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Critical engagement

By Shea Howell
Special to the Michigan Citizen

DETROIT—Once the dust of this election season settles, we in Detroit should prepare ourselves for another onslaught by those determined to reshape our city. The corporate-foundation-government elite have made it clear they have no respect for democratic processes. They will push their agenda to privatize public services and turn public goods into private gain.

There are three key areas we should consider.

Land Use. We should expect Detroit Works to unveil its long-term planning strategy for the city before the first of the year. Over this last year, as short-term morphed into long-term planning, Detroit Works has been vigorously reshaping itself into stories, strategies and tools. Much of this offers important information for us, but there are larger questions to consider.

Throughout this process, the idea of citizen engagement has been problematic. In this last iteration of the foundation-led effort, citizen engagement has emphasized community conversations, telephone town meetings, web connections and individual interviews. These processes have produced an amazing number of contacts that are carefully tallied. While these contacts have some value, they raise profoundly difficult questions. What is “citizen engagement?” How does it relate to the public sphere? Who decides? Based on what values?

As it has evolved in Detroit, citizen engagement has diminished public decision-making. This is because these managed engagement processes avoid bringing citizens into direct dialogue and disagreement with one another. The absence of public processes of debate and discussion rob us of the capacity to publicly define and articulate our collective vision for the city. The sum of individual ideas is not the same thing as a collective commitment to a well argued, debated and discussed vision. Managed engagement has suppressed conversations about values and visions, thus failing to forge a collective sense of where our city is heading.

Further, it has created antagonisms. By establishing a framework of discussion that emphasizes high, low and medium vacancy rates as the criteria for planning, the project itself sets up false dichotomies. It has set the terms of development in ways that will predict an outcome that will justify some of the worst ideas already advanced by corporate interests: cutting off vital services to some areas, encouraging relocation, emphasizing large-scale farming and forests while deemphasizing urban gardens.

Education. The assault on our children will accelerate. We should expect that the state legislature will continue to find ways to gain control of our assets, to diminish the power of teachers, and to encourage money-making schemes in the name of better education. At a time when we need to be developing the creative, imaginative powers of our young people, state authorities are increasing their efforts to control and condition our children.

Public safety. In spite of the fact that violent crime is actually decreasing, we should expect demands for a greater police-paramilitary presence in our neighborhoods. On Nov. 6, buried in a long article about the decline of crime in our region, the Detroit News reported, “The drop in violent crime is mostly reflected in a decline in aggravated assaults, which fell 23 percent in Detroit from 2007 to 2011 and by 18 percent in the region.” Targets for increased police presence will be neighborhoods where young people gather.

In all of these areas Detroiters are developing new ways of thinking about the future. We are re-imagining neighborhood life based on lived connections rooted in history and values of sustainable production and consumption; we are re-imagining education as a creative process engaging children in redeveloping and re-spiriting their communities; and we are finding ways to create peaceful relationships based on respect and community wisdom.

These efforts to re-imagine our city have grown out of the engagement of people deciding how to control their own lives and resources. These efforts will not be managed away. Rather, we need to support and encourage these critical efforts.

Contact Shea Howell at howell@oakland.edu

 

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