Detroit Leaders Create Space for Rejuvenation, Reflection, and Practice


On the evening of October 29, a group of Detroit youth leaders – all under 40 – gathered in the living room of an immaculate home operated by Sister Mary and four other progressive nuns in the Detroit metro area.  At 39, I barely made the age cut off.  But was happy to contribute to the conversation. 

This was the third gathering of the group.  A motley crew of sorts, the cohort included students, the former Executive Director of a grassroots legal organization and a political consultant/soon to be candidate, among others. 

There was plenty of difference in the room.  But three points of commonality: 

  1. The city of Detroit is hurting – both financially and politically;
  2. Something big and bold needs to happen to change course; and
  3. The group that gathered late that night – and that will do the same many more nights to come – has the imagination and hutzpah (aka ‘that stuff on the inside’) to dream a different Detroit. 

The group is coming together with guidance and support from the Building Movement Project (BMP).  As a new member of the BMP project team, my contribution to the process was to offer tools and practices for creating “space.”  A simple but radical idea, space-building isn’t about “feel good,” “mushy” stuff.  It’s something deeper.  Much more powerful.  At its core, space-building seeks to do four things:

  1. Regularly bring together people who don’t look alike, talk alike, think alike and haven’t lived alike; people who are different or perceive themselves to be;
  2. In the face of incredible busyness in our lives, make coming together a habit – a ritual.  And through this ritual — and using the tools of story, vulnerability and laughter — begin to see bits and pieces of ourselves in those we may now view as the other;
  3. Slowly dropping the masks we all wear in public life.  Or as author Brene Brown puts it, “letting go of the person you think you’re supposed to be in order to embrace the person you are.”  And, finally
  4. As a result of numbers 1 through 3, practicing new ways of moving and operating in the world.

With the above as context for October 29, three important observations and take-aways:

  1. Rejuvenation.  The meeting opened with re-introductions.  My belief is that we are constantly re-introducing ourselves to people in deeper and different ways.  The approach this time:  sharing nick names or terms of endearment we had growing up.  The power of this exercise was both the laughter it generated (and the stress reducing and community building qualities of laughter) and the rich memories we tap into via story.
  2. Reflection.  The group then engaged in deep reflection on the theme of generational shifts in leadership.  One participant noted the challenges of being bi-racial and feeling compelled to engage in a new form of “code-switching” when navigating diverse race, ethnic and generational circles.  Another pondered:  what does leadership and strategy look like in the face of overwhelming “apathy” about Detroit’s current state and its possibilities for the future.
  3. Practice.  Finally, the group participated in a creative exercise in which they used metaphor to identify past experiences with leadership that taught them the greatest lessons about how they want to show up in the world with respect to their own leadership.  Comments from one participant summed it up:  he talked about being willing to be unafraid; to take risks; to move fast; to experiment.  And to balance this with being rooted in family and community. 

The meeting closed with some housekeeping, and some thoughts and commitments on leadership practices.  The group will come together again next month. 

This, as noted in Charle’s Payne’s “I’ve Got the Light of Freedom,” is the “slow and respectful work of organizing.”

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