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Questions for Detroit Works

By Shea Howell
Special to the Michigan Citizen

In the last days of his first term, President Barack Obama held a press conference. He spoke about the violence that has become a normal part of children’s lives. He said protecting our children should be our highest priority, the way we will be judged as a people.

“It is our responsibility to care for them,” he said. “To shield them from harm. To give them the tools they need to grow up and do everything that they are capable of doing — not just to pursue their own dreams, but to help build this country.”

This kind of thinking is critical as we face the future. It is sadly lacking in much of our public life, especially here in Detroit. Nowhere is the absence clearer than when you attempt to figure out what the newly unveiled Detroit Works plan actually means.

While providing a wealth of good ideas, important facts and innovative strategies, it gives us no direction for making choices between competing interests. Some of this is because the effort to engage citizens and organizations in developing the plan produced multiple strategies, sometimes at odds with one another.

But there is a deeper problem that rests both on how this project was conceived and how it was paid for. The primary understanding of the city that undergirds the plan was that the city is shrinking. It has too few people to maintain itself. Although there are many references to our assets, ingenuity and creativity, the dominant thread is that Detroit was once a city of two million. Now we have to figure out how the few of us left will deal with a place larger than its people.

There is no real sense in the plan that Detroit is poised on the cusp of a dramatic shifting of global trends, moving from the old industrial epoch to something very new. In this transformational moment, we have the opportunity to conceive anew the role of cities, of urban life and modes of production. For the first time in perhaps eons, we do not have to shape our cities for mass, industrial production. Rather, we can ask, “What kind of city best protects and develops our children?” What kind of city will help them “grow up and do everything that they are capable of doing, not just to pursue their own dreams but to help build this country?”

If we take this question seriously, it leads us down a very different path when we face choices of what to create, what to repair, what to reinvent, what to carry to the future and what to leave behind.

It is precisely the question the young women of the Catherine Ferguson Academy have been asking themselves. Under the leadership of their visionary principal, Asenath Andrews, and the imagination of Blair Evans, who rescued the school from closing, these young women are beginning an intentional village on the west side.

Over the next year, they will build a village to raise themselves and their children, creating new forms of work, new methods of providing food and culture, new ways of making energy and decisions. It will be joined on the east side by a creative community, also created by young people from the ground up, providing a space for the development of their imaginations as they tackle the multitude of questions in the building of a community.

These two projects stand in contrast to corporate-driven development. They begin with a recognition that the questions we ask are more important than the technical knowledge we bring to bear.

The words of President Obama remind us that our responsibility is to not just rebuild our city, but to re-imagine it as a place where all of our children will learn, grow and be able to contribute to the creation of new ways of living with one another and our earth.

Contact Shea Howell at howell@oakland.edu

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