At the their meeting here last month, members of Self-Development of People’s National Committee heard from three activists working for justice and community development in the bruised city.
Collaboration and a sense of community are essential in Detroit, which — like many American cities — has seen white flight to the suburbs, a decline in urban services and a hit to its main industry, the speakers said.
Bill O’Brien, founder and director of the Harriet Tubman Center, spoke about his family’s participation in the white flight of the 1960s, when, along with mass numbers of other whites, they moved from the city to the suburbs. As a result, the city of Detroit has shrunk, losing itself to suburban sprawl.
Detroit used to rule the state of Michigan but is now just one-fourteenth of the state’s population, O’Brien said. This means that change or programs focused solely on Detroit won’t have as much power as they would if they involved more of the state.
That’s where community organizing — and the connectional nature of the church — come in, he said. While it’s important to build community within the city, it’s also important not to forget its suburbs, which all have their own mayors. O’Brien’s organization is building suburban coalitions based primarily in congregations, which those mayors are members of. That connection can lead to real change, he said.
Detroit is like a third-world country in many ways except one, O’Brien said: it has a tremendous lack of community. Changing demographics and migration mean that people in neighborhoods don’t know each other, but the church is an institution that is called to be community.
In the same vein as community, collaboration is also essential in Detroit, said Adisa Chaney, senior project manager for the National Community Development Institute.
Collaboration will work in Detroit “because we have a great need and very little funds to go around,” Chaney said.
Detroit is facing a crisis situation, and some people here are taking advantage of a bad situation, he said. But others are working hard to make a difference. These people are so busy working to that there is no time for them to connect with other like-minded groups.
That’s where Chaney comes in. He acts as a facilitator and helps people access services that already exist. The challenge is to get people to pause their day-to-day work for a bit to talk about sustainability, he said. He wants the church hosting a reading program for 25 people to look at changing the larger education system.
But some people are resistant to such modes of thinking because it could mean that their ministry won’t be needed in the future. Many groups are trying to keep their doors open and just survive another day, but they won’t be around five years from now if they don’t work together. And their work won’t be on a bigger scale.
For Malik Yakini, food justice and security play a major role in the fight for justice, freedom and equality.
Yakini is a founder and interim executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, which works to build food security for Detroit’s black community. Part of its work involves D-Town Farm, a four-acre farm on Detroit’s west side.
Most urban agricultural movements are started by young whites, Yakini said. They have good intentions but also bring with them the baggage of white privilege. To work at the farm, they must go through a divestment process. Blacks must do the same, but their process involves removing their inferiority complex.
“We’re very unapolgetically pro-black,” Yakini said. “We also understand we’re part of the human family.”
Detroit is 77 percent black and has only one black-owned grocery store, Yakini said. Many other grocery store owners don’t respect or connect to the community they serve, he said.
Detroit also faces the problem of food deserts, areas where healthy, affordable food is hard to find. Most people don’t think about food except for how it tastes. It’s important to consider nutritional values and sources when consuming food. But for hungry, impoverished people, finding any food is essential.
“Whether we’re urban or rural, we’re all tied together and we all have a common destiny,” Yakini said.