The Mackinac Conference and Detroit’s “DNA”

By Kim Hunter

Detroiters, especially those of who have been here a few years and who are fortunate enough to occasionally eat out in the Cass Corridor area or downtown, have noticed an amazing transformation. It seems like there is new restaurant opening every week if not everyday. There are also new lofts and apartments all over town and those in the Cass Corridor area are at capacity. That’s a huge change from just a few years ago. What’s also notable is that virtually all of those new restaurants and lofts are filled with white people.

Detroit is 84 percent African American and big enough for the 2 million people it once held though the current population is only 713,777. So, there’s plenty of physical space for people to move in and it’s likely that many — if not most of those folks — will be white. The question is not if white people can or should move into the city. The question is how? What will be the impact of the changing demographics of race given the intersection of class and race in the US (Detroit is the most impoverished major city in the US) and the reality of segregation in Southeast Michigan?

While it’s been years since the City of Detroit was in the top 10 most populated cities, Metro Detroit has steadfastly maintained its position as one of the most segregated areas in the country, ranking number four according to US Census data culled from the Brookings Institute.

This year’s Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Mackinac Center Conference will have one session devoted to “opportunity and inclusion” through the lens of the July 1967 “civil unrest” or rebellion. Soledad O’Brien will host the panel to include Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the NAACP-Detroit, Xavier de Souza Briggs, vice president of Economic Opportunity and Markets at the Ford Foundation, Sheila Cockrel, president of Crossroads Consulting and Communications Group, and Sebastian Jackson, founder of the Social Club Grooming Co.

There are problems with the panel. For one, Cockrel has spent the last few years collecting grant money ostensibly to do voter education but instead tried to convince Detroiters that emergency managers and the bankruptcy were inevitable if not good and we should have empathy for those whose jobs it is to cut our services. Also, contrary to the panel’s focus, scholar and expatriate Detroiter Thomas Sugrue’s book “Origin of the Urban Crisis” thoroughly documents how the events of July ’67 were the culmination of a decline that began with Detroit’s population drop in the ’50s. Another problem with the panel is language because, as George Orwell’s novel 1984 teaches us, words matter.

“Opportunity and inclusion” are nice words, but they don’t really speak to the ugly reality of white bias and bigotry against black people and how that is a central justice issue for the rebuilding of Detroit and therefore, the rebuilding of Michigan. I don’t know if any member of the panel will be blunt enough to say most African Americans and Latinos are not a visible part of Detroit’s comeback and many are in danger of being priced out.

On the other hand, the middle and upper middle-income black families in the University District, Rosedale Park, Palmer Woods, Sherwood Forest, Indian Village and East English Village are rarely mentioned as the people who have held the city together through the turmoil. Moreover, quiet as it’s kept in the media, there will be no Detroit comeback without middle income African Americans.

There are people working to counter what’s lacking in the Detroit media narrative. The ever-scrappy crew that put on the Allied Media Conference is explicitly about justice and they are working towards a grassroots narrative of Detroit. They’ve recently established the Detroit Narrative Agency (DNA) to award 10 – 12 grants of $5,000 to $10,000 each as seed money for what they call “transformative narratives” about Detroit told by Detroiters. They prioritize Detroiters and people of color. Groups that receive awards must have at least one central member that is a Detroit resident. The application deadline is June 24, 2016.

One of the most interesting parts of the process was that DNA grantors held neighborhood meetings all over the city and asked people what stories about Detroit needed to be told and what stories are people sick of hearing. From that they created a structure of what would comprise a strong application.

Not surprisingly, one of the false Detroit narratives most reviled by Detroiters is that Detroit is a “blank slate.” One of the other narrative myths DNA funders said they would not fund is that “white people will save Detroit.”

I seriously look forward to the projects that grow out of the Detroit Narrative Agency. I hope those projects have the power to influence folks at next year’s Mackinac Conference with transformative grassroots narratives. The DNA guidelines include a suggested list of topics and themes, which include being: rooted in community, focused on root causes of problems, showing community based problem solvers and the history/culture of the city.

Such narratives are far more likely to avoid many of the media pitfalls noted above. Moreover, grassroots Detroit narratives are just as essential to overcoming the city’s challenges as the people themselves who do the work.