankruptcy in 2013. I'm sure you can imagine, as I did, how depressed and bereft the people of Detroit must be feeling. But that's not the city we encountered. On the contrary, everywhere we went, we met people who were optimistic, courteous and pleasant. From taxi drivers to food servers, from security guards to hotel staff, everyone was eager to talk about the wonders of their city and did so with energy and a sense of welcome to the visitor.  

GM Center
GM Renaissance Center

Credit: Crisco 1492 

The city has embraced an initiative called "Opportunity Detroit" and it seems that residents understand that an optimistic and positive attitude is the mindset that will bring back business and visitors and increase their prosperity. From the moment we arrived at the airport, we were greeted with banners welcoming ASAE members. The newly renovated Cobo Center, where the conference took place, was polished and ready for us. Detroit's Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau engaged an outstanding team of staff and volunteers who helped ASAE coordinate transportation, hotel accommodations, receptions and outings, including a terrific party in Hart Plaza on the riverfront, all overlooked by the breathtaking world headquarters complex of General Motors. Truly, it was impressive to see the story of America in action, people facing adversity and becoming greater by overcoming their challenges.  

Car from GM Center
Hart Plaza car show during closing session. 

Among the excellent sessions were three referred to as "Game Changers" that were led by some outstanding presenters. Sheryl Connolly, who manages global trends and futuring for Ford Motor Company, spoke to us about the importance of identifying trends early and adapting to likely changes. She encouraged us to use this information to promote collaboration and an open exchange of ideas. Sheryl advised us to not fear the future, accept that the past is not a good indicator of the future especially in these fast-moving times, and to challenge our assumptions. Innovation is necessary for any organization to succeed, but we'll find it easier to prosper in the future if we "start having meaningful discussions about it right now." Reflecting that, Liz Wiseman, author of "Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work," urged us to think like a rookie, seeking out and soaking up knowledge, asking questions and avoiding patterns. Alex Sheen, who founded the social movement Because I Said I Would, reminded us of the importance of keeping our promises. He emphasized that this is core to human existence and "can change the world and the lives of others."

While we were there, we had the opportunity to meet with Regina Baker, teacher consultant for the deaf and hard of hearing, and Celeste Johnson, special education teacher, of Detroit Public Schools. They are spearheading the education of about 300 students in grades K-12 who are deaf and hard of hearing who use various types of communication methods including listening and spoken language, total communication and American Sign Language. It was interesting to hear their impressions of how students, particularly the two-thirds using listening and spoken language, have been mainstreamed and the challenges their parents have been managing. Part of their struggle is to ensure their students are prepared to enter the workforce and access college after high school graduation, and they continue to support their students' self-advocacy and work to break down barriers. I'm looking forward to working more closely with Celeste and Regina, who has recently been promoted to direct services for students who are deaf and hard of hearing at the County District level, to better understand how our students are being served in the public school system and how AG Bell can better support their advancement.

Volta Voices Magazine Volume 22 Issue 3. smallAs our families prepare for their child's return to school, perhaps you'll want to think about transformation and how we are affected by our society, our education and our community. Now is a good time to meet with school staff to discuss accommodations that are in place for your child and to foster parent-teacher communication. In the Volta Voices article, "Ways to Make Sure Your Child's Therapy Keeps Pace with Classroom Demands," Krystyann Krywko, Ed.D., notes that the beginning of each school year is a good time for parents of children with hearing loss to ensure that therapy goals are intertwined with and responsive to the curriculum. Krystyann advises parents to understand the realities of what is happening in the classroom so the supports are in place to face academic challenges. The latest issue of Volta Voices, "The Thresholds of Life: Navigation Transitions," includes articles about how children with hearing loss can be successful in school, and it gives tips on how to introduce and work on new vocabulary. Other parents are a good resource, too, and AG Bell's chapters can help you build connections to parents who have experienced some of these challenges and learn how they managed them.

New ideas, fresh energy, renewed focus - these are the things that are helping Detroit rise from the ashes. They are what experts are helping us understand as the wave of the future. They are what will help us to achieve better outcomes for our children. Let's get those meaningful discussions underway - I hope you'll share your stories at and let us know what's going on in your family, your practice and your community. I'll keep sharing what's going on at AG Bell.

Until next week,

Emilio Alonso-Mendoza

"Detroit is a place where we've had it pretty tough. But there is a generosity here and a well of kindness that goes deep."
- Mitch Albom