Bankole: Detroit’s long journey to equity

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

Kresge Foundation’s $50 million commitment to create a new K-12 school with wrap-around services on the campus of Marygrove College is an important step. According to officials, this latest endeavor is expected to help more than 1,000 children in the northwest area of the city.

“Community development isn’t just happening in downtown and Midtown, and it isn’t just about bricks and mortar,” Kresge CEO Rip Rapson said in a statement. “This is community development that invests in people, in the social fabric that makes neighborhoods unique. That’s what the future of this campus represents.”

While I applaud their efforts, the ultimate impact of this commitment will be determined by the consistency of Kresge in carrying through in all aspects of the commitment over time. 

As with any good thing there is enthusiastic support for this historic endeavor. Unfortunately, in other instances Detroit has been the recipient of grand promises that have not panned out. And sometimes even in cases where large checks have been written for specific projects in the past, there was little to show for it  because poverty and inequality remain a blazing reality in the city. 

That is why Detroiters I speak with remain skeptical about good gestures until they see the real results. It is not that they are not appreciative of what Kresge under Rapson is doing. But they have watched public and private partnerships unveiled at high profile press conferences with little or no public input, especially from the residents of the area who would be most impacted.

Such past indifference to the opinions of the people — residents and advocates — who have long been in the trenches and understand what it means for many disadvantaged families living in poverty should not be repeated this time around. Because it explains why some are quick to dismiss any grand announcement from benevolent entities as just one more helicopter approach to solving entrenched issues.

Let’s be honest. Addressing social equity is more than writing one big check. It has to concretely involve those whose lives are daily impacted by the sordid realities of inequity.

For example, I have yet to see any recent announcement that places center stage the families and children whose lives could ultimately be transformed by these efforts. After all, equity is about people. The people who will be the focus of any undertaking to improve their lives should be made visible and their voices heard.

I had a similar conversation several years ago with then Skillman Foundation CEO Carol Goss and David Egner, the former head of the New Economy Initiative and the Hudson-Webber Foundation.

We were in Goss’ office for an hour discussing what equity and public leadership should look like. In all of our conversation, what continued to re-emerge as a potential problem was the absence of engagement with those whose lives are exhibits of inequality and the need to be intentional about driving social change. Egner and I had an exchange, in which I mentioned that we need to move from the rosy jargon of social equity to intentional equity.

What good does it do to spend millions on social programs and have no effect where it matters, as periodic reports tell us inequality isn’t decreasing in the city? But if you are intentional about equity, you don’t only write a check, you follow the dollars to make sure that it is producing the intended results.

Rip Rapson, president and CEO of the Kresge Foundation, gives his remarks during Thursday's press conference.

The goodwill that drives these public initiatives like the Kresge commitment cannot be ignored. But experience requires a note of caution because millions have been invested in the city in the past, and still Detroit remains an epicenter of the battle against economic inequality in the nation.

I’m all for the next big rollout as long as it is rooted in the idea that social transformation doesn’t come from the top, but rather it moves from the bottom up. Detroit has been in a long and painful journey regarding the truth about real equity. And whenever we pause in this journey and look back, the challenges facing the city make it look as if we are taking one step forward and two steps backward.

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

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