My cousin Anna is an inspiration for a lot of people, and one of the ways she inspires me is through her activism for racial reconciliation and economic justice. She spent the past two summers in Detroit for that very reason, and I told a bit of her story last month. In today’s interview, Anna digs deep on the causes and effects of Detroit’s economic struggles, as well as potential paths forward. Sincere thanks to Anna for sharing these powerful words.
Q: Where did you grow up and where do you live now?
A: I grew up in a suburb about 15 minutes outside of the city of Detroit, called Farmington. The past two summers, between my semesters at school in Chicago, I have lived in Detroit, in an impoverished neighborhood in the heart of the city. It’s been eye-opening to see the differences in resources and opportunity between the city I grew up in an where I’ve been living. I was privileged to go to a high school where I was well prepared for college, when right next door in Detroit, there is a graduation rate of just under 65%. Besides education, there are stark differences in employment opportunities, racial demographics, public services, police activity and access to fresh food.
Q: Can you describe your neighborhood in Detroit?
A: The Detroit neighborhood I lived in is ridden with abandoned homes and buildings. Before I lived here, I had never seen a place with paralleled vacancy. There are only a few businesses, and since the city itself is lacking in adequate public transportation and businesses that would offer jobs, there is not a lot of opportunity for people. But in the midst of this struggle, people fight on. There is also a sense of community that I’ve never experienced before. There are regular neighborhood gatherings, and it is common to see many people gathering together on porches and in parks. People in my neighborhood love being together, and they welcome each other, and that is something that was less prevalent in the community I grew up in.
Q: What did you do in Detroit?
A: Both summers I have been working for a Christian community development corporation that creates affordable housing, runs parenting and homeownership classes, helps start small businesses, provides affordable produce, runs many programs for children and youth and more. During the summer, their main youth program is a day camp for kids in the city, which is a way for kids to have fun, be safe, eat hot meals, learn, and experience the city while they are out of school. The day camp is also an employment opportunity for teens in the city. I spent most of my time in this area, specifically helping with the children’s activities in the organization’s community gardens.
Q: Tell us about the current economic situation in Detroit from your perspective on the ground. What’s the effect of gentrification?
A: I learned a lot from people I was working with and other people in my neighborhood. Detroit’s financial crisis isn’t new, due to white flight and a long history of racial discrimination and abandonment, but new expansion in certain areas of the city is causing rapid change in wealth and demographics of specific neighborhoods. A common mindset about Detroit is that it is essentially now a blank slate, where houses are dirt cheap and young people can come and make the city their own. There is certainly opportunity for entrepreneurs to buy commercial space and good things are happening from this new investment.
There are vacant lots being transformed into urban gardens. The city is definitely in need of innovation, investment, and increased population. But we need to be careful. Gentrification seems to be inevitable in many areas, since investing in neighborhoods makes property values rise. But how can we create change in the city with the people already in the city, and create opportunity for all people? Detroit is over 80% African American, but downtown and in mid town, a neighborhood that is rapidly being invested in and built up, only a few minutes from my neighborhood, there are many white people moving in. These areas are changing and thriving, but at what cost? There seems to be a hopeful direction for the city itself, but much of the wealth is coming from the outside in. This isn’t necessarily great news for people who have been in Detroit all along.
Q: What do you envision as a better solution for increasing revenue to the city without undermining the people who already live there?
A: It seems that if we wanted to make real, lasting change that cares for the empowerment of all people, we would be investing in neighborhood schools, and inspiring the children in the neighborhoods that Detroit is theirs to creatively build up, while investing in affordable housing, a fair criminal justice system, and access to jobs with living wages. These are all huge issues to tackle, but it is at least the direction we should be heading in.
What we are seeing instead is investment put in downtown businesses that are hiring people from outside to come into the city, and building new entertainment districts. These are things to bring people back to the city, which is necessary, but this is our chance to do things right. We’ve seen the destruction of communities at the hands of thriving communities, and we have a chance to use that knowledge to change racial patterns, learn from each other, and help everyone to exercise their creativity and have equal opportunity. It is not holistic just to treat Detroit as an empty place for white people to move into and push everyone else out to poorer areas.
That said, I believe in the hard work of racial reconciliation, and I believe that as Christians, we are called to this. Christ desires that we are reconciled to him and to each other. I believe that multi-racial communities are important, but that expects a lot from everyone involved. It takes patience, forgiveness, vulnerability, and on the side of white people, it requires a lot of listening and re-evaluation of what it means to be white in our society. White people generally have more wealth built up than black people, due to our completely unjust past that has not been adequately addressed and certainly not made right or made up for. We are living in the direct affects of slavery, Jim Crow, white flight, and still now segregation, mass incarceration, and unequal resources that disproportionately affect black and brown people. Because of this, there is an obvious racial tension and that must be faced and worked through.
Q: How does your faith call you to work for justice?
A: My faith completely influences what I care about and what I do. The Old Testament an New Testament talk about caring for the poor and marginalized in our society, Jesus asks us to love our neighbor as ourselves, stand for justice, and asks us to put others before ourselves. How can we love our neighbors as ourselves if we aren’t fighting side by side with them for equal rights? I believe this is a serious call to action and radical sacrificial living to make systems harmonize with everyone’s best interest, not just so that I am cared for, but all people. When I spent time with people different than me, I started to see so many injustices that I was turning a blind eye to because they weren’t directly hurting me. But we should all be utterly offended by the dehumanizing of anyone.
African World View says that our situation and our freedom is bound up in the freedom of others. We can’t be at peace until all people are at peace. And I cannot experience true joy when others are oppressed. This is something we would all do well to remember as we participate in the changing of communities and as we decide what we are investing in, which people we care about, and how we choose to build up our cities. Detroit will be an entirely new city in three years, and I pray it is not the same sad story of domination and the continued accumulation of white wealth at the expense of black and brown families. I hope it will be a beacon of light, showing that cities can be positively transformed with no one left behind, and that we can all work together for the common good.
All photos taken by Anna Monkmeyer in Detroit, MI.