People of OU: Accomplished multicultural storyteller, educator Della Cassia

From Meadow Brook Road to Sesame Street, from the newsroom to the classroom, Della Cassia’s passion for storytelling and advocacy for multicultural perspectives has driven her through a storied career in media.

Cassia’s trademark sense of curiosity emerged as somewhat a product of necessity as a teenaged immigrant from war-torn Lebanon.

“I compare it to being almost deaf and blind, when you start out,” Cassia said. “I was 16 years old, walking the halls of Southfield High School, not speaking a word of English, not understanding the culture, not knowing how to navigate an American school.

“Can you imagine yourself as a junior having to go through something like that? Junior year is the most decisive year of your high school career. So starting there was really tough for me to adjust, to understand what the culture was like and how to adapt.”

Cassia’s early dreams of becoming a foreign correspondent motivated her to pursue journalism fresh out of high school. She enrolled in Oakland University’s “excellent” journalism program in 1991, at a time when campus felt a lot smaller — before the advent of the Human Health and Engineering buildings. Amused, she recalls a class teaching students to use Google.

Briggs-Bunting and Shine photographed after Briggs-Bunting’s induction into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, April 12, 2003. Photo by Mary Schroeder.

Though working during the day and taking classes exclusively at night meant opportunities to establish herself in the world of journalism were limited, Cassia credits OU faculty with amplifying her appreciation and desire to get involved in the field.

“What I loved about OU was the connection I made with all the teachers — small classes, more one-on-one interactions, a lot of support,” Cassia said. “[…] It’s more than a college. It’s a community.”

Cassia cites local journalism greats and OU faculty legends Jane Briggs-Bunting and Neal Shine as two key mentors who shaped her as an aspiring journalist.

“Those wonderful professors at OU just made me love journalism even more. Even though they warned me every single class about how tough the industry is,” she said, laughing, “it just was a great experience I’ll never forget, and every time I come to OU for one thing or another, I always wish I could take more classes here.”

Cassia spent several years working for Farmington-based community publications and Metro Parent magazine, an opportunity which allowed her to flex her knack for storytelling on multiple fronts.

“I was able to tell those stories and really get involved in various communities, reporting on education, City Council, crime, writing feature stories, writing obituaries — you name it, I wrote it, and it just was an amazing experience,” she said.

In an effort to be more present while beginning her family, Cassia eventually moved on from journalism to work in the nonprofit sector as a public relations professional. Her seven years at the Engineering Society of Detroit saw her leading the award-winning Technology Century Magazine, interviewing giants in the STEM fields.

Cassia was then recruited to PBS affiliate Detroit Public Television for a three year stint as Director of Communication, promoting national shows like Sesame Street and Downton Abbey, interviewing celebrities like Jane Seymour and working with television greats like Norman Lear and Dr. Henry Louis Gates.

Since 2017, Cassia has been translating her real-life experience into in-class lessons, teaching high school students at the Michigan Virtual Charter Academy (MVCA) and college students at Oakland Community College.

“I never felt like a student is a student, per se — it’s the future generation, as they’re the future leaders,” Cassia said. “And I know that may sound cliche, but I love to bring my knowledge and experiences into the classroom and connect teaching theory with real life experiences and engage with students.

“[…] I love millennials, I love Gen Z’s, I love just working with students and having fun and just seeing those ‘aha!’ moments when something just clicks, when something happens, and they go, ‘wow.’”

This academic year at MVCA has been Cassia’s first teaching a class she designed completely from scratch: multicultural literature.

“I’ve been able to teach Hispanic-American literature, Arab-American literature, Asian literature — you name it,” Cassia said, “and I went from 10 students to 60 in the classroom right now.”

This class is a product of Cassia’s round-the-clock commitment to facilitating multicultural conversations and platforming perspectives from beyond the mainstream, motivated by her own experience of assimilating to American culture.

“Even though we are together as America and we have so many different cultures, we all live in a vacuum and we don’t really understand each other and understand our experiences,” Cassia said. “So when I say I write from a multicultural perspective — I try to shape my writing and look at the experiences of people like myself who are coming here, but who are kind of preserving the legacies and preserving their cultures while adapting to a new one.”

After a hiatus from writing, Cassia felt a calling to return to her first true love on the other side of the pandemic.

“[Writing] is where it all started for me. I’m a journalist at heart, and once you’re a journalist, you always are,” Cassia said. “I’ve always loved to write, and I wanted to relaunch something of my own. It’s not that I don’t love what I’m doing — but I’m at a crossroad in my life where I’m just excited to do something a little bit different.”

The Curious Creative is that something different. The platform encompasses a personal blog, a multicultural book club at Novi Public Library, an upcoming podcast and a series of essays based on Cassia’s “memoir in progress.”

The first of these essays was published in the March/April issue of nonprofit magazine Literary Mama. A moving reflection of Cassia and her mother’s experiences and relationship within and beyond Lebanon, the piece chronicles the journey of one blue duffle bag’s journey from being Cassia’s mother’s most reliable companion in Beirut to resting idly in Cassia’s dresser drawer today, after a lifetime of keeping one family’s most prized possessions safe from war-borne destruction.

“The memoir is really about coming to America, but not just growing up here — it’s what I went through in Lebanon, my experience growing up there to a single mother, coming here, living with a father I’d never met [and] adapting to a new culture,” she said.

Cassia’s website declares this venture her way of honoring her past, “in order to move forward with [her] goal to promote the lives, struggles and accomplishments of immigrants who are using their skills and talents to preserve and promote their cultures.”

For every 4:30 a.m. writing session preceding a day of teaching her students and raising her children, Cassia’s goal has a profound source of motivation to keep her picking up the pen and telling stories that matter.

“I want to leave a legacy,” she said, “and if that legacy is to further understanding or awareness and make the world a little tiny bit smaller through my writing and my work — that’s really what motivates me.”