By Keith A. Owens
The true heartbeat of Detroit could be heard pumping a positive rhythm loud and clear at the 5th annual ARISE Detroit! Neighborhoods Rising Summit, infusing the more than 300 participants with a potent lifeblood of hope and determination.
The parking lot at Wayne County Community College District’s downtown campus on Saturday, Nov. 1, was already full before 9 a.m., barely an hour after event registration had begun. Few spaces could be found on the streets nearby.
Detroit has always been a city of neighborhoods, and if ever anyone needed proof of how important neighborhoods are to Detroit’s revitalization – and how committed Detroit residents are to their beloved neighborhoods – then all the proof they ever needed was in plain view at the Summit.
Equally important was the supportive commitment exhibited by the cooperative and enthusiastic participation of so many local and regional leaders from the government, business, religious, and non-profit sectors.
“If you aren’t at the table you’re gonna be on the menu,” said ARISE Detroit! Executive Director Luther Keith, quoting a relevant and well-known saying during his opening comments.
DETROITERS COMMITTED TO SAVING THEMSELVES
No one had to wonder what Keith meant. Detroiters have long known that their most reliable source for salvation is themselves, which is why so many showed up for the day-long conference.
There were morning and lunchtime sessions held in the atrium and 12 separate workshops scheduled throughout the day on a wide range of topics.
They included Entrepreneurship, Blue/Green Infrastructure Recycling, Youth in Public Service/Leadership, Faith-Based Development, Neighborhood Organizing/Planning, Partnerships for Community Change, Fighting Blight/Deconstruction, Grantmaking, Urban Farming, Public Safety, Home Auction, and Art as a Community Builder.
The summit creates a lot of positive energy and is positive movement for the city,” said Gena Edwards, a workshop panelist who is helping Hartford Memorial Baptist Church develop a senior citizen’s housing complex in northwest Detroit. “There were lots of people, all focused on revitalizing the city.”
Former Detroit mayor and city councilman Ken Cockrel, Jr. gave the keynote morning presentation on the progress of Detroit Future City, where he now serves as executive director. He dispelled rumors that the endgame of the organization is an ‘urban removal’ approach to displace current residents and make way for gentrification. He also highlighted many community projects DFC is working with groups on around the city, including urban farming and a project at Denby High School.
Lisa Howze, chief of government affairs for Mayor Mike Duggan, gave the key lunchtime address and detailed efforts to improve the city’s accessibility through social media and technology, as well as working to stem the tide of foreclosures
She said a program called Detroit Delivers has partnered with SeeClickFix to create an app that can be downloaded straight to any mobile device (click on the Detroit Delivers link). Residents can use this app to report running water in a vacant home or building directly to DWSD. Other neighborhood issues such as potholes or downed trees can be reported from the SeeClickFix site. Residents can also download the Blexting app which allows them to take a picture of an abandoned home, make an assessment, then send that assessment in directly to the city.
The city is taking the problem of abandoned and foreclosed homes very seriously, Howze said.
“In the upcoming year there could be more than 100,000 homes going into tax foreclosure, and more than 64 percent of them are occupied,” she said, adding that the city is pursuing legislation that would cut the current penalties for tax delinquent properties.
The penalties can now increase up to 18 percent annually by the second year of delinquency. Howze said the city would like to cut the penalties to a more manageable six percent.
THEME FOR THE SUMMIT: HERE’S WHAT YOU CAN DO
A common theme that ran through each and every presentation. It was this: Here’s what you can do to strengthen/repair your neighborhood, and here is where you can go/who you need to see to get the resources you need to get the job done. This wasn’t about cheerleading generalities or platitudes; this was about the work of making Detroit work for those who need Detroit to work the most, namely those of us who live here.
“The summit was amazing,” said Jessica Patton of the Neighborhood BUG (Building Urban Gardens) program. “This was the first time we participated and we learned so much. The summit is important because it provides lots of information on programs that people are not aware of.”
The most well-attended session – with nearly 80 participants — was Grantmaking/Meet the Funders where participants had the rare opportunity to meet with representatives from three of the largest private funding organizations in the state; The Skillman Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, and The Knight Foundation. Each has launched major funding initiatives in Detroit and was on-hand to interact with members of the community about how community organizations could apply for grants and what kinds of grants are available.
The Faith-Based Development workshop attracted an enthusiastic crowd as well who were interested in what local churches have been doing to stabilize neighborhoods. Rev. Jim Holley, pastor of Little Rock Baptist Church, received a strong positive reaction from those in attendance with his philosophy that church leaders need to “claim your territory.”
“You got to have a vision,” said Holley, who is also director of civic and community affairs for the City of Detroit. “It’s a matter of claiming your territory and having the community buy into that vision for that territory. And I try to protect my territory. The brand for my church is salvation, education, and economics.”
Little Rock operates a number of businesses and community outreach programs.
Father Don Archambault of Corpus Christi Catholic Church said that in a devastated community like Detroit, churches are often required to step up and fill roles/gaps in community building that normally they would not do, simply because they are the only entities capable of doing the necessary work. Panelist Rev. Alonzo Bell said that his church, Martin Evans Missionary Baptist Church, has started an automotive repair class for young people in a former Detroit Public School on the city’s east side.
Errol Jennings, president of the Russell Woods-Sullivan Association on the city’s west side, was a panelist in the Neighborhood Organizing workshop but also took advantage of the summit’s many networking opportunities.
“The summit was fantastic,” he said. “It got a lot of people really energized about the positive side of Detroit and gave them information they needed. I’m definitely going to be taking advantage of some of the networking I did by hooking up with other groups.”
Singer J’Renee, who has performed at a number of ARISE Detroit! events, delivered a stirring song—her own version of I Believe in Detroit City — at the morning opening session.
“Detroit is down but certainly not out,” she said. “We all have to do our part.”
J’Renee has worked for both city and county elected leaders as well as volunteering for the Capuchin Soup Kitchen for nearly two decades and started a youth-centered organization of her own.
It’s in my blood,” she said. “Since I was small I remember wanting to help make a difference in my community. You have to believe in something before you can become a part of something.”
Believe in Detroit.
Keith Owens is a Detroit-based freelance writer.