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Conference in Southwest Detroit shows the ‘I’ in ‘I am Detroit’ must be all of us

NeighborWorks Community Awards 080816 Vista (1)

by Mayte’ Penman

We are all Detroiters, but few of us get to share why “I Am Detroit.”

Many were able to do that at NeighborWorks, a community building and engagement program hosted by Vista Partnership/Southwest Solutions. It offered a full week of training and asked participants to be part of the video “I Am Detroit.”

So just what did the “I’s” have to say?

“Detroit is a winner.”

“It’s a city that fights for people other people don’t fight for.”

“We are unapologetic in Detroit. We are resilient. We are strong.”

And there was so much more. Watch this video.

During the conference, the Detroit folks were able to share those thoughts and many others with the 150 participants who came to here from different parts of the country for the meeting. As a group they were also able to explore race, equity, diversity, and inclusion shape engagement, while learning Detroit’s history of resident leadership.

This conversation took place during a candid conversation panel with Detroit Activists. The Detroit Activists included Ismael Ahmed from the University of Michigan, Lisa Leverette from Community Connections Grant Program, Ozzie Rivera from Southwest Solutions and Myrtle Thompson-Curtis from Freedom Freedom Growers.

The strength of the panel grew out of honest, inclusive, and respectful participation from panelists and audience participants alike.

Mayte NeighborWorks Community Awards

Mayte’ Penman is director of resident engagement at Vista Partnership.

Among many of the interesting points made by the panelists, some of the ones that resonated with me were the following:

Ismael Ahmed:I am a believer that great leaders don’t change the world, it is regular people and their thousands that come up with the ideas that get pushed up.  It is the regular people who organize things in their communities and their neighborhoods who change the world, but they never get the credit.”

Myrtle Thompson-Curtis:Black people don’t have a problem talking about race amongst ourselves. When it gets a little difficult is when you are in a room with white folks… …I have white allies and if there are white allies in this room I just want to say “Keep the conversation going in your own communities, uprooting racism is very important in your own communities, we can’t do it for you.’

“In the work that we do, we have many, many young folks coming to the city and they just want to learn how do I enter into this space? And for me, this is a good way to start.

“You ask, how do I enter into this space, what can I do?

“Acknowledge leadership into this room and the conversation to turn things around is to be real honest and just brutally honest. You have to take this to your communities. Coming into the city and doing all this wonderful work and going home and being silent doesn’t help anybody. So that’s about the positive of taking back.”

Ozzie Rivera: “We got to spend some time talking and listening to the folks who’s done it. I think in Southwest Detroit—it’s not the only community—but it’s the immigrant community that has physically and economically changed that neighborhood, counter to the narrative that is usually used to divide us when you get outside money and things get done. They didn’t do it this way, and that is the story replicated throughout the whole country. We are talking about the Arab- American community, we are talking about the Latino community. You go throughout the whole United States and you see how our country is vibrant, it’s because people do it from the grassroots-up…”

Lisa Leverette: “What you can take back to your communities is what I said before, Listen first, when you look around Detroit, have conversations with people, don’t let the buildings dissuaded you, that’s the narrative of the past, created by oppression and systemic racism. That’s not reflection of the people. The people here are different from what this place looks like, so don’t let that narrative fool you.

“That is what has been broadcasted to all over the world … look at the houses that are standing, look at the families that are thriving, talk to the people in the neighborhoods, talk to people who are doing the clean ups, that are organizing themselves and moving thought leadership and are doing systems change from the bottom up. That can take a little kernel and allow it to grow and grow and grow. Where we can do urban farming and feed ourselves, repurposing our lands, people are turning those into jobs, educating young people.

“Those are the stories around every corner in Detroit that you will not hear, but you must seek them out and I guarantee you when you leave here will be like Man… that is the place! And everybody leaves here, spread the good news.”

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The panel was a great opportunity to learn from Detroit leaders and recognize we are living in difficult times. As I talked to some of the participants, I asked for their takeaway.

Marcos Beleche from Boston:The meeting’s most powerful moment came during the sharing by local Detroit leaders, who spoke to the history of activism, highlighting the role of race and the importance of access to the narrative told by local grassroots leaders.”

Alonzo Morales from Tucson, Arizona: “The panel we had to start was a great way to start the conversation on race and diversity. The different voices on the panel proved to be excellent. I felt a sense of direction and I felt validated with the work I do.”

Like all conferences, the week was full of learning opportunities including workshops, tours, symposium, and volunteer activities. But, most importantly, we learned from each other.

We had the fortune to have Christy Bieber, an Ojibwe artist and cultural worker living here in Detroit, led the opening ceremony during the award dinner. Five NeighborWorks partner organizations were honored for their work in resident leadership development. Those recognized were Boise, Idaho; San Francisco California; Dorchester, Massachusetts; Durhan, North Carolina, and Chicago, Illinois.

The work ordinary people do to make a difference in their community is difficult. It is through honest and open conversations that things can start happening. It is always good to talk to others, locally and across the country, and learn from one another about the difficult issues.

Most importantly the conversation encouraged us and reaffirmed that we alone can’t do it all. It is with the help, support, guidance, reassurance, and encouragement from each other that we can turn things around. Together we are the I in “I Am Detroit.”

– Photos: Carrie Budzinski

– Mayte’ Penman is director of resident engagement at Vista Partnership. 

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