People, place, partnership make Detroit’s recovery

Darren Walker
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In the depths of the Great Depression, Edsel Ford commissioned Diego Rivera to paint a mural in Detroit’s public art gallery. The resulting five frescos — “Detroit Industry, or Man and Machine” — are a testament to this city’s triumphs, depicting the doctors and scientists, accountants and secretaries, farmers and auto workers at Ford’s River Rouge plant who together made Detroit great. Today these murals surround the Rivera Court in the Detroit Institute of Art, and serve as a reminder of Detroit’s promise and potential.

Detroit is on the path to recovery. The city’s government is functioning, innovating, and beginning to deliver on the civic promise. And yet, there’s still more work to be done. If Rivera’s monumental depiction of Detroit’s past is any indication, our vision for the city’s future should be no less ambitious or inspired. Indeed, if Detroit’s industry was defined by man and machine, Detroit’s recovery might best be subtitled “People, Place, and Partnership” — since these elements will be vital to an equitable recovery.

As a foundation committed to addressing inequality in all its forms, we have seen how many of the systems and structures in our society perpetuate inequality. Institutional racism and persistent economic inequality continue to widen gaps, keeping individuals and communities from realizing their full potential. To break this cycle, we must put people at the center of our work, and find ways to engage and empower Detroiters to lead the revitalization of their city.

In practice, that means funding grassroots organizations to have a voice in the decisions affecting them and meeting people where they are. That’s why, more than 80 years after the original Ford Foundation offices opened in Michigan, we are excited to announce that we’ve appointed a program officer based in Detroit. In our experience, communities understand their own needs better than anyone else. By putting Ford Foundation staff in Detroit, we hope to deepen our relationship to this special place, by becoming a resident and resource — working alongside communities, leaders, and champions of equitable development to ensure that the people of Detroit are shaping how their neighborhoods are developed.

For our part, we are proud to join with the city of Detroit, Knight Foundation, and others in our commitment to the Strategic Neighborhood Fund with Invest Detroit, which promotes investment in neighborhoods like West Village, Southwest Detroit, and Livernois-McNichols. This is just one example of how we can rethink the current structures and make sure capital flows reach those who need it most.

At the same time, in order to cultivate an engaged and empowered citizenry, more people in Detroit need to have stable, quality housing that allows them to stay in their communities and build brighter futures. This will require anti-displacement policies and sustained investment in affordable housing.

Luckily, quality affordable housing isn’t just a necessary solution — it’s also a sound investment. Recently, the Ford Foundation announced that we will be carving out a portion of our endowment for Mission Related Investments (MRIs) — and affordable housing is a key component of that investing strategy. As more of the market recognizes affordable housing as a viable investment for both financial and social returns, more Detroiters will be able to afford to stay and build up their communities.

Of course, none of these investments — be it in affordable housing, broadband connectivity, or grassroots organizations — will happen by themselves. Partnership will be essential to ensure the equitable recovery Detroit deserves.

This is not a new idea. The success of the “grand bargain” was a testament to the hard work of leaders who came together from across Michigan and the nation — from the retirees of Detroit, to the offices of City Hall and East Lansing, to philanthropy and industry. While the grand bargain was unprecedented at the time, the relationships it forged and the spirit of collaboration it epitomized must continue. Government, business, foundations and civil society should seek out opportunities to work together, to invest in Detroit’s residents and to elevate their priorities.

Already, individuals like Dan Gilbert and institutions like JPMorgan Chase and the Kellogg and Kresge foundations — and so many more — are all working hard to invest in the city and its recovery. Having a staff member represent the Ford Foundation in Detroit is one way we hope to continue directly engaging with the communities and interests of the city’s residents, but we also know this is not enough. It will take more involvement at every level to make sure our investments reflect the needs of Detroit’s people, and lift the entire city.

Together, we can make sure Detroit not only recovers but thrives, and build the Motor City into a model for just cities throughout the world.

Darren Walker is president of the Ford Foundation.

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