Is there no innovation in Detroit's neighborhoods?

Maya Stovall and Alex B. Hill

The Knight Foundation has disregarded community-led innovation to sustain the status quo by funding multi-million and billion dollar corporate and foundation entities in Detroit.

Through its Knight Cities Challenge, 15 community-focused projects were rejected for funding, while 4 out of the 5 projects that were selected represent resources for hypothetical Detroit newcomers or elite ex-pats. Where is the investment in projects that are run by neighborhood residents and/or community groups with deep-seeded roots? How many times does this question need to be raised?

The Knight Cities Challenge, launched in 2014, purports to seek "civic innovation at the city, neighborhood, and block levels, and all sizes in between." Through this challenge, proposals were designed to "attract talented people, expand economic opportunity, and create a culture of civic engagement." The greatest weakness of all the winning projects is their lack of community connection and inclusiveness. Among the winners were media conglomerate Crain Communications, the controversial Detroit Future City, and the Quicken Loans/Bedrock Ventures collaboration known as Opportunity Detroit.

Crain Communications was awarded $100,000 to create a "digital community" for its exclusive "Detroit Homecoming" invitees. Detroit Homecoming is an invite-only gathering of exclusive Detroit expatriates with corporate ties and deep pockets. Crain Communications, which is headquartered in Detroit, has an annual revenue close to $250 million, making it difficult to see why they would need funding from the Knight Foundation for innovation or civic engagement.

Opportunity Detroit (Quicken Loans/Bedrock Ventures) was awarded $40,000 to advance its project to "inform" people about the corporation's preferred neighborhoods in the city through its "LIVE Detroit" program.

Detroit Future City (DFC) was selected ($84,000) to give vacant lots a well-designed "haircut." DFC and its framework plans have been funded and implemented by the Knight Foundation, Kresge Foundation, Detroit Economic Growth Corp. (DEGC), and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. In 2014, DFC reported that $74 million was leveraged to implement their framework plans.

What about the small nonprofits and community groups for whom the same $40,000 to $100,000 could be game-changing?

The 2014 Knight Cities Challenge winners in Detroit are yet another example of a growing and disturbing trend. This trend represents the corporate and foundation-level devaluation of existing local expertise and existing local assets. Funding and support have been and continue to be unequally distributed in Detroit. The Knight Foundation is embracing corporate entities whose "innovation" is providing resources to Detroit newcomers and/or Detroiters with already relatively deeper pockets than the majority of Detroiters.

If the large and powerful are the only groups that can get funding, how can we hope to build an inclusive city?

Maya Stovall and Alex B. Hill were finalists, though not chosen for funding, for the Knight Cities Challenge, for a project called "Windows into Detroit Communities."

Maya Stovall is a fourth generation Detroiter, dance artist, and Ph.D. student with research interests at intersections of performance; dance; race/ethnicity; gender; urban marginality & classification struggles; cities & urban spaces; and Detroit.

Alex B. Hill is a Project Coordinator and Community Health Worker in Detroit whose research is focused on food access, health disparities, and racial justice.