Effective change in Detroit must come from communities, not from the top down
This Saturday, the Change Agent Consortium (CAC), a coalition of Detroit faith, labor, and social justice groups, will hold their Advance Detroit Summit at the Bethany Baptist Church (15122 W. Chicago) in Detroit. The event is from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and is open to the public. A free lunch will be served.
While there has been much protest and opposition to the things happening in Detroit, the CAC’s focus is on positive action from the community and grassroots level. Their mission statement has six guiding principles:
- We must support our current residents
- We must provide residents with meaningful ways of making change in their communities and city at large
- We must take the lead in shaping a regional agenda
- We must own the responsibility for doing this work and implementing this framework for our future
- We must hold our chosen leaders accountable and demand that government improve our quality of life
- We must must never lose faith in ourselves
It’s this focus on positive action, accountability, and the people who actually live in Detroit that makes the CAC unique and special. You can learn more about them at their website ActionCAC.org and on their Facebook page HERE. Their group meets the first Tuesday of every month.
I spoke with one of the original founders of the CAC, Rev. David Alexander Bullock, about the CAC, the Advance Detroit Summit, and about Detroit in general.
Can you give my readers a quick overview of the Change Agent Consortium is and what you do?
Sure. The Change Agent Consortium is an organization organized around social change, social transformation, and social justice. Really, we see social justice as less of a fight against particular issues and more of holistic fight to change culture in society to make it fairer and more respecting of human dignity and to level the economic playing field so that human beings are given a fair shot.
Is this mainly for Detroit or are you looking at a broader area?
Well, we’re based in Detroit but our vision is to really build this beyond the boundaries of the city of Detroit and beyond the borders of Michigan. Obviously I have a background in the civil rights movement and the civil rights tradition. I see this as the next phase of that movement. I think we have to move past civil rights as a movement . We’ve got that landmark legislation in place. Now we need to move to social transformation: the eradication of poverty, the redistribution of wealth, things of this nature. So that’s really the vision of the Change Agent Consortium.
One of the things that I have been discussing with my co-blogger LOLGOP is the situation that Walmart workers are finding themselves in when they try to organize for better wages and benefits and working conditions. Some of them are being fired for this and we’re sort of fighting the same fights we fought in the middle of the 20th Century. We’ve been talking about how economic justice and the ability to organize and have a voice in how you’re treated as a worker is really part and parcel of what we would define as “freedom. So, it’s ironic to see people who claim to be about “freedom” being against some of the things that would be defined as freedom under that viewpoint. Would you agree with that and how does your group address that? Are you working with labor groups on issues of economic justice and economic freedom?
Yes, we are working with SEIU and Good Jobs Now. We’ve been a part of the D15 campaign to raise the minimum wage for workers in a $200 billion industry, the fashion industry. And, also, as an ideological principle, I would agree with you and the Change Agent Consortium as a group shares that belief. You know, a lot of people define “freedom” negatively in terms of “freedom from”. I believe that we should define freedom positively — “freedom TO” — and once you begin to think about freedom in a positive sense, then obviously there are some resources, skills, and opportunities that are part and parcel of what it means to be “free”. We can’t just have the right to vote and be for it because, in a real sense, we are not free.
Usually when people are talking about what we’re talking about right now, they talk about freedom and equality. I think that what happens when you start talking about equality is that people become scared that you’re going to take their share. But I like to talk about it in the sense of positive freedom and if all individuals are supposed to be positively free, then what does that mean and what does that look like?
So, it’s not a zero sum game where where if I get more equality, that takes away some of your equality.
How are you working to implement the CAC’s efforts?
One of the things that we’re doing is to form a community development group to start doing some cooperative economic things and build relationships with the Department of Treasury in Washington, D.C. and the Agriculture Department. We’re looking to create a community development financial institution and working with that model so that we can capture dollars, build anchors, and protect assets in our communities.
As these relationships that you’re trying to form are developing, are you getting positive responses from folks or are they keeping you at arm’s length? How is that working?
We’ve been fortunate. We’ve been getting positive feedback from folks for the most part. I think some people are watching as well, but I think the conversation of promoting positive freedom, leveling the economic playing field, and creating cooperative ventures for communities to capture dollars and create assets and anchors is a conversation that makes sense.
Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr has been talking about this stuff. Do you think he will be receptive to the kinds of things that you’re talking about?
I don’t know. That remains to be seen. I do know that we’ll be talking about it and pushing so that it ultimately hits him. We’ll have to see how he responds. I think we may have ideological differences. I suspect that he’s more comfortable with the private enterprise model as opposed to cooperative ownership of solutions. I don’t think Kevyn Orr or Governor Snyder are from the camp that really takes community involvement in terms of strategic planning and long range planning for communities and involved citizens very seriously. They seem to take a very “top down” approach.
That’s really unfortunate because that seems so counter to things that have worked in the past. When I look at cities that have sort of resurrected themselves from a bad situation, they’ve ALL involved community development at the local level where people come in to neighborhoods, for example, that are impoverished and start investing in small businesses and fixing places up. That doesn’t usually come down from Bank of America or Citibank, that comes from local people banding together.
Indeed. I think that’s a great point and that’s precisely our point: we’ve got to build local economies from the bottom up and that typically doesn’t happen from the top down.
I’ve heard you talking on Tony Trupiano’s radio show about the number of small businesses in Detroit right now. Talk a bit about that and how many businesses we’re talking about.
Yeah, there are something like 90,000 businesses in Detroit that have a single employee.
To not tap that seems so insane! So let’s talk about the summit this weekend. It’s on Saturday, June 29th. What do you hope to accomplish with it and talk a little bit about what you’re going to do.
It’s the Advance Detroit Summit with a focus on the “advance”. Moving forward from protests to policies and progress. It’s a play on Dr. King’s question “Where do we go from here, chaos or community?” The Emergency Manager is not an agenda. Opposition is great but we need to have a position so what we hope to do is assess where we are and where we are going.
We’re going to have two main sessions in the morning, one that focuses on emergency management and the other that focuses on the Education Achievement Authority (EAA). They will be less gripe sessions than a discussion about where we are and where we want to go. If we want Kevyn Orr to leave then what does our vision of Detroit look like? As we protect Democracy, what are we trying to promote? That’s where, ultimately thoughout the day in different ways, we hope to lay out our position on building local community economies, strengthening local sourcing, promoting entrepreneurship, of community empowerment, and community-driven economic development that is potentially cooperative in nature.
So what do we hope to accomplish? Basically to drive these seeds and these ideas into the minds of the people of Detroit which are very, very animated around protests but not so much around a position or policy.
In the afternoon, we’ll have some real discussions around community engagement — who do we build a communication and information network so that we can really, in this year’s and next year’s political season, begin to connect people and organize people. And not just moving people around candidates and fighting the governor, but also move people around an agenda.
I sat down about a month or so ago with a guy named Jeff Debruyn. He’s a writer (WEBSITE – Opening of Detroit) who has been doing a lot of writing about what is, again, sort of a top down, corporate approach to solving problems in Detroit. So he’s been writing about an effort called the Detroit Future City group and the Hantz Farms project that are seeing Detroit and the empty spaces that have been created as people have left as an opportunity to affect some change. One hand, I think a lot of people are encouraging and would support redevelopment of these areas but, on the other hand, there’s some cautious skepticism that this might be done to benefit corporate interests and non-Detroiters, non-residents in ways that put the residents back behind the eight ball one more time.
Do you have any thoughts on that, specifically about the Detroit Future Cities group and the Hantz Farm planting trees and things like that?
Yeah, we do, and we’re going to talk about that on Saturday and the Detroit Strategic Framework plan is on our radar because we don’t want “urban renewal” to be what James Baldwin called “urban negro removal”. We do know that there are some issues around privilege and class. Any plan for recovery and redevelopment is going to have to include everybody.
Jeff has found that a lot of the people getting involved in this and that are benefiting from legislation that’s being passed, they’ve sort of bypassed people that were already trying to do things in the local communities in Detroit and sort of stepping over them and handing out opportunities to people that don’t even live in the communities.That struck me as really unfortunate and short-sighted.
Yeah, that’s exactly right. There’s a couple of things. Number one, you said it earlier and I agree with it, local communities have to be built from the bottom up. Any successful development model doesn’t work in communities that don’t have assets and anchors. So the Detroit Future City plan can be potentially because it’s not going to identify and strengthen vibrant communities and may not have anchors that hit a certain criteria.
For instance, with midtown and downtown, when you drill down into the data, “the median income is…”, “the average education level is…” — you end up setting up specific criteria based on these things. So you build this model on criteria that selects specific areas for targeting. But what about those places that don’t get selected by those criteria but are still vibrant and have communities, that have families, that have purchase?
We know that midtown and downtown and certain areas of the city of Detroit and any city will be redeveloped. But the real problem is how do we teach people how to capture dollars and build assets and anchors in communities that are not pre-selected by a criteria for economic development. So, the Detroit Future City plan becomes a point of departure from a more robust conversation about how we create economic, social, and educational oases in the economic desert that is present in the city of Detroit.
And, if we can figure it out in Detroit, we can do it in Gary, Indiana. If we can do it Detroit, we can do it in Flint and all of these other places.
Absolutely right, it could be a model for everywhere else.
Thanks so much for your time and I wish all the best on your event this weekend.
Well, thank you and thank you for all that you do.