Bankole: Equality foundations’ focus is for city comeback

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

Because of the challenges of deep inequality in Detroit, with its roots in decades of disinvestment, racial segregation and misguided governance, it is imperative that institutions with a front-row seat to the city’s revival ensure equity and access for all.

Without it, opportunities for an equitable Detroit will continue to be outside the reach of thousands, and the need to create genuine and diverse partnerships to grow the city will remain a dream deferred.

Detroit’s foundations — institutions that have been flexing their financial muscle lately through the funding of several initiatives — don’t have all of the answers to the city’s problems. But they do have the capacity to have great positive impact on Detroit’s comeback by helping to address the underlying challenges of economic inequality.

“Although we’ve made almost unimaginable progress over the last decade, we are nowhere near where we need to be in making Detroit the vibrant, healthy, attractive core of its region,” Rip Rapson, president and CEO of the Kresge Foundation, says about Detroit’s revival.

Rapson is not just pontificating. He knows what he is talking about. The Kresge Foundation has been a key ally to the city. Whether it is pumping millions toward targeted investments into initiatives and entities such as the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, Kresge Arts in Detroit or the ‘grand bargain,’ it has been at the forefront helping to solve big challenges in the city.

“We have to create neighborhoods of opportunity that are safe, residentially stable and connected to schools, commercial districts and natural spaces,” Rapson said. “We have to ensure the children of Detroit receive the educational opportunities they need in order to move into postsecondary education and ultimately, become gainfully employed and democratically engaged.”

Rapson agrees that poverty remains the central issue in Detroit’s heralded recovery.

“With all the tools at our disposal, grants, social investments, our ability to convene, to communicate, to fund research and more, we are dedicated to seeing Detroit resume its rightful place as one of our nation’s great cities through inclusive growth and opportunity,” Rapson said. “The city will not have recovered until it achieves a recovery that is deeply and widely inclusive – until every resident across all 139 square miles of the city has a full and just opportunity to enter the economic mainstream.”

He added, “Although the focus of the recovery thus far has been most apparent in our downtown and central business corridor, we are beginning to see positive signs in nodes and pockets across the city.”

It is refreshing to hear Rapson, who leads one of the largest foundations in the region, talk about the fact that more inequality does not represent the future of Detroit.

Too often leaders of foundations and other institutions with incredible power and resources are perceived as operating from an ivory tower with no real understanding of the intricacies of the issues their organizations are dealing with at the grassroots level. As a result they are often dismissed by some in the community as a band of unrelatable leaders.

But Kresge seems to be changing that when it recently convened an open forum with leaders of several area foundations in collaboration with the Detroit chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. The participating foundations at the program, which I moderated, included the Knight, Ford, Hudson-Webber and Kresge Foundations, and offered a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the foundation community.

The hour-long conversation also provided an honest dialogue between members of the public and funders about the real impact they are making in the city and whether their dollars are truly making a difference in the lives of Detroiters.

“Although there is always a desire for foundations to deliver resources to the most urgent needs, foundations have the flexibility to invest for a much longer term than a fiscal year or an election cycle,” said Katy Locker, Detroit program director for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

“That being said, are only a small part of the city’s comeback. Although we often make splashy multi-million dollar announcements, foundation resources are small in comparison to the annual budgets of the federal, state and city government spent in Detroit.”

Melanca Clark, president and CEO of the Hudson-Webber Foundation, sees philanthropy as crucial in the city’s rebirth.

“In the next phase of the life of the city, philanthropy can play a role in ensuring that a culture of inclusion and equity permeates efforts to improve quality of life in Detroit and that residents have a role in shaping their own future,” Clark said.

“The magnitude and complexity of this issue (poverty) requires structural changes that are often best effectuated through policy interventions. We cannot fund our way out of this vexing problem, but philanthropy can support research, policy and other interventions that move the needle by helping to inform the direction of public sector resources.”

Rapson, the Kresge leader, says their role is also to get deeper into the trenches and connect with those who are most in need.

“Sometimes it’s investing in strengthening the civic capacity necessary to tackle civic challenges. For example, funding the activities of community development corporations or block clubs,” he said. “Sometimes it’s peeling away the first layer of risk from undertakings that neither city government or the private sector is willing to take on.”

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

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