Detroit’s Got Soul…Do Bing’s “Experts” Know?

by Sarah Coffey
Mayor Bing’s Detroit Works Project claims to address Detroit’s “declining population and financial resources” through a process of redesigning the city. This enterprise, previously known as the Strategic Framework Plan, was unveiled in September, 2010 and is headed by experts such as Harvard-educated Karla Henderson, the DWP Planning and Development Coordinator, and fortified by out-of-town consultants like Skidmore, Owings and Merril, and London based Hapold Consulting.

Despite a slick marketing campaign and its promise of much needed renewal, Detroit Works has come under criticism from local leaders over the degree of true community involvement. Of further concern is the lack of transparency over how much money the numerous foundations involved in Detroit Works are contributing to the Project, and how funders stand to benefit from their investment.

Shea Howell, from the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership said, “The concept of experts is a curious idea in a city that has a history of citizen engagement in the planning process. There were no ‘experts’ involved in the Archer community engagement process or the 90’s Community Reinvestment Strategy and Empowerment Zone project, both of which directly involved residents in planning.  Experts are not needed and are actually dangerous–they create the idea that civic engagement requires special skills.”

Mayor Bing’s Advisory Taskforce

The City government has selected 55 people from the city council, businesses and foundations, community groups, and faith-based and non-profit organizations to represent the interests of Detroit residents to the DWP planning team.  Bishop Charles Ellis III, Senior Pastor at Greater Grace Temple on Seven Mile is the Chair of the Committee, and Co-Chairs are Phil Cooley, owner of Slow’s BBQ, Lydia Gutierrez, owner of the $8 million dollar Hacienda Mexican Foods and Chairman of the Board of the Southwest Detroit Business Association, Alice Thompson, Chief Executive Officer of Black Family Development, Inc, and Heaster Wheeler, Executive Director of NAACP’s Detroit chapter.

The most recent Advisory Taskforce meeting was largely devoted to talking about “crowd control” at the upcoming Cluster meetings, a follow up from the five city-wide meetings last fall.  There will be no “table top discussions” of eight to ten people as initially planned, instead the City is providing attendees with “clickers.”  Attendees will be asked questions about their demographics, then about which services are most important to them, and given 10 seconds to “click in” their votes, which will be shown in real time, then published on the web.

Some members of the Advisory Committee challenged this point, “Pressing a button does not let people express themselves. We don’t want to narrow input.”  Deputy Director Marja Winters responded, “We want to be sensitive, but if you give some people the opportunity to speak, you have to give everyone the opportunity to speak. We want to prevent comments that are not relevant.”

On the issue of crowd control, Chairman Ellis said, “We have to be careful not to give the meeting over to the crowd. Be careful because when you give up the mic, you might not get it back,” and “People are going to love the clickers.”

A recent addition to the Task Force, Charity Hicks of the People’s Movement Assembly on “rightsizing” spoke up. “Let people have democracy, let people have their voice, otherwise it’s gonna blow up when it hits the streets. When we open up forums and engage, know that it’s going to be noisy. If we’re not prepared to deal with democracy, then this is all for nothing. You will get pushback, but what’s wrong with that? We should ask people: ‘What would you like to see?’”

Cluster F#%k?

The City has instituted Clusters (see map for a list of upcoming meeting times) comprised of adjacent neighborhoods currently affected by the Detroit Works Project. “It’s not clear what relationship the Cluster groups have to any actual decision making. They appear to be geographically organized but not linked to decision making about space,” says Howell. “Clusters appear to be organized in a way that only allows input about topics instead of community participation in choosing what will happen in our neighborhoods. It seems that they’re an effort to make more manageable conversations.” Dan Lijana, Detroit Works Media Coordinator was unable to be reached for comment at the time of publication.

Ideas That Work

In response to perceived opportunities and growing concerns some Detroit residents have come together to create their own visions and proposals for the future of the city.  On the East Side, where the city’s largest amount of vacant land and houses are located, the Lower East Side Action Plan (LEAP) has been working on a proposal for what is now part of Cluster 3.

A collaboration between local organizations and eight Community Development Corporations, LEAP began in January of 2010 and is currently partnering with residents in the form of a Stakeholder Advisory Group. LEAP is using the framework developed by the Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD) to determine what should be done with vacant land and property in East Detroit. LEAP Outreach/Project Manager Khalil Ligon said, “Because the Detroit Works Project aims to produce a city-wide master plan, our goal in working with them is to have our community-based plan embraced by DWP and therefore incorporated into the city’s master plans.”

About the Clusters, Ligon said, “I don’t think most people even know the Cluster groups exist and less likely which one pertains to their neighborhood. Meeting dates and locations for each Cluster should be made more widely available to maximize community feedback.”  She also suggested that the City would benefit from collaborating with organizations like LEAP that are already active in their communities because they could help share information and facilitate citizen input into the City planning process.

Community members, business owners and organizations that live, work & do business within their target area are invited to participate in the LEAP planning process. (To get involved, contact Outreach Coordinator Alisha Opperman at 313-267-1130 or email

Additionally in the Cluster 3 East Side area, an emerging coalition of community-based organizations including GenesisHOPE, Church of the Messiah, the Boggs Center, Feedom Freedom Growers, We Want Green Too and members of Earthworks Farm have begun meeting to work on an East Detroit gathering.  Pastor Barry Randolph of Church of the Messiah, said, “There are people in Detroit who think they don’t have a voice, or that no one will listen to what they have to say.  The time has come for that to change.”

This coalition is seeking to convene a small gathering to get past traditional “cookie cutter” concepts of organizing and look at how East Detroiters can and are coming together to meet the challenges posed by this new era.  They are asking questions such as how to not only oppose gentrification, land grabs and school closings but also put forward commitments to education that respects children, and new kinds of work that increase our skills and our relationships with each other.

A People’s Movement Assembly (PMA) on “Rightsizing” has also convened to address the Detroit Works Project.  Detroit was first introduced to PMAs during last summer’s U.S. Social Forum, a gathering of social justice organizations and activists that drew upwards of 18,000 participants. The PMA on “Rightsizing” is working on a people’s response to land use planning, government operations, and improving the quality of life of residents.  They collectively wrote a letter to the Mayor in November of last year asking for two grassroots seats on his Advisory Taskforce to broaden the discussion on “rightsizing,” and in December they were granted one.

“When you don’t value your greatest asset, which is your people, you ignore the true jewels of the city, like Dr. Delores Leonard, a woman who has lived in her home in 48217 for 55 years!” said local environmental activist and PMA member Rhonda Anderson. “The City of Detroit isn’t considering the wealth, genius, vision and creativity of everyday people to come up with solutions for many of the issues the City of Detroit is dealing with. They don’t value us.”

Anderson points to the cutting edge mesh wireless internet technology initiated in 48217 through the Open Technology Initiative of the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition (see page 5). “They have such low ideas and expectations of us but yet we’re the ones who have hung on for all these years, who made it through the Chrysler layoffs in the 80s, who’ve fought foreclosures and dirty industries poisoning our neighborhoods,” said Anderson.

Detroit Welfare Rights organizer Maureen Taylor added, “Mayor Bing does not know Detroit like the residents who actually have history here do. Our collective rights will be violated if anyone suggests that we are to be displaced and relocated against our will. There are ways to manage a downturn in populations that don’t include mass relocations. We will not see history replayed! Therefore, we will recommend solutions that don’t involve draconian methods.” (To find out more about the People’s Movement Assembly call 313-965-0055, call, or check their recently established google site:

“We Are the Leaders We’re Looking For”

In the discussion between Grace Lee Boggs and Professor Immanuel Wallerstein at the U.S. Social Forum, Boggs said, “There are very few times in history when the free will factor matters as much as it does today.  Each of us must live by the presumption that ‘the world of 2050 will be what we make it.’”

It is our privilege to be born into a time that everything must, and will, change.  At this particular moment in time, we need to reclaim the democratic process.  Elements within the Detroit Works Project seem to be intentionally blocking everyday people from having a voice in our future. Possibly the most important component of successfully transforming Detroit is how we decide what our future should be. Direct democracy is imperative; we must not allow experts or leaders to dictate the future.

“We need to come together and ask how we protect what we love and honor the fact that people have invested lifetimes in these neighborhoods. That leads to very different solutions than the us against them, winners and losers paradigm.  We need to ask how we bring everyone with us,” said Howell.

2 responses to “Detroit’s Got Soul…Do Bing’s “Experts” Know?

  1. Hey, it’s my old backdoor! That was a great place to live, the the garage door you see there used to sport a gigantic FLOC eagle.

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