Council members rally support for 'Detroiters' Bill of Rights'

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit  Two council members are seeking to shrink socio-economic disparities in the city and ensure residents have access to clean water, shelter and equal rights in what they unveiled Wednesday as the "Detroiters' Bill of Rights."

Detroit Council President Pro Tempore Mary Sheffield and Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López are banding with grassroots and social justice organizations to developd community-driven policy recommendations they say will make the city more inclusive for underrepresented citizens.

Dozens of representatives gathered Wednesday for a press conference at the Spirit of Detroit where they said they will work toward adding the eight-point bill of rights to the City Charter.

The Detroiters' Bill of Rights promotes clean water, affordable housing, mobility and living in safe environments regardless of ZIP codes or immigration status. The group also said it will work to implement bus driver rights, a city immigrant coalition, an office of disability affairs and a public health fund focused on clean water and air.

The goal, they say, is to embed certain "unalienable rights into the city's charter to ensure all residents have the opportunity to reach their fullest potential," Castañeda-López said.

Representatives from dozens organizations gathered at the Spirit of Detroit Wednesday to announce the Detroiters' Bill of Rights.

Sheffield, a Democrat from District 5, has been promoting a "People's Bill" since 2018, where she called for similar measures. Then, she focused on the city's revitalization and advocated for communities to be benefiting from developers.

She said the new petition is a call-to-action toward systemic change and representation of Detroiters in all parts of the city.

“We are at a rare moment in this nation’s history when the voice of the people is being amplified and real change is achievable," Sheffield said. "It is important to meet such a historic opportunity with the organization, action and policies that could deliver quality of life improvements for the oppressed."

Castañeda-López and Sheffield spent six weeks working with racial, environmental, immigrant and disability justice advocates, as well as housing, water and transit experts to develop the Detroiters' Bill of Rights in response to a centuries-long struggle for racial equity and social justice. Nearly 90 organizations have signed on to the petition to adopt the Bill of Rights. 

"We are focused on centering the most impacted," said Jennifer Disla, organizing director with Detroit Action. "Housing has impacted Detroiters during this pandemic before and hopefully not after. We are ready to see change."

The Detroiters' Bill of Rights calls for:

  • Right to Water and Sanitation: Every resident has a right to clean and affordable water and sanitation for personal and domestic use.
  • Right to Environmental Health:  Every resident, regardless of their ZIP code, is entitled to live in an environment with clean air, soil and water.
  • Right to Safety: Every resident is entitled to live in safe communities and has the right to live free of threat or harm from one another and city agencies.
  • Right to Live Free from Discrimination: Every resident, regardless of their immigration status, is guaranteed the same fundamental rights and protection of the law from discriminatory practices. Every person with disabilities in Detroit is entitled to the same rights and freedoms as non-disabled people in the city, including access services, programs and infrastructure.
  • Right to Recreation: Every resident is entitled access to parks, recreational opportunities and urban green spaces to protect and enhance their health and well-being.
  • Right to Mobility: Every resident, regardless of their ZIP code, has the right to safe, accessible and affordable public transit options whether walking, biking, driving, rideshare, or using public transit, that enables free and fair movement throughout the city.
  • Right to Housing: Every Detroit resident is entitled to affordable, habitable, safe, and accessible housing.
  • Right to Fulfillment of Basic Needs: Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of themselves and of their family, including food, utilities and water and sanitation, clothing, affordable and accessible housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to care in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond their control. (Adopted from United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25)

Each proposal will be submitted to the Charter Revision Commission for consideration into a final proposal that the group intends to get on the ballot in 2021. The group will continue to work to pass the Bill of Rights while also pushing forward budget amendments, resolutions and racial equity, Castañeda-López said.

“The Detroiters' Bill of Rights is rooted in our country’s value of opportunity — the opportunity to achieve our fullest potential as human beings," Castañeda-López said. "It is our responsibility as public servants to uphold this value and lead with courage to build a just future. By embedding the principles of racial equity and social justice in the City’s charter, we are changing the status quo and laying the foundation for a new way of governance."

Hayg Oshagan, Wayne State University ethics and media professor, said the Detroit Immigrant and Refugee Affairs Commission will become a safeguard for civil liberties of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. He also proposed the Office of Immigrant Affairs to work with the commission and advise the mayor on city programs, benefits and services to immigrants and to respond to concerns, he said.

"Every Detroit resident has a right to clean water, responsible policing, accessible transportation, environmental protection, fair treatment of people with disabilities and affordable housing. And for immigrants, the same rights we are all entitled to – freedom from discrimination, equal access and opportunity," Oshagan said.

"This is the institutional safeguard of our ideals for all Detroiters. We create laws not for what we see today, but for what we can imagine for tomorrow."

Baba Baxter Jones, who uses a wheelchair, spoke on the importance of creating an office for disability affairs that would create more accessibility and prioritization for disabled residents.

"We’re not asking for equality, we’re asking for equity," Jones said. "As a person who is impacted on a daily basis by some of the inequities that occur in this city, I'm proud to be here today championing what I consider to be the foundation for any constitution... 

"We’re not just hoping, we're demanding that the rights and the understanding for people with disabilities are considered as a part of the foundation of this city, that’s the only way it’ll become a great city. We have a long way to go."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_