Sarah Alvarez

Public Insight Journalist

Sarah is the Senior Producer/Public Insight Analyst at Michigan Radio. Her job is to encourage people to share what they know and become sources for Michigan Radio and to help tell those stories.

Before coming back to Michigan and jumping into journalism Sarah was a civil rights lawyer in New York and a consultant to social justice organizations in California. She graduated from the University of Michigan, Columbia Law School and the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University.

She lives in Ann Arbor with her wonderful husband and three wonderful, busy kids.

 

Ways To Connect

Photo by Sarah Alvarez/Michigan Radio

All this week we're bringing you a special series on cancer and the environment.

Cancer is a scary enough word, and cancer cluster can sound even scarier. That term describes a place where more people have cancer than you’d expect to find in the rest of the population. But finding out if a cluster really exists and then getting something done about it is hard, really hard.

Claire Schlaff doesn’t know if there’s a cancer cluster in her small resort community around White Lake, Michigan on the western side of the state. She says she just wanted to know more about what might have caused her son, Doug to get cancer and die three years ago.

“He went to two major medical facilities and was even in a clinical trial. They were focused on treatment. They weren’t about doing research into what causes Ewing’s Sarcoma.”

Claire’s daughter-in-law Polly was also looking for answers to what had caused the disease. She’s Doug’s widow and the mother of his three boys.

“He was diagnosed when he was 33 and he passed away when he was 35. We were high school sweethearts. He was a high school counselor; he was a high school basketball coach. He was an athlete.”

courtesy of Dianne Johns

As part of our Your Family Story series, we collected recipes that have been passed down within families.This is our contest winner, Dianne Johns of Lansing is our winner. We'd still like your stories about family culture and traditions. Add it here. 

The very best traditional Lebanese Easter food is the Easter cookies. They are called kaik. This is a two syllable word with a very subtle distinction between the syllables (kah-ick). The pronunciation is so similar to a slang word for a part of the male anatomy, that we rarely use it around the non-Lebanese.

I had never made kaik before. My sister, Holly made it once with the Lebanese-born cousins. They wouldn’t let her do anything but cook because they were afraid she would mess it up. Their cookies are perfection.

My sister Holly, her sister in law Linda, my friend Susie and I all got together at Holly’s house with my mother’s recipe, Linda’s experience, 10 pounds of flour, huge packages of mashed dates and walnuts, and a “What the hell” spirit. We were joined by another sister,Carol, and another Lebanese friend, Dolores, who is also an expert.

Living in Michigan is a real advantage when you are making Lebanese food. There are more Arabs in Michigan than any other state, so the ingredients for Lebanese food are usually available. These cookies call for finely ground mahleb (cherry pits) and anise. No problem. Just go to the bulk food store on Pennsylvania Avenue.

This recipe makes around 50 fairly large cookies.

Grant Fry

Grant Fry of Lake Orion sent us a story as part of our culture project on the importance of hunting in his family.

Today is the first day mentored hunting licenses are available in Michigan for children 10 years-old and younger.

Fry shared his reflections on hunting in Michigan as a boy and a man (share your story here):

As a boy growing up in Northern Michigan, hunting season, especially firearms deer season was a tradition.

Going hunting that first time and taking your first deer were as important as getting your drivers’ license. The public schools closed as teachers and students went into the woods.

"Mister" is dropped in deer camp and you can address all the adults by their first name. The expectation is you are a man and you are expected to do a man's work and take on a man's responsibility.

That has been and continues to be passed down through the generations.

I've been out hunting on opening day of firearms season for 42 years.

The anticipation builds up at dinner the night before-listening and telling stories of past hunts and past hunters. Then, there’s getting up at 4:30 in the morning to a big breakfast and lots of coffee.

Seeing the joy on your son's face as he takes his first deer and appreciates the transition he's made and seeing him accept the responsibilities of becoming a man.

Work has forced me out of Northern Michigan.

I've lost contact with some friends. My two boys are even more distributed due to out of state work and can't always make it back to hunt.

It is a loss.

courtesy of Carlos Manzo

Most Americans have ethnic and cultural roots outside of the U.S. We're asking you to share cultural traditions that are still important to you.

Changing Gears is looking for stories, recipes, songs, and pictures. We'll be collecting these stories  on the Your Family Story page. They'll also appear at changinggears.info and we'll even put some on the air. You can share your story here.

In the early 1900’s our widowed great grandmother, Soledad Perez, left the USA and went back to La Piedad in Mexico to raise her four daughters: Luz, Angelina, Esther & Carmen.

In the winter of 1948 my mother, Esther, a young newly married 17 year-old, found herself in a Mexican border town boarding a train headed for the USA. Her husband (my father Antonio Ramirez Manzo) gave her an address of a Catholic parish in Detroit, MI.

photo courtesy of Kedron Rhodes

A lot of people like where they live, but there are also people like Kedron Rhodes-who love, love, love, where they live.

The 34 year-old professional designer lives outside of Grand Rapids.

He just can't think of enough ways to show his appreciation for Michigan. But he's trying. One of his ideas is to run a design challenge of sorts. 

Each day in February, Rhodes is making a new graphic design and posting it online.

Anyone can download the designs and use them as they see fit.

Name: Kelly Nieman Anderson
Midwest Home: Ann Arbor, MI

Kelly and her husband moved to Mexico City in 2008 to keep him working in the auto industry. They returned to Ann Arbor in 2010. She shared her thoughts about what she missed while she was away and some lessons she learned in Mexico with Changing Gears' Midwest Migration project.

Name: Esperanza Rubio Torres
Midwest Home: Lansing, MI
New Home: San Luis Potosi, Mexico

I was making ends meet by working a couple waitressing jobs, the winter was coming, and I think I had gotten depressed and sort of refused to recognize it. My life was in an ugly rut. After much thought, I threw all my cares to the wind. I sold my car and I quit my jobs and got out of Michigan. It was really freeing and scary and amazing.

I can't give any real reason why I left, exactly, but I just felt like I was done with Michigan and Michigan was done with me. I ended up moving to Mexico with my parents who had decided to retire there.

Is it better here in Mexico than in Michigan? I think it is unfair to compare, it's apples and oranges.I am happier and healthier than I was in Michigan.

I have no plans to move back to the Midwest. But, I miss my friends and the family I left there. I still recall with great joy the beautiful moments I spent there, and the warmness of the people in the city I was born in. Lansing really is a gem, and anyone who thinks otherwise doesn't really know Lansing. That said I do not miss the winter-so many grey months where I felt sad and depressed, shoveling, expensive produce and driving everywhere. I really love where I am now, and the challenges I'm facing. In the event that I did return, I know the Midwest, and Lansing in particular, would welcome me back with arms wide open.

Changing Gears' Midwest Migration” project is featuring the stories of former Midwesterners – people who have left the region since the recession of 2008.

Name: Conrad Schissler
Midwest Home: Ann Arbor, MI
New Home: Atlanta, GA

Changing Gears' Midwest Migration” project is featuring the stories of former Midwesterners – people who have left region since the recession of 2008.

Name: Tanna Sherril
Midwest Home: Michigan
New Home: Oxford, MS

I initially left my home state of Michigan over the summer of 2009 so I could find summer work. I had spent the entire previous summer looking for a job in and around the county I had grown up in, but to no avail, mostly due to my inexperience.

I found a call-center job in Tulsa, OK. I was being paid well over minimum wage and made a sales commission. After three months, I made my way to Mississippi, following my father. I have since been attending University of Mississippi, and have been working in food service to make ends meet.

I wish I could move back to the Midwest. There's nothing really keeping me here once I am done with my degree. I basically just have to follow the jobs. If I could find a reasonably secure, well-paying job in Michigan or the metro-Chicago area, I would be overjoyed. I miss my family, and I miss the Midwestern culture. The winters are better in the South. But, I've never quite felt at-home here.

This story was informed by the Public Insight Network. Add your story here.

Changing Gears' Midwest Migration” project is featuring the stories of former Midwesterners – people who have left region since the recession of 2008.

Name: Ryan Brevard
Midwest Home: Kalamazoo, MI
New Home: Mexico City, Mexico

Wednesday we heard from some teachers at Saline High School in Michigan about changes in education over the past year. Today, we’ll hear from two students at the school about how these changes have trickled down to them. Christine Houle and Aaron Mukergee are the co-founders of a student group called STRIVE.

They work on school reform issues. Aaron says their voice, as students, has been lost in the debate over changes in education.

Saline is an affluent district and its high quality schools are known to draw people to the community. But Christine says even in Saline, funding cuts are affecting students in very real ways.

Changing Gears' Midwest Migration” project is featuring the stories of former Midwesterners – people who have left region since the recession of 2008.

Name: Mary Beth Hetrick
Midwest Home: Westland, Michigan
New Home: Cambridge, MA

After 20 years with a non-profit organization I was let go as I “cost too much.” I spent many hours, days and weeks over a three-year period trying to get a job. As I was over 55 it seemed as if I was swimming upstream.

I could not find a job in Michigan. In the community I lived in stores began to go out of business. It was a very down economy. I visited my children in Boston and was able to get a job immediately. Better economy by far.

I think it is going to be years before Michigan finds an economy that will work. I do not think I will ever return.

Read more Midwest Migration stories on our dedicated page. If you or someone you know has left the Midwest add your own story.

With a new year just days away we asked you to take stock of 2011. Michigan’s economy shows signs of improving, but times are still tough for many around the state.

So we decided to put the question directly to you. What was good about 2011? What didn’t go well?

These word clouds sum up the responses listeners and readers sent on Facebook or through the Public Insight Network.  You can view the word clouds by clicking on the image above.

Adam Prince / flickr

The time for year-end lists and reflections is upon us!

By many measures 2011 has been a tough year around the state. The economy delivered another beating to Michigan, and many businesses and families have a long way to go before they start feeling a recovery.

So...that's the bad news.

But what's the good news?

Have there been things that have gone well this year for you and yours?

What are you thankful for in your community, your work, your family? 

We'll match some of these local stories with an NPR's year-end series.

Just click here to share your story.

Courtesy of Bill Schuette

Update 5:05

An administrative law judge will decide whether graduate students at the University of Michigan get the chance to try and form a union.

The Michigan Employment Relations Commission has decided to send the case on for a hearing.

The commission also ruled that Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette cannot be a party to the case. Schuette has argued the commission should reject the unionization proposal.

Patrick Wright of the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation represents a group of students that’s opposed to unionizing. Wright criticized the commission’s decision to deny those students’ request to be a party to the case.

“The only parties that are going to be admitted to be full parties in that hearing are the university and the union, which both want the graduate students to be designated as public employees,” said Wright.

The commission said the students Wright represents can present evidence to the administrative law judge.

At issue is whether the students are public employees. If the judge rules they are, they’ll be allowed to hold an election.

-Allison Lyons, Michigan Radio Newsroom

9:32 AM

The Michigan Employment Relations Commission is expected to decide today whether graduate students at the University of Michigan can try to form a union. Some graduate students who also work as researchers and teachers have been trying to unionize for years.

Now, Michigan’s Attorney General, Bill Schuette, also wants to get involved.

So today at its public meeting the Commission will need to decide two things.

First, graduate students need to be employees to unionize. The Commission has to decide if the students are employees, and might pass the decision along to an Administrative Law Judge.

Second, the Commission has to decide if the Schuette can get involved.

In a letter to the commission Schuette says a graduate student union would make U of M less competitive, hurt the state, and that the Commission decided the issue thirty years ago.

His letter says it’s important Schuette be involved on behalf of the state to express these concerns. His office thinks it’s likely the Commission will allow him to take part as the matter moves forward.

courtesy of Barry Van Dyke

Jack’s Liquor Store was never a beautiful building, even before it closed down and stood empty for more than 10 years. It was a dingy, generic convenience store on a corner. In May 2010, 33-year-old Grand Rapids resident Barry Van Dyke and two siblings bought it anyway.

The store sits on the border of the Uptown and Eastown neighborhoods in Grand Rapids. Eastown has been known as a diverse, vibrant business district and the Van Dyke’s wanted to capitalize on the energy and traffic. They plan to open a brewery in the space soon, Harmony Brewery. But converting the formerly empty building has not been easy.

The Van Dykes came into the project with redevelopment experience. Together, with their father, they own a local property management company called Bear Manor. They’ve bought, fixed up, and rented or sold 13 residential and three commercial properties in Grand Rapids, mostly in the Uptown neighborhood.

These 16 buildings are just a dent in the at least 1,078 buildings the city of Grand Rapids has documented as abandoned. Barry Van Dyke isn’t surprised there are so many. He says the thing most people don’t realize about renovating empty places is how long it takes.

We’ve been reading all your comments on our Culture of Class series (If we haven’t heard from you tell us your thoughts).

We’ve heard from people who have enjoyed the pieces and those who have offered, well, constructive criticism.

Sarah Alvarez

Today’s American manufacturing industry is a shadow of what it once was. It’s lost millions of jobs and thousands of factories.

Many of us know what some of those factories looked like in their heyday. Not because we visited the factories ourselves, but because we watched them on T.V., with Mr. Rogers as our tour guide. Mr. Rogers’ factory videos started airing in the early nineteen seventies and ran through the late nineties.

Through these kids watched how all kinds of things in the world around them were made, like construction paper and graham crackers.

These places were full of old looking metal equipment and conveyer belts lit by florescent lights. They were also full of people, workers were busy pumping out things like trumpets and shoes and flashlights. I wanted to know if the factories in some of these video's had survived all the upheaval in manufacturing over the last few decades.

D.Clow / flickr

Sweeping proposed changes to Michigan's Workers' Compensation law are working their way through the state government. Here's a recap on some basics about the system.

The basics

Most employers in the state must participate in the workers' compensation system.

Mike McCaffrey / flickr

Stereotypes of people living in poverty are persistent.

But Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution says these stereotypes are becoming less accurate.

A report released today by the Institution shows poverty is growing and affecting many it didn’t touch before.

Some highlights from the report:

  • Concentrated poverty rose in Midwestern cities, but the number of people living in very poor neighborhoods is rising faster in the suburbs.
  • Poverty still affects communities of color in the inner cities. But, over the last decade poverty has grown among the number of well-educated white people living outside cities.
  • In the last decade concentrations of poverty have crept back up. That's where 40 percent of the people in a particular neighborhood live below the federal poverty line. These kinds of concentrations were on the decline up until 2000.
  • These concentrations of poverty almost doubled in the Midwest over the last decade. 

See more highlights, and read the entire report, at the Brookings Institution website.

Inform our coverage: How has the growth in poverty touched your life?

Lucy Bland

Business incubators are a trumpeted, but yet unproven way to give entrepreneurs and their projects a higher chance of success.  Foundations and governments are lining up dollars to support incubators in their communities.

Some of the larger incubators around the region were profiled by Niala Boodhoo earlier this week. But there are also more grassroots efforts springing up, incubators that seem themselves to be small enough to be supported.

Marcy Kates lives and works in Holt, Michigan. Two months ago she left her job as a program officer for the state’s AmeriCorps program and opened IncuBake, an incubator kitchen and commercial kitchen space. Kates used her savings and her credit cards to open the kitchen, inspired by being unable to find low-cost commercial space for her own catering.

“I started this project to be a job creator, " said Kates.

Even so, she intentionally stayed away from a nonprofit model, wanting more flexibility and not really wanting to fundraise. That meant using her savings and her credit card to start the business, which is now about 15 percent full but, Kates says, growing steadily.

United States National Archives

The Midwest’s persistently high unemployment rate isn’t expected to fall anytime soon.

But as Changing Gears' Kate Davidson reported, temporary employment agencies across the Midwest can’t seem to find enough people to fill all the open factory jobs they have waiting. These agencies are busier than they’ve been in years, because manufacturing has more open jobs than candidates willing or able to fill them.

Now, another industry finds itself in a similar position: agriculture. It's a big business all across the Midwest. In Michigan, agriculture is said to be the state’s second largest industry and is still growing.

But, Jim Byrum of the Michigan Agri-Business Association says agriculture producers can’t find enough people to fill jobs now, and he’s even more worried about the future.

“The industry demand is pretty solid, and it’s an increasingly severe problem,” Bryum says.

A large group within the agriculture industry -- white collar workers at agri-business companies -- is getting ready to retire soon. His concern is that a new generation of workers is not ready to replace those workers getting ready to leave.

Sarah Alvarez

An abandoned building can be a potent symbol of a depressed area or a bad economy. Ruin porn has been decried and criticized as unhelpful voyeurism, but the pictures of crumbling buildings in places like Gary, Indiana and Detroit, MI continue to multiply on photo sharing sites across the web.

courtesy of Jeremy Peters

As the election season begins, it almost seems politicians are obligated to tout small business as one way to stave off further economic collapse and bring back the American Dream for all of those whom it has left behind.

Small business overall does have a tremendous economic footprint in this country, employing half of all private sector employees, by government estimates. But small business is also a really big umbrella. The United States Small Business Association includes any firm with less than 500 employees a small business. It’s easy to see how a business with 500 employees could be critical to a town.

Then there are people like Laura Cowan. She hopes to be a small business owner, but she’s not there yet. Cowan runs a green, affordable parenting blog out of her home, and patches together paying work while she balances full-time care of her young daughter. She is what has been called a “micro-preneur.” These are people who run very small businesses, typically with only one, or at most a handful, of employees.

In developing countries, micro-enterprise has received great attention for helping move some people, especially women, out of abject poverty. In this country, that strategy has been tried, but has worked less well. One reason is because starting a small business is very high risk, and pretty low-reward. There are people who begin these types of businesses because they have no other way to support themselves, but there are also a lot of people looking to make a change in their lives and thinking starting a business might be a good idea.

It is less certain what the effects of micro-enterprises are on the economy in this country. They haven’t been studied anywhere near as much as small businesses. It’s not clear how often micro-enterprises turn into flourishing small businesses, how often they stay small, and how often they fail.

Here are portraits of three different Micro-entrepreneurs in Michigan:

courtesy of Brendan Doms

Brendan Doms has launched more than a dozen ventures. Most of these are tech websites designed to do something new and useful. By his own admission, none of the start-ups have been particularly successful. Nevertheless, he’s getting ready to launch the next one “within the next month.”

Doms is a serial entrepreneur. These are people who start businesses again and again, apparently impervious to outside pressures like a bad economy, tight lending environment, or failure.

Ray Gauss II / flickr

Changing Gears is kicking off a new feature. Inspired by Smith Magazine, and possibly Ernest Hemingway, we're asking people to share stories of what the economic transformation of the industrial Midwest means to them. But there's a catch. We want these stories in six words.

Listen to the result of our request for stories about the housing crisis. Take Mary Mary Beth Matthew's submission for example, "2007 bought ex's half, 2011 underwater." Set to music, it's creative, poignant, and even funny.

You can also contribute to our current six word story-your "Plan B."

Six-word poets: Marcus Bales, Amanda Thomas, Becky McRae, Matt Lechel, Christopher Lada, Manuel Magana, and LaGaspa McDougal.

Music by Steve Osburn, produced by Cade Sperling.

user elioja / Flickr

Updated at 9:57 p.m.

We have this update from Rick Pluta -

The decision leaves the discretion to close a dispensary with local prosecutors.

Isabella County Prosecutor Larry Burdick, who brought the case to the Court of Appeals, says local police in his bailiwick will start tonight delivering copies of the decision and warning letters to the "four or five  dispensaries in his bailiwick."

He says the letters warn the dispensaries they are out of compliance with the law if they accept payments for medical marijuana and, if so, they need to change their operations or shut down.

Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III says he's facing a more complicated situation. The city of Lansing has become a center for dispensaries. It has upwards of 40 -- some of them operate 24/7.

Dunnings says he warned city officials the dispensaries are illegal, but the city passed an ordinance allowing them. Dunnings says he intends to step carefully since the dispensary operators thought they were playing by the rules. Nevertheless, The Lansing City Pulse reports most of the  11 dispensaries on the Michigan Avenue strip directly east of the state Capitol responded to the ruling by closing their doors.   

 

Update 2:37 p.m.

Here's a video of the oral arguments made in front of the Michigan Court of Appeals on June 7, 2011.

The Court of Appeals ruled today that the marijuana dispensary in question operated in violation of the law.

People v Compassionate Apothecary from Eric L. VanDussen on Vimeo.

And here is Steve Carmody's raw interview with Michael Komorn, the president of the Michigan Medical Marihuana Association.

Komoron told Carmody that despite the ruling, dispensaries around the state will continue to operate under local implementation and interpretation of the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act - at least until the Michigan Supreme Court rules on the case.

Update 12:48 p.m.

Sarah Alvarez, Changing Gears Public Insight Analyst and lawyer, read the ruling that was released by the Michigan Court of Appeals this morning. A three-judge panel wrote the opinion (Joel Hoekstra, Christopher Murray, and Cynthia Stephens).

The case involves Isabella County prosecutors office and the two owners of the Compassionate Apothocary, a dispensary in Isabella County operating  with 345 members. Alvarez says the appeals court finds that no provision of the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act would permit for patient to patient sale of marijuana.

The dispensary is therefore found to be a public nuisance and must cease operations. (important to note this is not a criminal prosecution).

courtesy of Backstage Pass MI

Detroit’s shrinking population is well-documented, as are the many incentives offered to people to move back into the city center. These efforts are a mix of hyping what Detroit can become and offering economic incentives for those willing to give it a try. A group of Jewish organizations in Metro Detroit has been using the same formula to keep young Jewish people from leaving the area.

The Jewish population in Michigan is less than 1 percent, according to the U.S Census. The overwhelming majority of those 87,000 people live in Metro Detroit, in an area east of M5 and north of Interstate 696, according to Joshua Goldberg of the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit. But the area’s Jewish population has been falling steadily for at least the last few decades. Mirroring a trend in the state overall, in the Jewish community the young people are leading the march out of state.

Arthur Siegal wants to reverse this. The 50-year-old attorney and Wayne State graduate conceived of the Back Stage Pass MI program. The four-year program started last year selects promising Jewish high school students before their junior year and culminates in a Detroit internship placement after the student’s sophomore year of college. Along the way, the program takes its cohort of around 20 students a year to cultural and social events designed to show Detroit at its best.

“These young people are really wanted in this community, they are going to be sought after here,” says Siegal. “There are amazing opportunities for people who stay. Land is cheap, labor is cheap, and the opportunities to do your own thing and make your own mark are unparalleled. ”

photo submitted by Kim Sapkowski

Going to college keeps getting more expensive. In 2011 the College Board estimated it would cost $20,000 a year, on average, for students to go to an in-state, public university.

submitted by Andy Case

Andy Case thinks the Midwest has an image problem. Even worse, he says, is that Midwesterners buy into the characterization of the Midwest as “flyover country,” or not as interesting as the East or West coasts.

Case, a native of Plymouth, Mich., says this mentality causes people to leave the region in search of economic opportunity. He decided to do something to try to change that way of thinking -- and that led to his blog, Midwestern Gentleman.

“I didn’t see anything that said ‘I’m proud to be from the Midwest and here’s why,’ And, I think my blog is highlighting things that make the Midwest great, and why it’s great,” said Case.

“Hopefully, (people) identify with that and choose to stay in the region, and follow their professional careers here instead of somewhere else.”

Case started  Midwestern Gentleman while a student at Michigan State University. When he graduated, in May of 2009 it took him months to find a job .He eventually landed one in advertising and works in Detroit.

Despite the long search, Case was a little frustrated with those in his graduating class who left the state.

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