Detroit’s future should include women of color

Kimberly Freeman Brown and Marc D. Bayard

Detroit is full of what the late, legendary Detroit civil rights activist, Grace Lee Boggs, called solutionaries — women who have a revolutionary fervor for solving the city’s deep-rooted, chronic problems that threaten true, long-lasting revival of the city. The Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies spent a year surveying 500 women of color solutionairies through focus groups and a citywide survey in response to their near absence from the story about Detroit’s comeback. What we found is relayed in our new report, “I Dream Detroit: The Voice and Vision of Women of Color on Detroit’s Future.”

Solutionary women of color across the city work tirelessly to address problems like the fact that 33 percent of African-American and Latino boys do not graduate from high school. They support families caught in the crisis caused by the water department shutting off 30,000 delinquent residential accounts in 2016. And they help Detroiters who want to work, but are challenged by the fact that only 16 percent of the region’s jobs are within city limits and regional transportation is limited.

Detroit’s solutionaries are anchors within their communities; architects who build badly needed infrastructure that meet basic human needs; entrepreneurs who create jobs for people that the labor market overlooks; and advocates who represent the interests of those at the margins, as elected officials and leaders of community-based organizations. Most of the realities they confront are inextricably linked to poverty, a condition plaguing 40 percent of Detroiters, including a whopping 57 percent of the city’s children.

While big business developers have focused its investments downtown, “I Dream Detroit’s” solutionaries have invested their talents and personal finances in Detroit’s neighborhoods overlooked by the city’s renaissance. We spoke to millwright Ingrid Young, who turned her life around with the help of Goodwill Industries Flip the Script program after spending time in prison. Ingrid now buys and rehabs homes in her spare time to provide stable housing for women in need.

We spoke with Kiki Louya, co-owner of Corktown’s corner market and café, The Farmer’s Hand. She dreams of opening more locations to bring quality, fresh food to her fellow Detroiters without them having to cross 8 Mile to get it. Featuring fresh produce and other products from Michigan, she pays farmers and suppliers more than four times the national average so that they can earn a decent living.

For the 20 solutionaries profiled in “I Dream Detroit,” and the people in the communities they serve, the story of revival will be a mythical fable if it is not grounded in uplifting long-term Detroiters and their neighborhoods, in addition to the newcomers the city is attracting.

Women most affected by poverty and their counterparts who work make lasting change have so much to share and contribute to Detroit’s economic development decisions.

And yet, despite being a useful potential asset, 71 percent of respondents do not feel included in the city’s economic development plans. Imagine if these women were at elite tables where Detroit’s future was being decided.

“I Dream Detroit” is a clarion call for the voice and vision of women of color to be included in the decision-making that is shaping the city of the future. The dreams of women of color for Detroit range from prioritizing job creation, quality education and recreation opportunities for youth, to ensuring Detroit’s development includes affordable housing and helping socially-minded businesses launched by long-time Detroiters gain access to capital.

Engaging Detroit’s solutionary women of color is a vital step toward fulfilling Boggs’ dream to “create a new society in the places and spaces left vacant by the disintegration of the old.”

Kimberly Freeman Brown, author of I Dream Detroit: The Voice and Vision of Women of Color on Detroit’s Future, is an organizational development consultant who specializes in race and gender equity. Marc D. Bayard is director of the Black Worker Initiative at Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based national think tank that released I Dream Detroit.