Reflections from TPW’s Immersion Journey to Detroit

By TPW Member Kathy Vizas

Most of us have heard the stories about Detroit – stories of grit and resilience of the people but also about the crime, corrupt government, terrible city services, and poverty. When a group of TPW members visited Detroit in April 2019, we had to ask ourselves, “In light of the multitude of challenges Detroit faces, is the American dream alive for everyone?”

We started by looking at what life is like for many Detroiters – not just through numbers and statistics – but by trying to understand the daily realities residents face in this city in one of the richest countries in the world.

Life in the Neighborhoods

What is it like today outside of the revitalized downtown and a few other buzzing neighborhoods in Detroit? How do most the citizens in the struggling neighborhoods live? What can their stories tell us about the challenges Detroit faces?

Alan, for example, is 90 years old and lives in the Tuxedo neighborhood—one of the many communities left behind as flight out of Detroit accelerated and investment in Detroit evaporated. Alan’s house set fire in 2013, and though the building was not completely destroyed, he has no roof and no insurance to repair it. He now lives without water or electricity on a block with few neighbors, no shops and limited social services within walking distance. He can be seen most days walking up and down the streets of the neighborhood looking for recyclables. How does he find food? How does he keep warm in the winter? How can an elderly man live like this?

Down the street from Alan lives Brittany. She is a squatter, who moved into an abandoned, run-down home for shelter. She is a 23-year-old high school drop-out with a 2 ½-year-old son named Manny, and she is pregnant again with a second child. She works at a McDonald’s. Her house has no front door, no water, and no electricity. Brittany has great difficulty shopping because getting to the stores requires a car—a car which she does not own. She struggles on a daily basis to keep Manny and herself fed and warm.

Alan and Brittany would benefit from many kinds of assistance—services that they would likely qualify for but are not offered in their neighborhood. And without reliable transportation, Alan and Brittany thus receive little help from the city or from non-profits. 

We learned about Brittany and Alan from Stephen Henderson, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who lives and works in Detroit. Stephen grew up in Tuxedo, where he started a small nonprofit to tackle the blight and homelessness and rehabilitate abandoned houses one-by-one to draw more neighbors into the area. He also has created a community gathering place in a rehabilitated house, helping fellow residents organize themselves to achieve their goals. Core to his approach is making these services and sense of community available in their actual neighborhood instead of several bus rides away. 

Stephen challenged us as philanthropists to question some of the accepted “truths” around how to make change including, (1) the fascination with innovation; 2) the requirement that all interventions be scalable; and 3) the idea that social change approaches must be sustainable.  These themes continued to show up over the next two days and beyond. Although we all want to see big change flowing from our investments, have we overlooked small community-based non-profit models? Can they or should they be required to innovate, scale, and be sustainable for the long term?

The Challenges

The Motor City, home to the American auto industry, grew quickly with the invention of the car and promise of good jobs in the early 20th century. Detroit’s population was increasing every year, and in 1950, it held the title of being the 4th largest city in America. The boom was so great in post-war years that it was difficult to find housing in Detroit. Then suddenly with the decline of the auto industry in the 1960’s, population and the city itself began to change as businesses and people moved to the suburbs.  

Detroit’s de-population is stunning. Since 1950, 1.1 million people have left Detroit. More recently, from 2000 to 2016, the city lost almost one-third of its residents, dropping from 952,000 to 677,000. Of those who remain, 1 in 3 live in poverty. And for those living in low-income neighborhoods, a number of factors conspire to make life difficult.

Mobility: The city itself is huge – San Francisco, Manhattan and Boston can fit within the perimeters of the city’s 139 square miles. And without a car or a mass transit system, getting around the city is especially challenging. Even if a resident can find employment in a nearby neighborhood, transit is so difficult that some determined employees walk 10 miles back and forth every day to keep that job.

Education: The public school system is weak and Detroiters who might like to remain in the city but have school-age children often, reluctantly, relocate to the suburbs. Partly to blame for the situation are years of corrupt and ineffective local government, with little investment in public schools. In fact, the weaknesses, dishonesty, and ineffectiveness of a whole series of mayoral offices made each of Detroit’s problems that much worse.

Racism: Detroit also has a dark history of racism. Many of us were shocked to learn that in the 20th Century resentment of new black citizens was so high that white neighborhoods formed organizations to ensure they stayed white—the so-called “neighborhood improvement societies.”  Government and banks were complicit in red-lining black neighborhoods as “too risky” for loans, thus ensuring that businesses would have a hard time locating there. Shockingly, one white neighborhood abutting a black neighborhood was unable to secure bank financing until its white residents literally built a wall separating the two. Not surprisingly, this helped to keep black neighborhoods poor. Today, Detroit is one of the most racially segregated cities in America. We all had to reflect on the long, persistent and ugly history of racism not only in this city but in the country at large. It also explains why so many historically black neighborhoods in the city are still struggling today, and why focusing on equity and support for all citizens is so important.

The Bankruptcy

It is impossible to write about what is happening in Detroit today without including some facts about the 2013 bankruptcy. We heard repeatedly that the crisis—and the potential loss of the Detroit Institute of Art’s stellar collection to pay the City’s creditors—led many foundations, businesses, and philanthropists to “get off the sidelines.”  The so-called “Grand Bargain” was struck when a number of foundations along with the state of Michigan and the Detroit Institute of Art, and many of its individual supporters, put up over $800,000,000 to save the art, shore up the city pensions to ensure retirees would still receive payments—even if those payments were reduced—and allow the City to exit bankruptcy quickly.

The cooperation necessary to achieve this level of partnership was clearly motivated by a crisis. We could not help but wonder, as we did throughout our time in Detroit, is a crisis really necessary to inspire effective collaboration? How can partners be moved to work together absent dire circumstances?  And why did it take so long for Detroit philanthropists and governments to realize just how bad things had become?

The Approach

Day 1: With the example of the Grand Bargain in mind, we could see over our two days that almost every initiative required a cooperative approach.  A good number of these were created and led by the popular current Mayor, so it was in his office that we began our first day. 

We met with members of the Mayor’s planning and development team, who are determined to turn the problem of Detroit’s large size into a strength. The City’s Plan capitalizes on the vast open spaces in this sprawling city, including many empty lots from the clearing of run-down houses, existing wooded parkland, to create a “Green Detroit” with a network of bike paths, parks, trails, and an expanded riverfront accessible to all Detroiters. The Plan is citizen-driven by design. In the last year alone, the Planning Department has held 230 meetings in key neighborhoods around the city to inform the strategies they design and implement.

With limited resources, the City has initially targeted ten neighborhoods for revitalization. We were privileged to visit one—the Fitzgerald neighborhood— where we met with a diverse group of small, community-based organizations who came together around the newly-built Ella Fitzgerald Park. All partners, including government and community-based organizations, worked tirelessly to organize the neighborhood and get input from residents for every decision they made. This meant dozens and dozens of planning meetings in the neighborhood and a high degree of engagement and collaboration among the partners. We could not help but wonder, is this level of effort sustainable? And even not, isn’t it still necessary?

This theme was amplified at our next stop, where we examined the role of education in stabilizing a neighborhood. As we had heard many times already, the poor education system continues to be a huge barrier to retaining families in the city. However, the school district is focusing on neighborhood schools and pulling in a variety of partners from early childhood to higher education organizations with the support of local foundations to think differently about how they can better support and prepare students, teachers, and families. This effort is just one of the many examples of collective impact that we heard. Again, themes we heard consistently were 1) a focus on neighborhood and 2) collaboration for collective impact.

Our time in the neighborhoods continued late into the day when we landed at perhaps one of the most remarkable places in Detroit—the Brightmoor neighborhood. The Brightmoor Alliance, Motor City Blight Busters and its Artist Village, and the Motor City Java House work together tirelessly and inspire with examples of what just a few people can do to change lives. John George, one of the co-founders of Motor City Blight Busters, decided in 2006 that he was fed up with what was happening in Brightmoor and was going to start taking back the neighborhood from the drug dealers who were doing business in abandoned houses. Fast forward, and Blight Busters has demolished over 1000 crumbled houses in Detroit. And the drug dealers are not quite so brazen.

In addition to Blight Busters, John works to support the small, quirky, and warm artists’ refuge behind the Motor City Java House. We shared stories over dinner there with a wide collection of local leaders, artists, and community organizers. The evening finished with a live rap poetry performance by one of the local artists.

Day 2: We began our second day by meeting with some of Detroit’s business leaders who are working closely with government officials and local nonprofits to provide robust job training programs so that Detroit residents have the skills needed for the jobs available. In collaboration with the public, private, nonprofit and education sectors, the Mayor’s Workforce Development Board is seeking to remedy the mismatch between the skills needed and skills available among the city’s workforce.

While the lack of economic mobility continues to be a core challenge in Detroit, city leaders also see a tremendous opportunity to train and prepare residents who are eager and asking for work—and the Workforce Development Board has set bold and ambitious targets to reach them. In the short term, the board aims to employ 40,000 new workers, with an additional 100,000 in the long term.

We learned a number of different ways that these leaders—like David Meador of DTE Energy, who sits on the Workforce Development Board—are working in partnership across sectors to build solutions and build the gap between job seekers and employers. Aside from training and skills development, they are providing consistent longer term “wrap-around services,” such as child care and transportation assistance. There is a clear recognition that these potential “new workers” will need support to learn not only the skills necessary for the job but how to manage work along with the barriers they face in their lives and in their neighborhoods.

David Meador also spoke of the resistance many of these programs receive; he strongly advocated for bold and consistent leadership to push these initiatives through despite backlash against perceived “expensive handouts.” As we listened to him, we couldn’t help but wonder, what if Detroit had had this kind of good leadership in the 90’s and 2000’s? Why didn’t donors and leaders step up sooner?

Whatever the answers to these questions, we all left inspired by the strategy of the Workforce Development Board and leadership of David Meador, their commitment to equity for all Detroiters, and the inclusive working principle that “not everyone has to go to college. It should not be a choice between college and the streets.”

We then spent the afternoon with different foundations which, again, are striving to collaborate effectively, put equity at the center of their funding and focus on the neighborhoods. Approaches varied, from JPMorgan’s $150 million investment to revitalize neighborhoods and workforces while investing in small businesses, to the Detroit Development Fund, which used capital from JPMorgan to provide loans to small businesses in the neighborhoods.

And bringing Detroit’s Motor City heritage back to the fore, we learned about Ford’s effort to re-enter the city of its birth, both via the Ford Foundation, with its programs to strengthen the neighborhoods through its local Resource Centers, to the company’s recent purchase of the landmark Michigan Central Station, which fell into sad disrepair but is undergoing a huge makeover and rebirth as Ford Motor’s center for tech and innovation.

The Themes

Across the City, almost everywhere we visited, we heard the same themes – Detroit’s solutions begin with neighborhood focus and are informed by a belief in racial and economic equity as a guiding principle. Those being served must be involved in planning services.   

No approach can succeed in a silo and collaboration is key. The necessity for collaboration begins with the fact that the City simply does not have the resources to tackle everything that needs to get done. So, often the city government is the convener, and public resources are allocated to help partners work together and to help neighborhoods organize. City government knows it cannot succeed in revitalizing the City without a multitude of partners. 

Again and again, we heard that the “crisis” in Detroit has driven much of the collaboration. We wondered, is there a danger, as programs in Detroit begin to succeed, of funders and partners retreating to their own worlds and for the joint efforts we saw to begin to drop off? Will partners lose their sense of urgency? We’ll have to wait and see.  But all of us should ask, outside of Detroit, is there a way to create and maintain successful collaborations—with a sense of urgency—without waiting for a crisis on the level Detroit faced? And if so, how can we do this? 

And in response to our first speaker’s frustration with the philanthropy community’s perceived obsession with innovation, scale and sustainability, are there things that we can learn from the Detroit neighborhood programs that are in fact innovative, at least in the way that they were approached? Can that approach be replicated elsewhere? And could, or should, those programs last beyond their hoped-for success in making the neighborhoods more liveable for all?  Should we be defining innovation, scale, and sustainability more broadly?  And even if these small programs don’t check these three boxes, should philanthropists find a way to fund them nevertheless in a way that is impactful on a larger scale?

Aside from the need for collaboration and a sense of urgency, what else is crucial to these localized place-based programs? In Detroit’s case, we identified strong, credible leadership from government and consistent input from the community. These efforts are resource-intensive but may be necessary in our struggling American cities. Are other cities willing to pay? Does the political will exist? Are there good leaders ready to step up? And because Detroit can only take the lead to revitalize a fraction of the city’s neighborhoods right now, will other neighborhoods become restless as they miss out on the positive changes experienced elsewhere? Will those neighborhoods fall further behind and might this breed further problems for the city?

Despite the obvious challenges, we left hopeful. Detroit has an engaging, upbeat and proud spirit. Detroit IS, as many locals say, beautiful, with stunning architecture and open green spaces. Detroiters love their city. For many, Detroit’s history, sense of place, and the meaning of “Motor City” has kept the revitalization efforts on track. We all left wishing fervently that that will be the case.

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