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An Equitable Detroit

Tonya Allen

Detroit is at a crossroads. Depending on where you stand in the city, your opportunities might seem endless or appear to be shrinking. The city’s downtown and midtown core are thriving, but few signs of improvement have reached our poorer neighborhoods. Residents – youth included – are largely disconnected from the city’s growing economy. They do not feel ownership or connection to these new developments. Brutal realities continue to exist, generational poverty is entrenched; families are culturally and structurally detached from work and the economy.

There is much talk of “two Detroits”: the new, emerging Detroit, and the legacy Detroit. But there is a third Detroit – the city’s youth. Our youth have no memory of the past, and they are not connected to the possibilities of the future. Eighty percent of Detroit children live in concentrated poverty, growing up in a community where at least 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Even if a child’s household is financially stable, if they live in an area of concentrated poverty, they are likely to struggle anyway. Systems are overwhelmed, and the outcomes for the majority of our kids fall significantly short of their potential.

The disadvantages for children growing up poor in America are mounting; we are seeing the opportunity gap widen for youth in every city, county and state in America. As Detroit rebuilds its economy and communities, we have the chance to do so in a way that benefits our children. Detroit’s recovery will be made complete, or will be broken by, the outcomes of its youth. We must provide our children with opportunities to thrive in school, work and life, and prepare them to be leaders in their community. Our challenge is to make sure the third Detroit is acknowledged and included.

When all three Detroits are brought together, that’s where we will find our power as a community to grow and revive. The three Detroits need to fuse into one Detroit: Our Detroit. Our Detroit is about understanding that we have a shared fate. Our Detroit is a place where everyone has access to prosperity. It requires us to address the growing divide in our city and be purposeful about dialogue, invitations, decisions, and decision makers. Our Detroit is our responsibility today and our legacy for tomorrow.

A community of leaders

In 2016, the Good Neighborhoods Initiative — our 10-year, $100-million commitment to children in six Detroit neighborhoods — drew to a close. Among the many learnings that we will carry forward into our work ahead is our strengthened ability to equip the community for civic leadership. This means hearing and championing diverse voices; lifting up leaders of our communities so that their knowledge and perspective is included in conversations at the city, state and national level. It includes preparing our youth for civic leadership as well, so that they may contribute to and lead Detroit’s comeback.

Two of the most powerful examples of this to come out of the Good Neighborhoods work were the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren and Grow Detroit’s Young Talent, in which we actively worked alongside the most unlikely bedfellows you could find – people representing a diverse array of political and business viewpoints – and brought forth civic solutions, built in collaboration and consensus.

Detroit is primed for intentional and courageous leadership that honors and elevates our residents and youth. We must ensure our city’s recovery is equitable; that our children are prepared for and connected to economic opportunities, and are capable of contributing to and leading the positive change they want for their community.

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