Staying in Focus

Forty years after its founding, hope springs eternal for an organization dedicated to fighting injustice and poverty
Staying in Focus
Eleanor Josaitis
Photograph by David Lewinski

In late July 1967, rioting had left Detroiters shell-shocked, and parts of the city resembled war zones. It was not, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, Detroit’s finest hour.

Eleanor Josaitis, a Taylor housewife, and William Cunningham, a Catholic priest and English teacher at Sacred Heart Seminary, went to view the devastation with their own eyes. The priest and the housewife were friends, drawn together by faith and a shared view that the world could be made better, that seemingly intractable problems like racism, economic segregation, and social inequality were not necessarily carved in stone.

Rioting and military occupation, they believed, were not the solution. “The tanks were going up and down the streets. Buildings were on fire. The helicopters were flying above,” Josaitis recalls. “We said, ‘We have got to do something.’ ”

The “something” began small and, as such things are wont to do, grew fast. In March 1968, months of planning culminated in the formation of Focus: HOPE, an organization aimed at bridging race and class divides to keep the riots from rekindling. “The real name was Focus: Summer Hope,” Josaitis says. “Everybody thought there was going to be a riot in ’68, so we were trying to bring people together.”

It seemed to work. While other cities burned after the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down on April 4, Detroit remained calm. But that summer was just the beginning for Focus: HOPE and its pledge to take “intelligent and practical action to overcome racism, poverty, and injustice.” Cunningham and Josaitis enlisted white suburbanites and black urbanites to go shopping. “We found that folks in the city were paying 30 percent to 40 percent more for their groceries, and the [chain] stores were delivering old meat and fruits from the suburbs in the city,” Josaitis says. They made the same case over the cost of prescription drugs.

Then in 1971, they took on hunger, setting up a distribution system for surplus food from the federal Department of Agriculture that still provides food each month to 35,000 seniors and 7,000 pregnant women, recent mothers and children. In 1981, Focus: HOPE began its Machinist Training Institute, filling the gap between public education and the needs of employers, and over the years added more ambitious components, partnering with private industry and local colleges to offer degree programs. They opened a Center for Children for early education, added a community arts component, and got involved in creating housing for seniors. “The organization just kept evolving,” Josaitis says.

It’s evolving still. A decade ago — around the time Cunningham succumbed to cancer — Focus: HOPE was a $100-million-a-year operation spread over 40 acres on Oakman Boulevard, near Linwood, including an auto-parts manufacturing component to give students hands-on experience. The organization cut that program three years ago as the Big Three moved more of their own work overseas and “it became more difficult for us to compete for contracts,” says spokeswoman Kathy Moran.

Focus: HOPE now operates on a $25.6-million annual budget, most of it from foundation grants and government contracts. There are other groups, organizations, and government agencies in southeast Michigan that feed the poor, retrain workers, help house the homeless, and offer day care for young families. But few, if any, do all of those things at once.

And none do them with the persistent high visibility of Focus: HOPE, with two generations and tens of thousands of beneficiaries, its signature logo of interconnected black and white hands, an annual diversity walk that began in 1974, and the embrace of political and cultural leaders — including being picked as one of two local organizations to receive the proceeds of a Detroit-area concert by The Who in October (Gleaners was the other recipient).

Or, for that matter, none have been doing it for a Moses-like 40 years.

// Don Hutchison is one of the people Focus: HOPE helped lead out of the desert.

Hutchison was born in 1970, three years after the riots, and came of age as Detroit’s crack wars were picking off kids at a numbing pace. Hutchison graduated from Henry Ford High School in 1989, part of a system perennially listed among the nation’s worst.

“You always hear people tell you, growing up, that when you graduate you go to college and get a good job,” Hutchison says. “But I honestly didn’t think I had what it took to go to college. … I wasn’t very much of a student in high school, partly because I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do with my life. It’s not like there were a whole lot of opportunities available.”
Hutchison felt overwhelmed at Oakland Community College. An uncle mentioned Focus: HOPE’s new Fast Track training program, and

Hutchison decided to enroll in a six-week course to land a job as a bank teller. “Those were my aspirations, to be a teller at a bank,” Hutchison says. “Once I finished Fast Track, it introduced me to some of the other programs, and my aspirations started to grow and I realized I had some potential I didn’t know I had.”

Hutchison went through Focus: HOPE’s machinist training program, then the Center for Advanced Technologies and “ultimately went to Lawrence Tech to get a bachelor’s degree and on to Kettering University to get my master’s in manufacturing operations.”

By the time Hutchison started the master’s program, he was already working at General Motors, mostly at the Tech Center in Warren, before taking a two-year transfer to Germany. Two years ago, Hutchison took a buyout and opened DT Global Enterprises to consult for firms interested in recruiting and retaining minority workers, and Creative Industrial Solutions to place temporary workers.

“If it weren’t for Focus: HOPE, I would not have finished college, most likely would not have worked at GM, most definitely the assignment overseas would not have happened,” says Hutchison, who now lives in Lake Orion. “All of these things happened because of what Focus: HOPE was able to provide for me, which was an opportunity.”

Over the years, some 10,000 people have gone through Focus: HOPE’s training programs, using the agency to step into relatively high-paying skilled-labor jobs they otherwise might never have attained. Focus: HOPE has graduated about 200 engineers, more than 2,500 machinists, and about 900 information-technology specialists. Those are small numbers in a metro region of more than 4 million people, but significant for people like Hutchison, who have used Focus: Hope to find their footing in life.

“I think they are incredibly visible and quite useful … and important for the city of Detroit and the people who participate in the program,” says Reynolds Farley, a research professor emeritus at the Population Studies Center in U-M’s Institute for Social Research.

But the programs that helped Hutchison and others succeed were aimed at a different economy. As Detroit is changing, so too is Focus: HOPE. Under a $200,000 grant from the Kresge Foundation, Focus: HOPE has hired a consultant “to make sure we are really positioned appropriately for the long term,” says Timothy Duperron, Focus: HOPE’s interim CEO.

“There’s a pretty obvious softening in the manufacturing sector, but there are some merging technologies,” he says. “It’s important for us to make sure we are adequately positioning ourselves to be able to provide training and educational skills for this.”

After 27 years, the organization earlier this year “completely changed the curriculum” for machinist training “to more adequately reflect the skills that employers say they need.” A key revision: Teaching machinists how to operate computer-controlled machinery rather than the traditional manually controlled machinery.

And Focus: HOPE is also looking to partner with other groups “doing good work trying to find ways to … leverage each other’s work,” Duperron says.

For instance, he says, the Neighborhood Services Organization, which has been helping mentally ill and homeless adults for more than a half century, plans to move some of its operations to the Focus: HOPE compound “to take advantage of the training and education activities we already have. It’s a great move to get more critical mass on our campus.”

// One image that rarely gets linked to machinist training, food banks, and urban child-care centers are women in ball gowns and men in tuxedos. But come March 7, they will be, as Focus: HOPE holds its first — and likely only — “gala” at the Marriott in the Renaissance Center. The organization expects up to 750 people to attend, at $250 a ticket, with the proceeds going to its scholarship program.

It’s a far cry from the first organizational meetings 40 years ago, though the mission remains unwavering. “We’re never going to eliminate racism until people have educations and jobs and opportunities in their lives,” Josaitis says.

To underscore the dedication to that goal, the date for the gala was selected for its symbolism. On March 8, 1968, the conversations between Josaitis and Cunningham jelled into the launching of Focus: HOPE. So March 7, 2008, marks the final day of the organization’s 40th year.

As Josaitis says: “The past begins the future.”