Learning from our past
The impending inauguration of a new president has generated significant buzz and dialogue related to our city and what the future holds for its residents. As we move to close the chapter on one of the most contentious presidential campaigns in memory, we have an unparalleled opportunity to learn from our past as we work to make Detroit the world-class city we want it to be.
We are approaching the 50th anniversary of the 1967 riot which claimed countless lives and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage and a disinvestment in Detroit from which, in my opinion, we have never truly recovered. I was a 13-year-old child at the time, yet those memories are etched in my memory as if it were yesterday. Numerous fires burning out of control; the looting of stores and other businesses; dysfunction in policing and U.S. army tanks sitting on strategic corners. Was that really America? The land of the free home of the brave?
As we prepare to receive a new president, I hope we Detroiters will remain focused on working together to continue to rebuild and transform, returning our city to great status it once held as one of the nation’s leading cities. Leadership gets it right when they ask, “How did we get here?” and when they have the courage to move answers into action.
Civic and business leaders during the time of the riots -- Joe Hudson, Mayor Cavanaugh, Governor Romney, Henry Ford and many others -- reached out in a genuine manner to the leadership of the African American community and had tough candid discussions about how to address conditions that led to the uprising and how to build a more inclusive community. From here, New Detroit was born. New Detroit create a table in which corporate, civic and faith-based leaders, residents and youth, could sit down and work out their differences in a peaceful and respectful manner. Out of those discussions came numerous nonprofits and community-based initiatives, many of which continue to provide much needed services today.
Over the years, there have been many exemplary collaborations that have challenged our notions of what’s possible, where unlikely allies forged a unified vision to move our city forward. Today, I think of partnerships that we at the Foundation have had the great honor to be part of including the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, My Brother’s Keeper and Grow Detroit’s Young Talent.
We have pockets of collaboration, yet the narrative of “old Detroit vs. new Detroit” continues. Make no mistake about it, we need to be ONE Detroit. If the renaissance we are seeing today is to be sustainable, we must be intentionally inclusive so that all of Detroit’s residents are connected to and able to thrive in Detroit’s new economy. Let us learn from lessons of the past and remember that the best results are driven by collaborative efforts where well-intentioned folks from all sides of the table come together to work toward a shared goal.
Are we courageous enough to get know one another and build bridges between our disconnected communities? If Detroit is to be great again it will require the full engagement of all of its warriors: residents, businesses, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, Native, Black, White, Latino, Hispanic, Asian, Immigrant, Straight, LGBQT, etc. When we pool our collective wisdom, perspectives and talents, there is no problem we can’t solve. We can rebuild our infrastructure, rehabilitate our housing stock, strengthen our economy to make it second-to-none, and create a world-class education system of high-performing schools. Yes, we can fix our schools. We can do it all. It just begins with each of us being brave enough, committed enough and loving this city and each other enough. Let’s get it done.
Robert Thornton, senior program officer, has been with the Foundation since 2001. Prior to joining the Foundation, he served at New Detroit Inc. for 13 years.