UM-Flint professors planning road trip highlighting positives, negatives of auto industry

Share or print this article
vehicles of upheval
Some UM-Flint students will be embarking on a special trip over spring break which will provide them with more insight about the automotive industry.

While spring break is still months away, two University of Michigan-Flint professors are already planning a road trip that their students won't forget.

It's all part of the Vehicles of Upheaval course connected to a program called "Borders and Crossings: Exploring Global Questions at UM-Flint." The program, which focuses on helping students gain useful knowledge needed to solve questions on a global scale, received a $600,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2020.

A portion of those grant dollars will be used to fund the trip.

The course, taught by Ben Gaydos, associate professor of design, and Stephanie (Vidaillet) Gelderloos, English lecturer, focuses on the economic, environmental and cultural borders and impacts created by the automotive industry in Flint, Detroit and beyond.

Before the trip, which traces the Great Migration, or when six million Black Americans moved out of the rural south to urban areas in northeastern and midwestern states between 1910 and 1970, Gaydos and Gelderloos plan to discuss what pulled many people to move north, like the automotive industry's promise of high paying jobs and the opportunity to join the middle class. On the trip, however, students will learn more about the racial inequality and violence that pushed many to leave southern states like Mississippi and Alabama.

According to Gelderloos, the stops along the way as the group will travel south, will highlight the racial violence that many African Americans faced daily in the Jim Crow south, meaning that racial segregation was still enforced in those areas. For example, students will travel to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which served as the staging ground for the Birmingham Campaign Civil Rights Youth Marches in 1963, but was also the location of a deadly bombing by members of the Ku Klux Klan, which killed four young African American girls. The next stop will be the Emmett Till Historical Marker located in Greenwood, Mississippi. Till's death in 1955 received international attention and is widely credited with sparking the American Civil Rights Movement. Students will also visit the site where Till's body was found, about two miles away, in Glendora.

The focus of the trip will change as the travelers reach their southernmost destination of New Orleans. While there, students will visit locations in Tremé where residents are actively working to heal and repair some of the borders and scars left by the automotive industry. "After having researched and discussed the negative impacts of the auto industry both in class and on the road south, the return trip will focus on the future," said Gelderloos. "A future where the automotive industry works to promote equity and sustainability." 

Stops on the northbound return include a tour of the General Motors plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee and the Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Taking what they learned from the trip, students will work on a final project of their own design to help solve and lessen the multilayered impacts of the auto industry on people, the economy and the environment, to envision an equitable, sustainable and healthy future.

The class will also include several field trips in and around Flint and Detroit as well as a mini performance called "Will You Miss Me?" presented by The Hinterlands during the class trip south. The performance is centered on workers moving from the Appalachian region to Detroit to work in the automotive industry. 

That topic of the course is a very personal one for both Gaydos and Gelderloos as each has roots in Detroit. "Part of Ben's family comes from an area of Detroit called Del Ray, while I grew up near Mexican Town," said Gelderloos. "Both of our families' lives were impacted both positively and negatively by the auto industry, and we are really excited to explore the history and future of the industry with students. The lives of many of our students, whether they are aware of it or not, are inextricably bound to the legacy of the industry, and I can't wait to see what they design to make that legacy a better one for us all."

All travel costs, food and lodging are free for students through the Mellon Grant and funding from UM-Flint's Center for Global Engagement. 

Registration for the class, which will meet 2:30-3:45 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays during the spring semester, is now open. 

Madeline Campbell is the communications specialist for the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at