For more than 30 years, I have worked with vulnerable communities in the United States, including low-income mothers with children, Black men with HIV/AIDS, and people experiencing hunger in a gentrifying city hailed as a “hot food destination.” I have learned that the fundamental challenge they face is not lack of compassion from society’s elites—though compassion helps—but lack of community power.
I first realized this when I started my career as a public health worker in Detroit. As I knocked on doors and listened to what people told me they wanted and needed, I found that even those in the direst circumstances will craft real solutions that benefit them, their families, and their communities if they have the time, information, and decision-making authority they need to do it.
Yet many communities don’t have the power to act on solutions of their own design. Public officials, grantmakers, and others in power may tap constituents for their “input” at a neighborhood charrette or community meeting, but they often ultimately ignore community ideas and insights. As a result, many communities have plenty of experience with people in power telling them what is really good for them, rather than being able to speak for themselves and act on their own behalf.
Earlier in this series, grantmakers Alison Corwin and Luz Vega-Marquis offered advice on how funders can shift their power to residents and communities. My years of experience working in the extreme and somewhat unusual circumstances of social change in Detroit offer a unique opportunity to reflect on what shifting power means from a community perspective.
Rebuilding community power
After a decade’s absence from Detroit, I returned in 1998 to find an even greater power imbalance than when I left. I knew there had been years of economic disinvestment from the city, accompanied by white flight, but I was not prepared for the level of disdain the state legislature directed at Detroit. The legislature had grown to regard the state’s largest city as a “drain” on its coffers, particularly when it came to investments like school aid and social welfare benefits. I was also shocked by the emerging narrative that Detroiters had lost their capacity to demonstrate voice and power in charting the future of their city. Local powerbrokers across government, philanthropy, and the business community generally accepted this narrative, in spite of the successful efforts of community members to support and maintain important civic, cultural, and local business infrastructure with little or no external investment.
Since then, Detroiters have contended with the largest municipal bankruptcy in the United States, the suspension of elected officials’ power under the rule of emergency management, and the 2007 recession, which hit Detroit harder than most places. Detroiters were under siege and losing power by the day.
My work with neighborhood groups, soup kitchens, food pantries, and social service agencies reminded me of the untapped power of city residents. It informed those of us at the Building Movement Project, which supports nonprofit capacity to build social movements, to join a group of long-time residents and activists in forming the Detroit People’s Platform (DPP) in 2013. DPP is a physical space where Detroiters convene across class lines and neighborhoods. Here, they talk face to face about their rich history as America’s largest majority Black city, identify shared challenges, and organize to create solutions. As such, DPP harnesses the enduring commitment by many Detroiters—particularly long-time African American residents—to reinvigorate democracy by embracing Detroit’s history of movement-building and social justice through collective action today. It offers a way to redefine the role of community in the revitalization of the city. While the state government wields its power, we invest in ours.
Securing community solutions
Residents of Detroit talk about a “tale of two cities”—one where young white professionals find enclaves of housing, good jobs, entrepreneurial opportunities, and like-minded colleagues, and another where long-time residents, people of color, seniors, and families living in poverty face the loss of affordable housing, failing schools, water shut-offs, and overall disinvestment from their neighborhoods. Through DPP, residents left out of the revitalization are developing strategies and solutions rooted in principles of racial equity, solidarity, inclusion, and democratic practices. Even against formidable opponents who have far more resources and recognition, they are building power, shaping their own agenda, and calling for more equitable economic development that benefits community—rather than more public investment in private development.
As one example, developers have promised community benefits but consistently failed to deliver, as when Marathon Oil refinery received $175 million tax abatement from the city for its expansion in 2007, vowing it would create jobs for Detroiters. By 2014, it reported having only 30 Detroit residents among its 514 employees. DPP and residents have stepped up to face challenges like these in a number of ways:
- In 2016, Detroiters went to the polls and passed the first-ever community benefits agreement ordinance in the United States. This mandates that large-scale, publicly subsidized development projects engage with local residents to discuss community concerns and potential benefits. Although limited in scope, the ordinance sets the stage for residents to continue to organize for inclusion in an economic revival that has left many on the sidelines.
- In the face of continued mass water shutoffs, considered by the United Nations a human rights violation, Detroiters are advocating for an income-based, water affordability plan with local government.
- In September 2017, following a two-year effort, residents and advocates successfully pushed the city council to establish a Housing Trust Fund to address affordability among low-income residents.
Despite this commitment, many philanthropies that invest in Detroit seem reluctant to build power with community or even wield their power on behalf of community. Rather than engage directly with residents, or get behind and invest in community-led solutions, most foundation staff spend their time at the tables of traditional power with developers and public officials—typically white, elite, and male leadership, who perpetuate the status quo..
As a result, the vision and values that emerge among those in power often lead to winners-and-losers-type situations that increase the threat of gentrification and displacement. This is apparent in strategies that, for example, invest in only select neighborhoods to combat Detroit’s massive population loss and lack of funding for urban infrastructure. By contrast, those who advocate for resident-led community planning embrace the unifying vision that all neighborhoods deserve a future.
Combining grantmaker power with community power
So what gets in the way of foundations investing in strategies to achieve transformational outcomes rooted in community power building?
Frances Kunreuther, co-director of Building Movement Project, recently remarked that change requires both a “push” and a “pathway.” In terms of a push, she says, “Communities need to push funders and others in power to think about the unintended consequences their solutions—often devised without community input—can have on their lives.” The “expert solutions” funders often champion are rooted in race and class bias; they reflect the ingroup norms where the white, elite “experts” derive power from their knowledge. National programs such as Welfare to Work and the War on Drugs were both expert-driven policy solutions that had negative outcomes for Detroit families and other communities of color—leaving them further impoverished due to the erosion of income support, as well as more likely to be incarcerated than given treatment for substance use.
Philanthropy must learn to wield its power by aligning with community concerns and calling for clear commitments to racial and economic justice from elected officials, funders, and investors. Policymakers and those who fund their initiatives must consider community-led alternatives that are grounded in the reality and wisdom of people who live through the challenges of disinvestment, inequities, and injustice every day.
In terms of a pathway, philanthropy needs to find ways to support resident solutions. Specifically, it needs to:
- Acknowledge, articulate, and amplify the values that community members and philanthropy hold in common.
- Invest the time and resources for community members to craft viable solutions, and trust in their ability to do so.
- Be willing to take risks and support new and nontraditional leadership who can drive change.
When residents come together and do the hard work of identifying the source of problems they face and offering solutions, they are giving a gift to funders. And when grantmakers recognize this gift, they can align their priorities around solutions that show measurable results. Building, sharing, and wielding power with those most affected by problems is not only rewarding, but also a sure way to confirm that every-day people can drive a vibrant democracy that works for all.
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