Students from Cesar Chavez Academy planting their urban garden with the help of Green Place Detroit. (Courtesy Green Place Detroit)

Rebuilding Detroit through STEM, one student at a time

When one thinks of Detroit, one thinks of the automotive capital of America that sadly filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history this past July.  

However, there is a group called Green Place Detroit which is trying to put the once 10th largest city in the U.S. back on the map.

Tony Argote is one of the five automotive engineers at General Motors who founded the non-profit, which connects Detroit middle school and high school students to the world of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). By working with local architects, builders, engineers, and teachers to build a house from recycled/repurposed shipping containers (ISBU), as well as an urban garden, the program encourages young students to attend college and concentrate in fields related to STEM.

“I was talking with a couple of my co-workers about how to do more outside of work for the community, and one of my co-workers used to be a teacher at Cesar Chavez Academy — we thought it would be kind of neat to give them a new kind of after-school program,” says the technology specialist for charging electric vehicles. “We wanted to show students you could do a lot with an engineering degree.”

Since its inception in 2009, the group of about 25 students per year meets once a week for after school and some weekends — from January through the middle of the summer — on property in Southeast Detroit that was acquired with the support of the Michigan Land Bank, several sponsorships from the GM Foundation and smaller investors such as a couple of churches, families and friends who heard what the group was doing and wrote them checks.

Tony Argote, one of the founders of Green Place Detroit. (Courtesy Tony Argote)

Tony Argote, one of the founders of Green Place Detroit. (Courtesy Tony Argote)

Argote remembers it was a similar program, and a teacher who believed in him, that led him to his successful career in Detroit — his home for the past six years.

“I grew up in Miami, Florida, and my parents are Cuban immigrants,” says Argote who wasn’t sure what kind of university he could go to. “One of my high school teachers was a Georgia Tech grad and encouraged me to apply.”

After landing some scholarships to attend Georgia Tech for mechanical engineering, Argote partnered with General Motors through a recurring internship in which he’d work one semester and then study the next semester.

Today, he enjoys opening other kids’ eyes to careers they might not otherwise know exist because of a lack of exposure.

“One of the students came up and asked me. ‘Mr. how old are you?,’” says the 28-year-old who at the time was 26. “He was like, ‘You’re an engineer Mr.? You must make a lot of money,’ and he asked, ‘How did you do that?’”

Argote says he responded that he went to college, and he saw the young boy’s eyes light up with the possibility that that could be him one day.

“Every year it’s the same story — different students, but there’s always one that is touched especially,” says Argote. “We care about our families and the area we live in. There’s something to be said about being proud of where you are from.  We’ve watched the transformation from year to year – we’ve watched the neighborhood embrace the project.”

“We’ve started building this positive energy – it’s just been great.”

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