Equipping nonprofits to advance social change

Who’s in charge of transforming Detroit?

Written by Frances Kunreuther

This blog post is due to the courtesy of openDemocracy.

Bill and Billie Hickey live in Brightmoor, a neighborhood about twenty minutes away from the gentrified Midtown area of Detroit. Most people in Brightmoor live in poverty (50 per cent of residents have an annual income of under $25,000) , and the community has the largest percentage of ‘returning citizens’ in the city—that is, people who’ve been released from incarceration.

As retirees, the Hickeys came to Brightmoor from a more affluent Detroit community to join the growing ranks of urban farmers who are trying to re-purpose vacant land in hard-hit residential areas of the city. But I suspect their commitment to low-income families was also a factor. Billie told me how their movers had warned “You better get a big dog.” “I’m not going to get a dog”, she replied, “I’m going to get to know my neighbors.” And that’s what she and her husband did. In fact, 40 or more residents from the Hickeys’ part of the neighborhood come together each month to talk about community issues like food, security, kids and land use.

Detroit has become the poster child of urban decay, hit hard by a declining population (now half what it was in 1960) and disinvestment from a weakened auto industry, and from mostly white residents fleeing to the suburbs. As the tax base shrunk, so did city services. Bad investments and declining revenue led to spiraling debt. In 2013, the Michigan State Governor appointed an Emergency Manager to run the city, by-passing a democratically-elected Mayor and City Council. The result was the largest bankruptcy filing in the United States, a move hotly contested by many progressives.

Plenty has been written about what’s needed to remake Detroit into a livable city, but it often focuses on real estate developers, business entrepreneurs, and the investments of philanthropic institutions.  So many well-intentioned people have rushed in to ‘save the city,’ but the results don’t seem to reach the lowest income residents who still face evictions, foreclosures, and water shut-offs that have been condemned by the United Nations.

By contrast, the stories of individuals, communities and organizations who are working to help these residents and transform the city street by street—in small and much larger ways—are often overlooked. 

I’m visiting the Hickeys’ house as part of the “Building Movement Project”, which first came to Detroit in 2003 when our Detroit Team Member, Linda Campbell, asked us to talk with local social service providers who wanted to learn how to incorporate a deeper element of social change into their work. They knew—long before there was an Emergency Manager and a bankruptcy—that more people were seeking help than they could serve, and that government policies were working against, not for, those who needed the most support.

Through Linda, we started working in Detroit a few days a month, then weekly, and now we work there all the time with people whose families have lived in the city for generations.  In 2013, “Building Movement Detroit” developed the “Detroit People’s Platform,” through which over 200 residents from all seven districts of the city meet to discuss and endorse their visions for a future that includes good jobs, food and transit justice, fair land use, and democratic governance. The People’s Platform has continued to grow, and is now an important tool for long-term residents to reclaim their city by raising issues from the value of Community Land Trusts, to bus-riders (and bus-drivers) rights, to greater participation in decision making.

Roslyn Bouier is also part of the breakfast conversation with the Hickeys. She’s the head of the Brightmoor Connection Client Choice Food Pantry, and she tells us that there’s a network of 35 food pantries and soup kitchens that help residents in the neighborhood. Billie volunteers in one of these kitchens near her home.

Roslyn, who’s also studying for her divinity degree at the Detroit campus of Ashland Theological Seminary, explained how difficult it is to distribute food even to those who need it. Brightmoor Connection is what’s known as a ‘choice pantry,’ meaning that people can pick whatever they want rather than be given a standard box of surplus government food to take home with them. This is an important shift, since it gives people the ability to choose what they need for their families, along with a greater sense of dignity.

Still, much of the food comes from public sources that require more and more paperwork. One pending proposal, for example, aims to deduct the amount of food that people get at the pantries from the cash assistance that’s given to those in poverty by the state. I’m amazed at how inhumane this is, but as Roslyn points out to me, it also means collecting all kinds of unnecessary information about those who come for food. It reminds me how the poor are always under surveillance.

As the conversation unfolds over coffee in the Hickey’s living room, Roslyn, Bill and Billie describe the connections that exist between helping residents with their emergency needs like food, and putting them at the forefront of the broader political processes that are shaping the future of Detroit. In Brightmoor, one of these processes takes the shape of negotiations for a “Community Benefits Agreement” (CBA) with a super store that’s slated to move into the neighborhood in early June of 2015.

Bill and Roslyn have been asking people who use the food pantry what they want from a CBA with the new store. Gaining access to the new jobs that come with the store was a big concern, even though most will be low-wage and part-time. ‘Banning the box’ was another—not asking about felony convictions on job applications so that people with a prison record are not immediately rejected. But people also wanted places set up in the neighborhood where they could apply for jobs and get the help they need face-to-face. Handing out information that’s limited to online job applications rules out many eligible workers who have limited computer access. 

The CBA negotiations are proceeding, and many of the community’s initial demands have been met, but Bill is not naïve. He talks about what they are not getting (like fulltime jobs paid at a living wage), and he knows the problems that probably lie ahead, especially as such agreements are not necessarily enforceable. That’s why the Detroit People’s Platform is advocating with the City Council for a “Community Benefits Ordinance” that would require large developers who receive significant financial incentives from the city (like tax breaks) to reach enforceable agreements that address the concerns of local residents.

This seemed like a pie-in-the-sky demand when it was first proposed, but it’s gaining enough traction that even pro-business groups like the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation –who were initially adamantly opposed to the Ordinance –are now saying that something more enforceable is needed.

Back at Bill and Billie’s, the meeting is wrapping up. Our hosts are talking about how people look out for one another. Roslyn notes that there are no metal detectors at the food pantry—in fact no security at all—and how there always seems to be a group of pantry users who appear just when they’re needed to help unload deliveries when the trucks arrive.

As we leave the house, I wonder what other outsiders might think as they drive through this area, with its boarded-up homes, food pantries, soup kitchens and struggling businesses. Maybe Brightmoor would confirm the stereotypes about Detroit that many people carry around in their heads, along with the conviction that the city needs to be ‘saved’ by new waves of incoming donors, planners and technocrats.

The reality is different for Detroiters who are working at the neighborhood level and are focused on policy changes that would benefit residents who are simply trying to survive. They know that the real promise of urban transformation comes not from the outside in, but from the inside out—building a new city from the bottom up.

Movement Building community involvement democracy Detroit transformation