giving data empathy

Originally posted on DETROITography.com

I am constantly thinking about how to make maps and data more focused on people, their stories, and the impacts that those numbers represent. It is a constant battle working with data and numbers every day and one that is most often overlooked by organizations that are focused on utilizing big data and attempting to turn a city around. Earlier this year I spoke to a group of public administration and policy students on Data and Detroit: The Need for People Centered Innovation. This is the content of a recent talk that I gave at the launch of Open Data Windsor-Essex.

Detroit has recently become overwhelmed with people interested in its problems and the data that accompanies those problems: $18 billion in debt; 380,032 blighted properties; 70,500 foreclosures; 8,000 occupied homes headed to the property auction, evictions imminent.

big big big

Big numbers, big data, and big problems.

There is a growing set of psychological research that demonstrates how big data is dehumanizing: companies hide behind algorithms, numbers associated with mass atrocities don’t spur action, and we have become detached from the people who represent those numbers.

Open data is a critical movement that is a must-have for anyone who hopes to impact people’s lives with data, the next step of that movement is to join data with empathy for people-centered innovation.

“open civic data isn’t just nice to have, it is a must have.”

  • Beth Niblock, City of Detroit CIO (Techonomy Detroit 2015)

Detroit’s bankruptcy, warranted or not, threw Detroit’s data in full view of the national media. Where did the bulk of the deficit come from? Where were the biggest cuts going to happen? How many retirees would lose their pensions? How many people don’t pay their taxes? How many overdue bills does Detroit have?

Once the media jumped on the Detroit bankruptcy wagon, the related problems began cascading through the headlines. At the fore was Detroit’s “Hurricane without Water” – a man made crisis of epic proportions, the Wayne County Property Auction. Year after year the county auctions homes the majority of which fail to be paid for and thus return to the auction in following years. It actually cost the county more money to run the auction than the revenue that it generates. That all goes without mentioning the thousands of Detroit residents who face potential eviction from their homes as a result of subprime lending, improper management, worthless landlords, or compounding issues from Detroit’s history of mismanagement.

It is fairly easy to find data about Detroit and create seemingly beautiful visualizations of its problems, but the data in and of itself doesn’t tell a story and doesn’t give full context as to how these big problems impact people.

data ≠ solution

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Some have tried to say that Detroit has been operating from an information deficit, however I would argue that the main problem was that no one was utilizing or analyzing the data that existed, which in many cases meant that the data wasn’t even being collected. Those hoping to create the solutions weren’t using all of the available tools.

Simply beginning to collect that data and share it on an open platform is an important step, but is not a solution in and of itself. Open data is a baby step among many as we move towards more accountability in government, non-profits, and other sectors.

Detroit’s water crisis is a perfect example of the downfall of data. The city knew that it had 150,000 outstanding water bills that totaled over $118 million. The city quickly developed a plan, hired a contractor, and began shutting off people’s water for non-payment. The first round of shutoffs started without any notice or communication. Some people who had even kept up their water bills faced shutoffs because the contractors were just shutting off entire streets.

After national and international backlash the city attempted to better communicate the problem, but again largely failed as water affordability was still non-existent. Overall, 25,000 people signed up for water payment plans, but due to the continued unaffordability only about 300 remained active.

In a city where there is 20% unemployment, 40% living below the poverty line, and a 50% jobless rate – I’d really like to know what the City of Detroit thought was going to happen. Punitive measures against the poor represent the greatest failure of a city and the misuse of readily available data. If you can fund contractors to shut off water, then you can fund canvassers to go door-to-door with information about assistance programs, etc.

What are the people’s needs (user needs)? An empathetic service would ground itself in the concrete needs of concrete people. Lauren Hood at Techonomy 2015 reminded the audience full of tech leaders, startup CEOs, and other innovators that they can’t hope to impact Detroit by talking about tech without the people who would most benefit from those innovations.

“There’s no one here that actually represents the people we are trying to impact.”

  • Lauren Hood, Director Live6 (Techonomy Detroit 2015)

We’ve come to think that the next app, data aggregator, or web map (line up the buzzwords: big data, information age, government-as-a-platform, transparency, crowdfunding, open data, civic tech) will change the world – but it is people who change the world with data, not vice versa. We must learn to prioritize people and their needs as we push open data. Data is often about fast responses and short timeframes for launch. Prioritizing people takes more effort and more time, but we must refocus or we will be lost among the tabular data.

numbers don’t motivate

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In 2007, I was engaged in efforts to raise awareness about the genocide in Darfur. It was easy to get people involved on college campuses for a while, but issue fatigue quickly took hold.

There were 3 million people displaced; 300,000 killed – This became a common theme in my undergraduate studies in international relations. I was regularly engaged with the work of international nonprofits and NGOs, many of which had mastered the art of fundraising based on a single tragic picture rather than big numbers. Constantly listing the 6 to 7 figure numbers associated with tragedy quickly wears down any personal or institutional resolve, but that doesn’t mean we ignore the numbers.

If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

  • Mother Theresa

Big numbers don’t motivate action, they have the completely opposite effect. We become “numbed by numbers.” The recent New York Times piece on “How Syrians Are Dying” is a good example with one person representing one pixelated dot on the screen.

a single man killed is a misfortune, a million is a statistic.

  • Frenchman, not Stalin (qtd. by Charles J. Rolo, The Atlantic Bookshelf)

The big numbers that we have in Detroit continue to build and are constantly repeated, but not much has changed (i.e. foreclosure crisis). Thinking about the “big numbers numbing effect,” it is no wonder that we have gotten lost along the way especially as leadership pushes “revitalization” often without engaging or asking people what they need in their neighborhood.

giving data empathy

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Nothing is more important than giving data context. Spreadsheets are great for compiling, but not very helpful in understanding data or being persuaded by it. The majority of data that we see isn’t shared in raw form for that very reason. We often see data in dashboards, infographics, and other visuals.

“a picture is worth 1,000 data points”

Typical economic theory relies on the assumption that humans are inherently logical decision-makers, but the reality is that we are more strongly influenced by emotion resulting in reflexive responses. Thankfully this often helps us be empathetic and act against our self-interest in order to help others.

As much as compiling databases is the current norm, it is beyond critical that we find a way to show the faces behind the numbers. The following are some examples of storytelling (with or without data) that could be examples moving forward where data and stories can work together to give a more full picture of a problem.

Two-thirds of Detroit residents have access to a car, but that data from the Census doesn’t encompass the difficulties associated with car ownership, insurance, maintenance, regularity of use, etc. It is no mystery that transportation in Detroit is in need of significant improvement. This most often comes in to play when discussing access to jobs, which are concentrated in suburbs without public transit. The highest estimates put Detroit’s jobless rate at 50% with 40% of people living below the poverty line.

Roughly 300,000 people in Detroit could be jobless, yet the story of “the walking man” captured the attention of thousands of people. The walking man, James Robertson, lived in Detroit and worked at a suburban factory. He took the bus where it was available, but ended up with a 21 mile roundtrip walk to get to work. The power of his story raised $350,000 and a new $35,000 car.

He noted that the money should go to the transit department, feared for his safety, and ended up moving to a new home in the suburbs. It wasn’t the big numbers that motivated people to act, but one person’s story.

Screen-Shot-2015-02-03-at-4.28.18-PM-1050x789

Because Someone Lives Here

Tax foreclosure is an entire industry of big data, big numbers that often don’t reflect life stories.

This year the Wayne County Treasurer identified 61,912 properties in Detroit for foreclosure in 2015. Loveland Technologies found that 35,669 of these properties (63%). People live here. Simply looking at the data with the enormous number of foreclosures or the amount of taxes due to the city is not enough.

Motor City Mapping: Tax Foreclosure Survey

The partner groups working on the Motor City Mapping project worked together to talk to 71% of all of the 7,725 people who came to Cobo Center for the foreclosure “show cause” hearings. After completing their very data heavy parcel mapping and property categorization, they sought out data to humanize the tax foreclosure issue. They found that 83% of people were home owners and 88% of people wanted to be able to stay in their homes. By taking the time to answer questions, offer coffee and snack, or just be a listening ear – people were able to be placed at the center of a massive data effort. There need to be more of these types of mixed approaches and they need to be planned from the beginning.

The latest celebrity of urban theory, Richard Florida, who has plugged his controversial “creative class” as the savior of rustbelt urban cores has also noted that people must be the focus of our work in cities.

We can confer subsidies on places to improve their infrastructure, universities, and core institutions, or quality of life, but at the end of the day, people — not industries or even places — should be our biggest concern.

  • Richard Florida

If we aren’t using data to improve the lives of people then we are doing it all wrong.

conclusions

  • data is a critical tool for making change and impact
  • big numbers demonstrate size of problem, but not context or motivation
  • we must utilize a mixed methods approach with both numerical data and human stories
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Data: 290,439 Michiganders signed up for new health coverage in 2015

MICHUHCAN

ACA_coverage_2015The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reports that 290,439 Michiganders signed up for health coverage that will start on February 1st.

The next enrollment period runs from February 15th – March 1st.

HHS says that about 6.5 million people have signed up or renewed their health coverage in the marketplace since November 15th.

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insider, outsider, detroiter

Race, regionalism, and reconciliation are the three core issues that Dr. Peter Hammer talks about related to Detroit’s future plans and revitalization efforts. I agree with his assessment that the Detroit Future City (DFC) plan does not account for any of these frames, nor are any of them mentioned in the report. The DFC strategic framework is 319 pages of bureaucratic planning with a mere 24 pages on civic engagement. I think this speaks volumes as to the direction and focus of the foundations, administration, and others working to “revitalize” Detroit. There is a pervasive desire to forget or erase history: racial and regional.

If Detroit is to be successful again, then Detroit as its current population, as its regional namesake, and as its national brand needs to bring people together in meaningful and innovative ways to create and implement equitable plans that connect the past to the future.

#detroit

Detroit is both a marginalized city bounded by its city limits and a broad concept that has a wide geographic footprint. The largest geographic concept of “Detroit” includes a 7 county region that encompasses all of Southeast Michigan.

detroit100

There are approximately 713,777 people who live inside the boundary lines of Detroit while there are 3,734,090 people within the Detroit Urban Area (DUA; Census Bureau 2010).  Here are some more pie charts:

detroit_urban_area

Looks familiar right? The pie chart of the left is essentially a mirror image of the pie chart that I put together showing the imbalance of “Race and Revitalization in Detroit.” I received many comments that argued that the data showed the same regional breakdown of population demographics. I also received too many “So what!” comments that demonstrated common misunderstandings related to the data that I presented. The majority of the DUA is white, the majority of Detroit is black. Many people from the DUA are moving back to Detroit with ideas and hopes for revitalization. That isn’t a problem as long as it is not creating harm for people who have been living, working, and sustaining Detroit over the last half century. Since the 1970s, migrating white families moved to the outer suburbs of Detroit, while during the same time black families were only able to move to different areas of Detroit where they were no longer restricted by racially discriminatory housing policies or to the inner-ring suburbs. In order for equitable change to occur in Detroit new residents to the city need to remember that they are outsiders to a system that has a long and charged history.

Within discussions of “two Detroits” or New and Old Detroit, there is a thread of conversations that debate, “When are you officially a Detroiter?” Beyond the disparaging comments and false urban rites of passage there is an important disconnect between those living within the city limits and those living within the idea of “Detroit.” The comments and feedback that I received seemed to fall along those same distinct lines of understanding Detroit as outsider vs. insider. “Detroit” is a broad concept that goes beyond the city limits and that is often why many people in the region feel so strongly about the city and what is happening to revitalize it.

Having an idea of Detroit versus living or experiencing the changes occurring in Detroit are completely different, compelling narratives.

Those who disagreed with my assessment were largely living outside the city limits and had a wide range of issues with black people and statistics. Those who agreed with my piece mostly lived inside the City of Detroit and had two main responses: one of support and one expressing that this problem of racial equity was nothing new.

#privilege

It was very unsettling to see the posts on my Facebook timeline flip from featured images of my data pie charts to images of my own face. It was unsettling because I quickly became concerned that my young, white, male face was becoming the story rather than the racial inequity of revitalization. I could not control who my parents were just as much as I could not control the socio-economic situation of my family. Yet, in all of this talk of racial equity, I have to accept my privilege as well as my own responsibility in working towards more equitable solutions. I can’t just say, “So what?” and pretend that I don’t have a role to play. (Read the full comic strip on understanding white privilege)

“For white people to acknowledge white privilege they’d have to acknowledge a stake, no matter how small, in the ongoing injustice.” – Herb H.

My first consideration was that data is very buzz-worthy right now. I had personally noticed racially skewed programs, but many of my data choices came out of conversations with community members. Countless Detroit residents have been watching these changes and some have experienced the lack of resources available to community groups working to improve their neighborhoods. It was readily apparent that my status as a white male in Detroit allowed my data and writing to be more easily digested and shared. Some community members reacted saying:

“If I had tried to publish the same thing, it would have come off as the ‘angry black person.'”

To that end I have been very conscious of interview requests. I am not interested in allowing the lopsided media narrative of Detroit revitalization to continue, but rather I am interested in continuing genuine conversations about racial equity in Detroit. In order for the genuine conversations to occur there needs to be many people in the room, which includes the voices of community members who have too often been excluded from these conversations.

“The idea is that only whites are getting a seat at the table of revitalization. If the pool is being pulled from elsewhere, it’s a good time to question why that decision is being made. If Detroit is what is in need of revitalization, why are we giving the help and expertise to people not from the city?” – u/FakeFaked

Detroit is at a critical moment where people have excitement, interest, and money that they want to put into the city. For Detroit’s revitalization the means need to justify the end. We can’t just hope for all “good” efforts to make a better Detroit, we must be conscious of who is at the table and most importantly who is not at the table and why they aren’t there.

“We’re not angry with them [white kids], we’re pissed that we weren’t given the same opportunities and aren’t in the game now.” – Barbara W.

“And I imagine they [foundations] haven’t the first idea what’s going on in the black community in Detroit. I’m also guessing from some of the responses here that people don’t understand the history of Detroit either.” – Sean P.

 Finally, the most stand out response to my piece was that my writing had become a perfect illustration of the problem that I am trying to highlight:

“[dislike] Shit we’ve not only been saying, but ALSO been experiencing, but it’s never valid until it’s cosigned by the white guy.” – David N.

In all of the comments and conversations I have had I think it is just as important to acknowledge the privilege of being silent. Race doesn’t affect everyone in the same way and white people are often able to live their entire lifetime and not feel a need to talk about it or discuss how they fit into a racially unjust system.

#equity

Racial equity and revitalization have not gone hand in hand. As I wrote above, the DFC framework doesn’t include race or regionalism. Race is only mentioned on one of the civic engagement pages to show the breakdown of who participated in surveys. The increased use of “revitalization” by many of the programs that I researched assumes that Detroit is already not vital. This links to the concept of “Detroit as a blank canvas” and the common misperception that you can do whatever you want in Detroit because there is nothing here. Revitalization is a broad term that means different things to different people.

Currently, there is a need to better understand how different people see revitalization in their own communities.

In Detroit, “revitalization” is also a fairly new term (see also: renewal, resurgence, recovery, rebirth).

Screen Shot 2014-10-23 at 9.30.22 PMGoogle Trends demonstrates that “Detroit revitalization” is a term that came about in 2011, which is the same year that many of the programs I profiled began. The term has seen greater use in 2013 which has continued up until recently this summer (July 2014). The “Detroit recovery” has been discussed for much longer and likely will continue to be used by the mainstream media. Looking more closely at these terms is important in order to better understand how the narrative about Detroit’s revitalization is being constructed. (“Detroit resurgence” wasn’t significant and “Detroit rebirth” was skewed by J Dilla’s musical release with the same terms in the summer of 2012.)

Many of the programs that I evaluated have a strong focus on diversity. However, diversity does not equate to racial equity. Diversity when applied to individuals is simply a group of people with a variety of different identities and ideas. In the same vein equality is not the same as equity. Equality means that everyone gets the same, but that isn’t enough when different races of people have historically been denied opportunities and aren’t starting on a level playing field.

“[…] when you walk into a room to listen to a conversation about mass transit and the racial make up of the group is 95% white. That is inequity. When I asked the organizer why he doesn’t have more folks who actually use public transportation on the panel […] he says “he doesn’t know any,” that seems deliberate. Maybe not deliberately excluding but definitely deliberately including folks who are similar to him. It’s evidence reflected in my personal experience.” – Terietta I.

Detroit doesn’t have a problem with diversity, but there are large gaps in equity that need to be addressed.

“I agree with you. It’s about equity, giving groups what they need in order to be successful. Unfortunately, we are so stuck on equality, giving each group the same thing. I also wonder whether or not we have the political will to create race-based programs.” – Ron T.

The equity gap is one that is not new, nor is it one that many Detroiters need data to make it real.

“Don’t need a pie chart to see the deal but glad he did the research for those whose didn’t know. So now what should be done? Detroit will never fully prosper unless everybody gets a piece of the pie. Must be mindful to never repeat mistakes of the past.” – Wendy D.

#detroitfuture

Everyone has a stake in Detroit’s future, but the larger questions need to be asked about whether program constraints, organizational values, or the privilege to not care allows Detroit’s revitalization to be exclusive. It is unlikely that you would build a tool shed in your neighbor’s yard without asking. The same goes for development efforts in Detroit.

We are all neighbors within the city limits and throughout the metro region.

Let’s have some more conversations about the impacts of our actions as they relate to racial equity and Detroit’s history of racial discrimination.

Michigan Health Insurance Mission Statements Text Analysis

MICHUHCAN

insurance_missions

Word clouds aren’t as often used thing these days, but I think it really helps to illustrate the difference between the officially stated “missions” of insurance companies versus the activities that they engage in, which could often times be defined as contradictory.
Few health insurance companies or plans in Michigan have specific mission statements, the majority have very broad missions. Based on the frequency of terms used across health insurance mission statements, more of these companies should be:

providing Michigan [residents] health care access.”

This simple concept of increasing access to health care has gained great prominence with the passage and acceptance of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). However, this composite mission statement is often placed secondary to the corporate and monetary interests of these insurance companies. The ACA has placed great emphasis on increasing access to health care while allowing the insurance companies to profit.

In the past, the insurance companies…

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detroit: black problems, white solutions

 det-race-equity6

Updates

Last updated 03/19/15:

  • Jon Chezick of D:hive BUILD Institute has graduated 400 from their program (56% black, 32% are white) via Deadline Detroit
  • Matthew Clayson, Director of Detroit Creative Corridor Center has had 70 founders, 42 white (60%); 23 African American (33%); 2 Asian American (3%); 2 Arab American (3%); 1 Latino (1%) via Deadline Detroit
  • Meeting scheduled with Graig Donnelly, Director of WSU Detroit Revitalization Fellows, “the stats for our program look right about at what you said.”
  • Panel and meeting scheduled with Challenge Detroit, Dierdre Groves and Shelley Danner
  • Contacted by ProsperUS: “About 90% of our participants are minorities, and over 80% are African American. We have trained 204 people in 5 Detroit neighborhoods:  Southwest, Lower East Side, Northend/Woodward Central, Cody Rouge (over by Warrendale), and Grandmont Rosedale.”
  • Contacted by Skillman Foundation for an interview in their Annual Report
  • Response from Kresge Foundation Communications Director, Cynthia Shaw: “Kresge is a national foundation with the goal of expanding opportunities for low-income people in America’s cities. That goal drives our grant-making and social investing. We have a dedicated Detroit program because Detroit is our home town. So, we take notice of data like that produced by Mr. Hill (and others).” via Michigan Citizen
  • Invited to facilitate at Youth Civil Rights Conference with the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at WSU
  • Contacted by W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Detroit Office
  • Republished in Infinite Mile online magazine, Issue 11, November 2014
  • Data and research republished in column by Nolan Finley in the Detroit News

Introduction

There are countless reports, maps, and statistics that demonstrate Detroit’s population changes over the years as well as the city’s decline. What is often overlooked in these figures are the social inequalities that fueled Detroit’s continued racial inequity. Structural racism is not easy to explain in a sound bite, but it has kept the scales tipped against Detroit’s black population for the last century. The effects of structural racism can be seen in the decades of black Detroiters being relegated to lower end jobs, rarely being promoted, being the first to be laid off, and being targeted for subprime mortgages.

Detroit’s revitalization is completely one-sided. The surge in investment in this majority black city is not going to black residents. I began noticing a troubling trend. First, at Whole Foods one out of the ten featured suppliers were black. Then again when the 2013 Detroit Design Festival interviewed designers and one out of eight were black. A recent United Way campaign featured eight Detroit leaders and only two were black. I could only wonder why these revitalization efforts were so lopsided. Finally, I couldn’t help but cringe at TEDxDetroit 2013 where 80% of attendees were white coming up with “solutions” for Detroit, an 83% black city. To top it off, Wayne State University’s student population doesn’t even reflect the city with almost 50% white students and 20% black with only 9% of black students graduating in 4 years.

I’m not alone in my concerns either. There is overwhelming evidence that our cities are becoming more segregated and unequal. Not to mention the racist mortgage lending practices of our country’s largest banks decimating black home ownership in major cities, specifically in Detroit. One journalist has asked “Is there room for Black people in the new Detroit” and others have lamented “Detroit doesn’t need hipsters to survive, it needs Black people.” The New York Times received a lot of push back after a travel piece only featured White-owned businesses in Corktown which then brought out a counter article, “Black-owned businesses are quietly fueling Detroit’s resurgence, but no one’s talking about it.” Aaron Foley recently wrote an excellent piece for Bridge magazine, saying:

“When “new” is basically used as code for “white” in a city where the “old” is “black,” it can drive someone like me [a black person in Detroit] to think they’re obsolete.” – Aaron Foley

There is a very real concern over the shifting interests and populations within Detroit where the benefits of gentrification do not trickle down, but rather force more hardship on those who cannot pay to play. Increased property values don’t solve poverty or crime, they just make poverty and crime more concentrated.

Last year, I began attempting to track and quantify the issue within Detroit’s revitalization as it relates to racial inequity. After working for 3 years with families across Detroit, I couldn’t help notice the absence of long-time Detroiters in development discussions, funding proposals, and the new “benefits” of a growing Detroit.

The title of this post, Black Problems, White Solutions, is a reflection that in Detroit problems are seen as being caused by black people, but the solutions are being powered by white people, neither of which are true.

Methods

My first challenge was that there is no demographic data (race, gender, age) published by small start-ups or even large corporations, or nonprofits. This meant that I would need to find the data myself. How could one white male possibly determine the race of hundreds of individuals involved in Detroit’s revitalization? short answer: I can’t.

My next challenge was that I had to construct ideas about race in order to categorize individuals. I was extremely hesitant because I know that race is socially constructed, that individuals self-identify in very different ways, and that identity can and does change over time. It is important to note that discrimination affects minorities no matter how one self-identifies. Over a period of July – August 2014, I combed the websites of Detroit companies and start-ups for information about their staff. I, obviously, had to base my categorizations on my own assumptions and perceptions of race. I pulled headshots from individual biographies posted publicly on fellowship programs, academic profiles, and many “About” pages. All this data was then compiled into the database that I later analyzed.

My analysis brought to mind the PBS project where user can sort photos of individuals by “race” where the main takeaway was:

“Classifying them [headshots] into groups is a subjective process, influenced by cultural ideas and political priorities.”

The article “Stereotypes drive perceptions of race” demonstrated that changes in racial categories “were driven by changes in the people’s life circumstances and common racial stereotypes.” There is also evidence that Latino individuals often choose to check the “White” box on the Census form as a sign of status. There is a similar issue where “Arab” populations are lumped into the “White” category by the Census Bureau. Our official systems to categorize race are both flawed and inadequate.

Note: “American Indian” was excluded even though there were around 2,500 individuals living in Detroit from the 2010 Census, the American Indian population makes up less than 0.5% of the total Detroit population, but also bore the brunt of early slavery in Detroit.

Results

What I found, unfortunately, confirmed what I had been seeing. Detroit’s revitalization is made up of a majority of white people. That isn’t to say that Detroit’s black population isn’t contributing anything to revitalization, rather it suggests that there is a deliberate racially unequal distribution of support and funding. In total 818 individuals were identified from fellowship programs, business incubators, universities, foundations, and other “innovation” programs.

Across all of the programs 69.2% of individuals were classified as White and only 23.7% as Black (1.6% Latino, 4.8% Asian, 0.7% Arab). Looking at this new data, it is clear that there is a serious imbalance of both opportunity and outcomes in Detroit.

image (2)

The majority of programs and institutions that were checked were grossly out of balance in terms of racial equity. The only program that had less than 50% white individuals was the D:hive BUILD small business incubator. The Urban Innovation Exchange featured profiles also came close, but tended to feature 50% white individuals and 50% of all other races. The Wayne County Community College District notable had the most black Presidents and Vice Presidents.

Those who hold the decision-making power with private funds, institutions of higher learning, and foundations support members of their own race rather than the majority race of the residents of Detroit.

Note: The degree to which other minority groups besides “black” are under-represented is also a compelling result that warrants further investigation.

Conclusion

In many ways Detroit has become the national test case for various issues: municipal pension issues, economic decline and resurgence, as well as monetizing or privatizing city services. There is potential for Detroit to become the test case for racial equity in urban centers. Detroit is at the very beginning of its efforts to revitalize and reinvest. During this period it is critical to ensure there is a structure that promotes equity in training, hiring, bidding, and selecting individuals who are the city’s present and will be it’s future. This is the critical moment where Detroit should try to lift all residents and not just those who can drop multi-millions for an expressway ramp or swoon decision-makers with a new stadium plan.

Mayor Duggan has said that every neighborhood has a future, but does every neighbor have a future in Detroit?

Detroit can build itself to be the city that prioritizes its people first by going beyond “community engagement.” If the city pushes for a strong community based redevelopment model from the bottom-up it could allow for a more racially equitable path forward. The city and its various supporters need to both ask Detroiters what they want to see in their communities and give them the tools, training, and support to make it happen. There is no reason that community development can’t also lead to citywide revitalization.

Thanks to the many people who gave me comments and feedback throughout the process of putting this together. 

Data, People, and Water: the need for people-centered innovation in Detroit

“Orr on Wednesday said more needs to be done to differentiate the legitimate residential accounts from those connected to blighted and abandoned properties, or occupied by squatters or used as drug houses — conduct that the city doesn’t want to facilitate.” – Detroit News

Following the most comprehensive survey of Detroit property to date, Motor City Mapping, the above quote from Emergency Manager Orr should be a moot point. It would take less than a few hours to check a list of delinquent water accounts against a list of “vacant” or “unoccupied” properties across the city. Mayor Mike Duggan and Detroit’s new Chief Information Officer (CIO) Beth Niblock seem to be on board with opening up the city’s data as well as utilizing more technology to better provide services to residents.

Here is my short list of data that should have been utilized to better serve Detroit residents as opposed to penalizing them or resorting to scare tactics.

1. Motor City Mapping: In the most comprehensive citywide parcel survey ever conducted, a host of Detroit data focused organizations have compiled an incredible set of data and they have released it openly to the public. As Detroit works to revolutionize its technologies how did it miss the boat in utilizing this recent, widely publicized data survey. Again, it would take less than a few hours to check a list of delinquent water accounts against a list of “vacant” or “unoccupied” properties.

2. Census Bureau Data: Detroit residents are over 30% unemployed and 40% living below the poverty line. Many residents of Detroit are individuals who have been unable to leave, but have made it through Detroit’s toughest times. Detroit is a man-made disaster zone that has evolved slowly over the course of six decades. The city and the problems that residents face lay bare the inadequacies of our current systems to serve all residents. Neither the city government nor the emergency manager can rely on punitive actions to do any good for current or future Detroit residents.

3. District Managers and Community Networks: The DWSD contracted out door-to-door residential water shutoffs to a profit driven corporation. Any community organization in the city will tell you that mailing notices to residents is not enough. Many community organizations utilize a network of contacts and pay street teams to spread the word about community programs. Would it have really been that hard to do some basic canvassing to get people set up with assistance instead of just shutting off water completely? Why weren’t the new District Managers utilized?

Emergency Manager Orr and Mayor Duggan truly need to take a lesson from Detroit Mayors past who instead of making harmful decisions chose to serve the needs of residents first. Mayor Pingree utilized vacant land to feed the hungry and launched new programs for the poor during the 1893 economic depression. Mayor Murphy supported 400 acres of gardens and turned old factories into housing for the homeless during the Great Depression.

At this time of Detroit “revitalization,” when will Detroit’s decision-makers demonstrate that keeping people (both wealthy and poor) in the city will be better for Detroit’s future. Instead of these harmful actions, the Detroit government needs to push for greater people-centered innovation to serve all residents.

how can the #occupy movement influence policy?

I’ve been following the #Occupy efforts across the country and recently I’ve heard more that the energy spent “camping” could be better applied to making real changes. No movement has been successful without people working both inside and outside the system. It is critical to have those protesting and putting pressure on the system as well as those allied in positions of power to make change happen.

There are a few instances of #Occupy efforts having real local impacts on people’s lives and some policies, but not many. The major outcomes that the #Occupy movement seems to desire are real changes to policies and structures within government and business. I think that locally based #Occupy movements across the country can easily change direction from fending off police crackdowns to making serious changes to local policies and structures. A little “power mapping” can go a long way. Well not everyone can take the time to “occupy” a space or drop their commitments to protest, there are likely many sympathizers sitting in office buildings and at working at home who are important allies. Likewise, there are likely many local and state level politicians who agree strongly with the #Occupy ideals, but need the extra push from citizen involvement to stand up and make changes to policy.

“collective challenges, based on common purposes and social solidarities, in sustained interaction with elites, opponents, and authorities. […] Riots and other flashes in the pan aren’t a social movement–it isn’t a movement unless it is “sustained.” – Tarrow, Power in Movement


1. Local Politics:

One of the best things about the #Occupy movement is that it is decentralized. Not every city is the same, not every occupation has the exact same goals. There are local nuances to politics, policies, and structures that can be changed with a critical mass of people working together. Anger with the system is a positive. Take the time to look through local policies and ordinances that cause undo difficulty or harm to people, whether its related to corporations or not. Enough people can get an issue added to the local ballot with enough signatures. The Occupy Wall Street protesters have decentralized themselves even further to subway stations and other locations to spread their message. I can easily see local #Occupy groups canvassing for a local ballot initiative to change the way corporations can operate within their city. Supporting local candidates for City Council and for State Congress who share the values of the #Occupy movement are a great way to influence policies and structures.

I’ve been fighting to keep this building for the community,” Blakely said. “But I’m an old lady. I had no man-power.

The Occupy Wall Street efforts have a great example of local action with a real impact in Harlem. Protesters staged a sit-in to prevent the gentrification of an apartment complex where the landlord was hoping that withholding heat would make the current tenants leave. The occupiers efforts forced the landlord to grant access to the boiler room and, by emergency order of the city, install a brand new one. This is an excellent example of the potential for #Occupy movement to have real local impacts on people’s lives.

2. Credit Unions:

Now more than ever, people are conscious of who takes care of their money and where it’s going. Big Banks have conducted predatory lending for decades, large lending institutions have collapsed, and the economic crisis has highlighted a need to have greater control of ones finances.

The best place to save your money, have greater control of it, and know that it is helping your local community is in a credit union. Credit unions are cooperative banking institutions that typically operate as non-profit institutions dedicated to serving its members, those who set-up banking accounts and keep their money there. Many credit unions also run programs to teach financial literacy and participate in community efforts.

The Credit Union National Association (CUNA) reported 600,000 new credit union members in 2010. Since September 29, 2011 until reported on November 3, 2011 roughly 650,000 people had become new members of a credit union. One month saw more credit union members than an entire year. The spike in membership coincides with Bank of America’s $5 fee for debit, but also matches with the growing discontent with the financial system and the #Occupy protests. The important thing to note is that joining credit unions isn’t a partisan issue.

3. Cooperative Institutions:

Another key issue that many people have highlighted with the #Occupy protests is that of the harmful practices of corporations. Some of the best places of work have been companies that are worker-owned and run.

“Cooperatives are a reminder to the international community that it is possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility.” – UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon

The United Nations has marked 2012 as the “International Year of Cooperatives.” Arguably one of the world’s largest and most influential institutions has decided to highlight businesses and organizations that utilize people power. The UN is talking about cooperatives building a better world: greater food security, balance between profit and people’s needs, and focus on self-help. Some have argued that the #Occupy movement needs to embrace the cooperative movement.

While cooperatives have been around for a long time and they hold great prospects for the “developing” world, they also offer great opportunities for US businesses and organizations. Not too long ago in 2008, the Republic Windows and Doors workers occupied their factory after receiving 3 days notice that the company would be shutting down. After a 6 day occupation, rally at Bank of America, and support from local organizations and politicians, the workers won their fight for the pay they were owed. After winning their occupation, the workers considered restarting the company as a worker-owned cooperative business. In the end they were bought by a eco-building company. It was noted that due to a lack of greater support for cooperative business development in the US they had difficulty finding the resources they needed to put together a cooperative business.

This is a perfect example of what dedicated workers can do at their businesses today. Instead of occupying streets and parks, why not help workers occupy their businesses and establish worker-owned cooperatives. Joining or starting a cooperative organization is an important first step to changing the structures that develop policies that will directly impact our well-being.

The future of the #Occupy movement may seem to be uncertain, but with greater involvement in local politics and policy, increased control over finances, and more people-focused power structures – the #Occupy movement could have a dramatic effect on how our world works.

If you’ve heard of any #Occupy political platforms, candidates, or efforts to influence policy please post them here. Thanks!

why #OccupyDetroit won’t work

The #OccupyWallStreet protests have been incredible to watch. The protestors picked a great target for their message, organized without planning for a one day event, and have been building support ever since. I’ve spoken with friends involved in spinoff occupations and many ask me when “Occupy Detroit” is going to begin. Since then I’ve been throwing the idea around in my head and it never quite fits for Detroit. Just today I discovered that “Occupy Detroit” has already started to be organized for October 21, 2011.

1. What to Occupy

Interestingly the meeting point chosen is the iconic Detroit symbol of “ruin and decay,” Michigan Central Station. A large, empty building near Corktown, privately owned is not a great location to bring a large group of people to protest. I understand it is just the meeting point and protests will take place downtown, but that is where everyone should meet – downtown. It seems like the larger problem is that there is a group of people interested in occupying something, but they aren’t sure what to occupy yet.

The biggest corporate symbol in Detroit is GM Tower, right downtown by the river. The problem with protesting GM is that Detroiters and Michiganders are sick of being angry at the auto companies. It is a protest fatigue, everyone and their grandmother has something to say against the auto companies. It is an argument that doesn’t hold passion anymore. So what is next? Therein lies the problem. Detroit, corporately, is pretty small. The best large corporations that are in the city worth protesting are the banks. Many of the banks backed out of home loans for many Detroit residents during the recession. Just recently Citizen’s Bank was taken to court because of racial discrimination and unequal lending practices in Detroit and Flint.

Corporations take advantage of Detroit’s population in poverty all the time. A perfect example is Chase Bank, they have their community giving initiatives to look good, but where does the money they give away come from? It comes from all the people whose houses they foreclosed. Chase has set up a number of simple drive-through banking stations across the city. They’ve used technology to offer their service and avoided placing people in buildings to serve communities. Chase is notorious for its predatory lending services for home mortgages.

Chase Tower is located downtown, in the middle of an area where many wealthy people from the suburbs like to frequent. A potential place to make a statement in Detroit.

In the end, occupation in Detroit will be difficult. Many people “camp out” everyday for lack of a home or place to sleep. It is a divide between those who choose to take to the streets and those who have no choice. Another issue is that much of Detroit is unoccupied, so the message of an #OccupyDetroit effort may be easily lost.

2. Who will Occupy?

The other major problem that I see is that the young, white activist community in Detroit is doing the organizing. This is a far cry from the locally run organizations and neighborhood block clubs where the real effects of corporate greed are hardest felt. Many times African American residents of Detroit are very skeptical of young, white people making a lot of noise.

When the United Stated Social Forum (USSF) came to Detroit in the summer of 2010, there was a deep divide between the white activist community in Detroit (and the US) and the majority African American residents of the city. I was asked by many people, “what is going on?” and “why are all of these people here?” That isn’t to say that there was no racial diversity at the USSF, but unfortunately those who represented Detroit were a majority white activists disconnected from those living in Detroit.

I recently attended TEDxDetroit which was again a majority white. Detroit’s population is 76% African American, but TEDxDetroit was easily 80% or more white individuals with ideas to bring into Detroit without involving those who already live here. Why can’t organizations find and highlight the work done by people already here?

Detroit is full of vibrant ideas and interesting people. The problem is that the residents of Detroit who are facing the most difficult issues aren’t downtown. Most residents of Detroit live out in the neighborhoods and can’t often benefit from the downtown developments created to bring people in from the suburbs.

3. Already Occupied?

It is safe to say that many of those who live below the poverty line are less concerned with occupying something downtown and instead working on advancing their status in life. Detroit has a high percentage of its population living below the poverty line, hungry, without health insurance, and many without good paying jobs. The residents of Detroit are already occupied with making their lives and city a better place.

The recent Census showed that Detroit’s population is decreasing. Many people that I have talked to, including, Detroit high school student talk about getting out of Detroit and leaving for something better. How can a generation that wants to get out of Detroit be motivated to occupy what they don’t want?

If there is any sort of occupation in Detroit, it will represent the economic and racial disparities in the city and demonstrate the deep need to build real connections across communities. A real movement in Detroit would involve Block Clubs and Neighborhood Associations.