CitizenDetroit gives residents tough decisions to make

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Kirk Bennett has $10 million to spend on 10 cash-strapped city departments in post-bankruptcy Detroit.

There are pressing needs in police, fire and EMS. But supporting services in garbage, lighting and parks ranks high too.

And Bennett needs to reach a consensus with 10 classmates for this role-playing exercise in civic engagement during his Wayne State University’s honor course.

“We realized how difficult it was. There isn’t enough money, period, and then you have to figure out who gets it even if this little amount of money isn’t going to make an impact. I’m really glad people have to do this for their job,” said Bennett, a 21-year-old Detroiter.

That sentiment is at the heart of a community education program underway in Detroit called CitizenDetroit.

The goal of CitizenDetroit is to help residents think critically about candidates and emerging political issues — budget, safety, transportation and other city challenges — so they can engage more broadly in the political process and participate in elections.

The program, a project of Wayne State’s Forum on Contemporary Issues in Society, uses community-based gatherings, dialogue sessions, town hall meetings, social media and other resources to heighten residents’ knowledge of critical issues, co-founder and former City Council member Shelia Cockrel said.

This year the program is expanding to reach more citizens with a $750,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

CitizenDetroit was created in 2012 by Cockrel and Irvin D. Reid, WSU’s president emeritus, when the city was in extreme financial distress and facing a number of municipal woes, leading up to its filing for bankruptcy in 2013.

The program operated on a shoestring budget in 2013 and 2014.

But for the next three years it will use the funds to engage at least 1,500 Detroit residents every year with the aim of increasing voter participation in the 2017 city elections.

Results on the city of Detroit’s website show that 31.5 percent of 528,241 registered voters hit the polls at 607 precincts.

Since Cockrel and Reid established CitizenDetroit in 2012, the project has worked to educate and mobilize residents of all ages. Through the additional funding, more citizens — including youth and older adults residing in Detroit — will benefit from CitizenDetroit dialogue sessions leading up to the 2017 elections.

“Lots of people think Detroit slid through bankruptcy, things are good to go. Everything is resolved. Detroit is ready to rock and roll. ... And even if some of us don’t really feel part of it, something good is happening,” she said.

“The reality is there needs to be a very sober appreciation of what it’s going to take on the part of residents to really get the city from where we are at the end of bankruptcy to really being on a rock solid financial basis.”

Reid said the future of Detroit will be shaped by the choices that engaged citizens make on issues ranging from the city’s bankruptcy to the future of public transportation.

“CitizenDetroit challenges the tendency of individuals to sit on the sidelines and oppose the actions of city leaders based solely on media coverage and urban legends,” said Reid. “Access to better information means citizens will better understand how difficult it is for elected and appointed leaders to make tough decisions that affect other people’s lives.”

Katy Locker, Knight Foundation program director for Detroit, said the expansion of CitizenDetroit comes at a pivotal time as Detroit begins to invest and rebuild.

“Ensuring that more Detroiters are a part of that means that we get to shape our future together,” Locker said.

Betty Buss, a former senior research associate with the Citizen Research Council and a Detroit employee in the budget office for 17 years, provides the content for discussions and designs the exercises.

The focus has been on “high-performance” voters, those who vote every election and are seen as local experts on issues in their own community. The hope, Buss said, is those voters are going to share what they’ve learned.

In coming months, the focus will also shift to occasional voters, registered voters who do not cast ballots and those who aren’t registered to vote.

“We want to get people to vote but to vote wisely and in an informed way. This is how your city government works, these are the issues to be addressed. Put yourself in the place of city officials and see if you can make these hard decisions. See how difficult it is to say yes to this and not to that,” she said.

The next civic engagement exercise with voters is March 25. Voters will play the parts of former U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes and his financial expert Martha Kopacz as they discuss the feasibility of the plan of adjustment.

Buss said Detroit’s bankruptcy took decisions out of the people’s hands for 18 months and the emergency manager was someone from the outside.

“We read a lot about the plan. But the plan is not a guarantee. You have to understand how fragile this is and what could go wrong, how many challenges there are,” Buss said.

“It really is up to you. The future of the city really depends on the citizens of the city. You have to hold your elected officials accountable. You have to take an active part in the political process. You have to be informed and you have to go to credible sources for information.”

The next CitizenDetroit event is March 25 at the International House in Detroit. To learn more contact