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Detroit’s Only Black College Reopens with Inaugural Design Class, High Hopes

Detroit News
Kim Kozlowski
June 12, 2022

Isaiah Walker has spent the past decade trying to channel his passion for design into a career.

After graduating from Southfield Lathrup High School in 2013, he attended Oakland Community College and worked locally in luxury retail before moving to New York City to work as a junior buyer and intern as a brand director.

A pivotal moment came for Walker after he moved back to Michigan in 2020 and heard the state’s only Black college was being revived with a focus on design. He applied, was accepted into the inaugural class, and last week became one of four students to get a summer internship with Carhartt, the global premium workwear brand headquartered in Dearborn.

“What I hope to gain from the internship,” said Walker, 27, “is knowledge, better connections inside the industry, and hopefully a full-time job with Carhartt.”

Nearly a decade after Michigan’s only Black college closed, a new chapter of the school began last month when it reopened with its first class of 30 students and a new mission to partner with industries to create a pipeline of job-ready workers trained in design.

The Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design quietly opened during the first week of May. It resurrected the former Lewis College of Business, Michigan’s only Historically Black College and University that had operated for 74 years in Detroit training young Black women in business skills before closing in 2013.

The school was brought back to life in one of the nation’s largest majority-Black cities, which is in the midst of its own revival, and aims to offer educational opportunities, especially for the African American community.

It’s unique because of the school’s format and the prospect it could become the nation’s only HBCU to close and then reopen.

Leading the school’s renaissance is D’Wayne Edwards, one of the first Black individuals nationally to design athletic shoes. He is operating with the financial support of Detroit investors and philanthropists, Dan and Jennifer Gilbert, through the Gilbert Family Foundation, along with Target and other corporations that are partnering with the school to make tuition free for students.

It is temporarily operating under the auspices of Detroit’s College for Creative Studies until the federal government recognizes it as one of the nation’s 100 HBCUs. The school needs to grant degrees before it becomes an HBCU so Edwards, the college’s president, has been working with leaders in Detroit, Lansing, and Washington, D.C., to get the designation.

For now, the Pensole Lewis College is focusing on training diverse students in design through a model Edwards created and used at PENSOLE Design Academy, a Portland, Oregon-based education institution for 12 years.

Many institutions offer an education in fashion design, said Edwards. But few offer training in performance and functional footwear and apparel design like the Pensole Lewis College does.

His model also differs by working directly with industry leaders to help create intensive training known as “master classes” for students to learn the culture of the company and become a pipeline of workers, Edwards said. The companies co-create the curriculum and pay the $13,500 tuition of each student and the lodging for those who come to the college from outside Metro Detroit.

“Our curriculum is designed the way kids would work at a company,” Edwards said. “The way that we teach is the way that they will work. Our environment is more like a design studio environment, less like an educational environment.”

At the end of the master classes, the students often will secure internships and jobs with the company that sponsors the training because company officials have spent more time with prospective workers beyond traditional interviews that are more limited, Edwards said. The companies are also looking for diverse talent.

“You could look at it as a six- to 12-week job interview,” Edwards said. “The company is able to see the work habits, they are able to get more of a glimpse of the whole person. All of our programming is geared toward kids getting jobs.”

Students come from afar

Eleven students from Detroit and 19 others from across the country participated in the inaugural Pensole Lewis College master class.

Classes are being held in the Icon Building along the Detroit River until a permanent location can be found. In the evening, students continue their work at the College for Creative Studies’ A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education on Milwaukee Avenue in Detroit. 

The first class was sponsored by Carhartt with a focus on footwear and clothing design. Other brands that are expected to sponsor master classes in the future include top footwear brands such as Nike, Jordan, Adidas, New Balance, Timberland, Vans, and Asics, along with apparel companies such as North Face and J.Crew, Edwards said.

The students from outside Michigan came from places such as the Caribbean, Canada, and England, and stayed at the Hotel St. Regis Detroit in the New Center neighborhood during the five-week course. While the class included five women, most of the students were African American men.

Among them was Detroit resident Trevon Fleming who has been wanting to attend Pensole since he saw the academy on social media in 2014 when it was operating in Portland, and he was studying clothing design while attending a now-defunct art institute in Novi.

When he heard that PENSOLE was relocating to Michigan, he applied and got accepted. He said learned from elite designers and teachers about designing functional workwear shoes during the five-week class.

“My opportunities now are limitless,” said Fleming, 29, a freelance designer. “This is going to be a brand new journey, a brand new outlook for the city.”

For Carhartt, the company’s involvement was natural since it started a design project with Edwards at the Portland school, said Ben Ewy, the brand’s vice president of global product design, research and development.

“We were so impressed with the work they did, when we heard they were going to be restarting the Lewis College, now the Pensole Lewis College, we said we have to be involved,” Ewy said. “We believe in them and their mission.”

‘Changed family lives’

The leaders behind the Pensole Lewis College had similar paths.

Violet Lewis, a native of Ohio, founded the original college in 1928 in Indianapolis because she wanted to create a place where students, particularly Black women, could get a high-quality business education because opportunities were lacking. She eventually closed the Indianapolis school after opening the Detroit campus of the Lewis College of Business in Midtown in 1939.

The Lewis College of Business originally offered Black women courses in secretarial skills but expanded course offerings and became an accredited junior college and served as a pipeline for students to find jobs working for auto companies. The federal government designated the school an HBCU in 1987 and was one of three HBCUs founded by a woman. But the college closed in 2013 because of a lack of funding, Edwards said.

“When the Lewis College first began, there were few very, very few Black secretaries and very, very few Black accountants,” said Violet Ponders, Lewis’ granddaughter who also worked for the college beginning in 1976 and served in many roles including as one of the last interim presidents.

“It was created to serve that need for businesses,” said Ponders, “but it was also created to provide training, which then provided a source of income, then changed family lives.”

Edwards long wanted to work in design when he was growing up in Inglewood, California, southwest of Los Angeles, as the youngest of six children raised by a single mother.

He discovered he had a gift to draw when he was 10 and considered a path as an artist but then discovered design, particularly sneaker design.

“Growing up in the 80s, with no Google or Instagram or social media, I couldn’t find other people who looked like me who did it,” Edwards said.

He didn’t go to college because he couldn’t afford it and didn’t know where to go. He graduated from high school, worked for a temporary service and then as a file clerk at LA Gear. He tried to get a design job, but they told him he needed a college degree.

LA Gear had suggestion boxes throughout the office, and Edwards started putting sketches in the boxes every day of athletic shoes. Six months later, the owner of the company called him into his office and offered him a design job. He was 19.

He discovered a few years later that he was the second Black footwear designer in the industry. He began working at Nike in 2000 as the design director for the Michael Jordan brand; he started getting emails from young people with sketches and questions about how to become a footwear designer.

He started guiding these young people and created a competition at Nike, Future Sole, to identify young people with talent who didn’t have a chance to go to college. Over four years, close to 800,000 young people wanted to be part of the program.

Edwards wanted to do more of that work, so he left his shoe designer position in 2011. He created his model of teaching product design and started teaching with 41 students from around the globe. The University of Oregon hosted the course.

“There were 800,000 kids who were just like me when I was young and growing up in Inglewood who wanted to design sneakers,” Edwards said.

He partnered with ArtCenter in California, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Parsons School of Design in New York and taught his program to prove the concept, Edwards said. Eventually, he started his own academy in downtown Portland and began partnering with top brands in the region.

CCS President Donald Tuski met Edwards while he served as president of the Pacific Northwest College of Art and spoke with him about relocating to Detroit.

“He was doing something very special,” Tuski said. “When I see something that is really important, that works, that helps students fulfill their dreams of becoming a designer, it made sense for me to stay in contact with D’Wayne.”

The collaboration with CCS was also important, Tuski said, because in order for the Pensole Lewis College to be an HBCU, the school needs to grant degrees. For now, CCS is the accredited institution under which Pensole Lewis College is operating. But the goal is for the school to eventually be operating on its own, he said.

Another who worked to persuade Lewis to move his design education model to Detroit was Allen Largin, creative and innovation director at Rock Ventures in Detroit.

Largin met Edwards when he was a Brighton High School sophomore and won the Nike competition that Edwards created to identify young talent. He kept in touch with Edwards over the years as he began a career in footwear design, then landed in his current position. Dan Gilbert — founder and chairman of Rocket Cos., which owns Rock Ventures — encouraged Largin to convince Edwards to move PENSOLE to Detroit.

Largin said he sent articles to Edwards to show him things were happening in Detroit. But he didn’t get any movement until the 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, after which companies began pledging money to Black communities. Largin suggested that Gilbert’s Rock families of companies match another founding partner’s pledge to give Edwards the resources he needed to reopen the Lewis College of Business, and bring in the College for Creative Studies and get the blessing of the Lewis family.

“It was a perfect storm of everything coming together,” Largin said.

What pushed Edwards over the edge was when Largin mentioned the closed HBCU in Detroit. Edwards said he went online and read all the articles he could find about the college and the story behind Lewis finding the school and moving it to Detroit.

“It really resonated with me because we had a lot of similarities with trying to start our own school,” Edwards said.

He also read how Lewis’ family had unsuccessfully tried to reopen the school. Lewis got the family’s support in reviving the school.

He discussed the idea with Tuski to bring the Lewis College back as a design-focused HBCU because the nation’s other HBCUs have focused on business, law, engineering and other fields.

“Detroit is one of the most creative cities in America,” Edwards said. “On top of that, being one of the cities with the highest black population in America, it just felt like it had to be here.”

‘A real beacon’

Laura Grannemann, executive director of the Gilbert Family Foundation, said the foundation has been working with Edwards for a couple of years to bring what she described as an “innovative” and “internationally renowned” program to Detroit to support local institutions, and bring back an HBCU.

As one of the two founding partners of the Pensole Lewis College, along with Target, the Gilbert Family Foundation hopes to attract other philanthropic and private partners. Grannemann said the details of the financial commitment are still being worked out but said it would be at least a five-year financial commitment to ensure Edwards could scale the program to bring in as many students as possible.

The program is aiming to draw upward of 800 students a year eventually, according to Grannemann.

“It’s a different model to get students critical access to education and get students on a pathway to direct job opportunities across the country,” she said. “Our hope is hundreds of thousands will take advantage of these educational opportunities. … We think this can be a real beacon for the city of Detroit.”

The Pensole Lewis College will host the master classes for the next year and a half under the College of Creative Studies, Lewis said. It will also offer associate degrees, planned for fall 2023, when the  Pensole Lewis College hopes to receive federal recognition as the only HBCU in Michigan.

In December, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed legislation to pave the way for the HBCU recognition.

U.S. Department of Education officials didn’t offer a timeline for a decision. But the secretary of education would approve the designation, which makes a school eligible for federal funding.

When the Pensole Lewis School gets HBCU recognition, federal law requires it be a junior or community college or offer an educational pathway to a bachelor’s degree. It also must be accredited or pre-accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency or association.

The Pensole Lewis College will be offering associate degrees in product design, business and eventually in manufacturing, Edwards said.

Edwards is planning a community open house to see the space where students are taking masterclasses inside the Icon Building on Sept. 25, the same day that Lewis opened the original school in 1928.

“We want to do it differently,” Edwards said. “It’s not about a kid coming here to earn a degree. It’s about a kid acquiring the knowledge they need to get a job. Our goal is to partner with industry to become that pipeline.”

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