IST alum uses tech skills to help revitalize Detroit

Most graduates of Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) become consultants for companies or work for the government in security-related areas. However, Rich Samartino, a 2010 IST graduate, has taken a rather unconventional route by using his information technology background to help promote social justice in Detroit.

“There are not a lot of tech-savvy people in these social activism groups in Detroit,” he said. “Having a college degree in IST, that’s definitely something I could help with.”

Samartino serves as a volunteer webmaster for two Detroit-based organizations- - Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management (D-REM) ( and We the People of Detroit (WPD) ( D-REM functions as a space where users can submit articles that they spot related to social justice in Detroit, which Samartino posts. WPD is a grassroots organization founded in 2008 that is “dedicated to community coalition building and providing vehicles that inform, train and mobilize the citizens of Detroit to improve their quality of life.”  Samartino also recently launched  “with the idea of creating a centralized web home for all things related to Detroit and justice.”

“I think the websites are a tool in getting an alternative message out there,” Samartino said. “It’s a way to uplift what’s happening and hopefully create a more caring and compassionate city and society beyond that.”

Samartino, who currently works at the front desk of the Cabrini Health Clinic, the oldest free clinic in the United States, said that his interest in social justice and spirituality led him to the nonprofit sector. While at IST, he took what was then known as the Information and Context option, which focused on how people relate to technology.

“I always liked helping people use technology,” he said.

Detroit has been dealing with myriad social and economic problems for decades, including crime, government corruption, and a mass exodus of jobs. On July 18, 2013, Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy. It was the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in U.S. history by debt, estimated at $18 billion to $20 billion. Another issue that has mobilized Detroit citizens is the city’s threat to shut off water to its poorest citizens. After an initial wave of mass shut-offs began in December 2014, the city was met with fierce resistance and created a new payment option, dubbed the "10-30-50" plan. Under the plan, overdue households enter a two-year agreement by first paying down 10 percent of their past-due balance, while at the same time covering their monthly bill. If a payment is missed, the resident will then have to pay 30 percent of their balance; after that, 50 percent of the balance. If a fourth payment is missed, residents face having their water shut off. However, a recent survey by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan found that nearly all of the customers who are signed up for the plan are now 60 days overdue.  On May 18, the city of Detroit was scheduled to hand out notices to as many as 25,000 residents, threatening once again to cut off their water supply.

According to Samartino, the media has presented a skewed version of the water shutoff situation. Samartino alleges that news organizations have portrayed those facing water shutoff as being delinquent. According to Samartino, the truth is that people simply can’t afford water with so few job opportunities in the city. The social justice websites, he said, act as information resources to “counter the dominant narrative within big newspapers.”

“People are blaming the victims, but that’s not reality,” Samartino said. “(Journalists) really don’t speak for the people who are suffering and don’t have their viewpoints represented in the newspaper.”

Despite the turmoil that the citizens of Detroit are facing, Samartino said, there is hope that the city will bounce back. However, a new model of sustainability will have to be established.

“We’re going to have to live more locally, establish relationships with neighbors and community to make it happen,” he said.

Samartino, who said he has always been inspired by the late Steve Jobs’ philanthropic spirit, will continue to lend his technological expertise to grassroots efforts to revitalize Detroit--shortly, also in a paid position. He has a job lined up with a Detroit nonprofit organization that recently received a grant to hire a website manager.

“Just to be able to make some kind of contribution is really amazing,” Samartino said. “And the contribution I’m making is all because of my IT skills.”

Rich Samartino, a 2010 graduate of Penn State's College of Information Sciences and Technology, serves as a volunteer coordinator for several websites that are aimed at promoting social justice in Detroit. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated June 26, 2015