Building the CBO Movement in Detroit


Written by Sean Thomas-Breitfeld with artwork by Sean Bieri, courtesy of

Detroit and many cities across the country that experienced disinvestment, white flight and redlining a generation ago, are now grappling with economic “redevelopment” efforts that notoriously and blatantly bypass communities of color. Since redevelopment so often means removing long-time residents to transform neighborhoods into cookie-cutter corporate landscapes, communities are resisting the forces of gentrification and demanding to be heard and included in the development decisions affecting their cities. Community benefit agreements are one of the major tools that activists have at their disposal, but in Detroit a group of community leaders and the city council president have taken the idea a step further.

The grassroots coalition Rise Together Detroit organized an all-volunteer petition drive to put a citywide community benefits ordinance (CBO) on the ballot this Election Day. The ordinance would require that multi-million dollar projects receiving at least $300,000 in public subsidies meaningfully engage with communities to ensure that real benefits flow to Detroiters and that the negotiations are legally binding, not just empty promises from developers.

BMP’s Detroit Program Director, Linda Campbell, and other long-time partners that we have highlighted before helped lay the groundwork for the David vs. Goliath battle between Detroiters and developers. Ever since the 2013 meeting that established the Detroit People’s Platform, one of the hallmarks of the organizing that DPP volunteers has been community education about the potential value of community benefit agreements. Community leaders involved with Detroit People’s Platform, the Equitable Detroit Coalition, and many other groups across the city have been organizing district by district to build the public will to fix the problem that communities too often pay for development without reaping any benefit (for example, see these two stories from 2015 and 2016 about Detroit’s new stadium).

recent article in the Detroit MetroTimes, highlighted the grassroots effort to put the community benefits ordinance on the books and interviewed a number of the community activists supporting the grassroots effort. The paper also examined the big business opposition to the community-led effort. The CBO’s opponents were so threatened by the community support backing the policy proposal that they first tried to confuse voters with a watered down competing ordinance, and have now launched a well-funded, professional c4 campaign to overwhelm Detroiters with anti-CBO ads and mailers.

But after resisting the Governor’s take-over of Detroit through the Emergency Manager – which at that time left half of African Americans in Michigan without elected local government – Detroiters are prepared and committed to stand up for their communities. If you want to support the Detroit campaign for a community benefits ordinance, go to to learn more and make a donation.

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