Allen: 5 keys to make Detroit an 'Our Detroit'

Detroit is at a crossroads.

Significant growth and energy is occurring in Downtown and Midtown. Young talent, commerce and investment are flooding to these areas. This wave of growth is marked by new ideas, energy, an entrepreneurial spirit and momentum.

Tonya Allen-Skillman-0463

Tonya Allen is president & CEO of The Skillman Foundation.

Our neighborhoods, though, struggle with unparalleled despair. Residents bear the burdens of a broken city, as they work hard to stay put and hold it together. They aren’t feeling  the same optimism and rush of energy as the newcomers; instead, their energy is exerted maintaining what they have and constantly being tormented by the memory of what’s been lost.

Essentially, we have two Detroits. The new Detroit and the legacy Detroit.

So there is challenge before us. It’s a challenge to dissolve the downtown vs. neighborhoods dichotomy, retire the crisis narrative that focuses on our deficits and devalues our assets, and ultimately shed the new-old Detroit frame.

If we are going to be a successful city, where all can prosper, where equity exists, where justice reigns and love prevails, we must adopt an Our Detroit way of life.

I had the privilege to address a Henry Ford Health System audience on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I reminded participants who attended the day of celebration that  Dr. King said it best when he said “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” 

An Our Detroit frame, as I think of it, is based on a set of five ideas.

The first is simple -- show up! Every Detroiter needs to be present on the issues they care about. Some care about health care, others education; some economic opportunity and some safety. It does not matter what the issue is, but rather how we each execute our influence on the issues at hand.

If we are to create an Our Detroit, we must recognize that each of us matters, each of us has  gifts, and each of us can make a difference.

Second, we must exercise our belief muscle. This simply means that we have to believe that we can create an Our Detroit. Be positive. Be hopeful. Be audacious in your hopes for our city. Give up negativity, stereotypes and tired narratives that pit us against each other. No more city vs. suburbs. No more white vs. black. We are all Detroit.

When we need to call out injustice or criticize bad practices, it should be accompanied with positive beliefs and intentions. We must both define and offer solutions for the problems at hand.

Third, remember that none of us is as smart as all of us. I first heard this simple concept from my grandmother, who served as a block club leader in southwest Detroit. She believed, as I do, that if you include the voices of everyone, you strengthen your solution sets.

Unfortunately, we live in a society that does not value this concept. Despite our democratic values, too few people – those deemed the smartest, richest and most powerful -- are making decisions for all of us. This top-down approach prevents us from finding magic in the collision and diversity of ideas, data and viewpoints.

Dr. King said: Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions.

Detroit needs fully baked solutions that include the ideas of many.

Fourth, alone we are enough, but together we are plenty. This tenet is pretty simple. So simple that my seven-year-old daughter Alanna Allen summed it up as “when more people work together, then we can build up Detroit and make it a better place.”

And as Dr. King stated: An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.

Essentially, if we are to create an Our Detroit, we have to be about community. More importantly, we have to act like community. Our Foundation has launched a new initiative called Random Acts of Community to highlight this need. Keep watching for these moments in 2014.

Fifth, the future is coming and we can shape it

For some of you, it might be difficult to imagine Detroit’s recovery. For a few, it probably seems impossible. But history tells us differently. Forty years ago, there were a handful of American cities that were written off as dead, including Seattle, New York, San Francisco and Boston. Today, these same communities have roared back, and are now some of the best and most vibrant cities in the country.

Even more recently, take the case of Washington, D.C. A little over 15 years ago, D.C. was bankrupt and had the highest murder rate in the country—399 murders in 1996.

Today, D.C.’s municipal restructuring has left a robust municipal reserve, a robust economy and fewer than 100 murders a year, with a steadily declining trajectory.

As Dr. King said: Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.
 To create an Our Detroit, we will need to make an intentional and focused generational play. We need ten years of collective action to focus on this agenda. And you might think 10 years is not long enough.

Well, a lot can happen in ten years. After all, it was only 9 years from the start of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawing 100-years of segregation.

Which Detroit do you believe will be standing in 10 years? I believe it’s an Our Detroit. Let’s all work together to ensure that it happens.

Tonya Allen is President & CEO of the Skillman Foundation.


Cities Of Peace Detroit
I hope you'll be watching the efforts being made through a small startup that hasn't been walking in the funding circles yet. We are nearing the completion of a 16 week course developing several dozen Peace Ambassadors in how to hold a space for a just economy to take root and flourish. Saturday the first workshop in a series will be held through Women Creating Caring Communities - Healing, Purpose and Empowerment: Living Our Full Capacities. We are also bringing a Sustainability Summit to be held in September, prior to the International Day of Peace.

Stephen Boyle
4/24/2015 at 6:06 am