batman wears green in detroit

(Photo Credit: ComicVine)

There was a time when Batman acquired the super human powers of Green Lantern, no joke. Imagine the combined powers of Batman’s wit and charm paired with the power of Green Lantern’s ring which can alter the physical world and is as powerful as the wearer’s willpower and imagination.

Those interested in tackling the difficulties of Detroit can take a lesson from this partnership of sorts, a sharing of resources, and a use of imagination to solve social problems. I’ve written about some issues happening in Detroit, some background, and so the next few blog posts will be focused on highlighting some critical solutions that Detroit needs to implement as well as some creative programs already in place.

Number one on the list is job retraining for skilled labor in green building and technologies. For places like Detroit (and Flint) there is huge potential for centers of education to refocus their resources to offer training that contributes to the green economy. Countless case studies have shown that programs that target low-income communities with green job trainings take a serious jab at fighting poverty, reducing crime, and building communities (Sustainable South Bronx SSBx; Green for All). Detroit is a great setting for these trainings because of the density of community colleges and universities. The city is also a critical location where there is a need to increase home energy efficiency: heating, cooling, etc.

For Detroit, building an “inclusive green economy” Detroit can work to reverse its history of class divide, reduce crime, and innovate industry all at the same time. At a time when jobs are needed, poverty is rampant, and new ideas for growth are a must, investing in education and training makes the most sense.

I wrote previously that this is one area that Detroit can learn from Grand Rapids, and it has. Grand Rapids Community College offers a wind energy program. The city itself is number one in LEED-certified green buildings. How far off could this be for Detroit?

In the Roosevelt Institute’s Midwest 2.0 Journal, author Cory Connolly (Pg. 17) highlights the statistics for a bright future in green careers for Michigan. He writes that 72% of energy professionals believe that there will be a shortage of workers in the green economy in the next 5 years (Apollo Alliance). Many Michigan education institutions have started some programs, but the state is well behind. Cory focuses on integrating career based trainings at the high school level through existing infrastructures. By creating partnerships with green industries and fresh young workers the unemployment numbers for Michigan could drop significantly. California is invest 20 million in a program just like what Cory describes.

In the same journal, Valerie Bieberich (pg. 15) lays out the attractiveness and ease of bringing green jobs to the Midwest. The most critical point that Valerie makes is that the Midwest has a strong worker base and resource base for green industries. For states like Michigan the infrastructure already exists and unemployment is high – workers are ready for green jobs! Michigan has already seen two green energy firms start their work in Battle Creek and more recently Holland.

In Detroit, green job training is become more readily available. Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice is an organization pushing the green economy forward with a number of green jobs training and programs focused on making Detroit green.

Wayne County Community College (WCCC) is offering three tiered green jobs training courses in: energy efficiency, weatherizing certification, recycling, and green building certifications. It is an extremely comprehensive program targeting unemployed residents who have at least a high school diploma. This is an excellent example of the type of program needed to reverse the negative growth that Detroiters have seen.

grand rapids can’t afford for detroit to fail

One of the recent articles from “Assignment Detroit” in Fortune Magazine attempts to say that Detroit needs to learn from Grand Rapids. The content that follows in the article goes on to prove that Grand Rapids is not like Detroit at all.

The article was titled, “A Michigan Success Story” with the tagline: “Its not the kind of view you expect these days in downtrodden Michigan”. It seems they can never give a clear message about Michigan or Detroit. Its a success, but downtrodden. Its working hard, but never making the mark. Let’s jump right in – so it is true, Grand Rapids is growing, has retained young people, and has significant investment in higher education and medical services – but that does not mean Detroit can replicate the business successes of this tiny West Michigan city.

Grand Rapids is not similar to Detroit. They had different industries, different populations, and different mean levels of income. From the article:

“thanks to a combination of business leadership, public-private cooperation, and the deep pockets of local philanthropists.” 

This picture is not as visible in Detroit, the deep pockets of philanthrophy don’t reach as far in a significantly larger city with a larger population (ever with Detroit’s population decline). Retired Chairman and CEO of Old Kent Bank, John Canepa is quoted saying,

“But Grand Rapids had an unusual set of assets. The wealth in this city in proportion to its size is extraordinary.” 

The Amway corporation and family, DeVos (whose name appears on far too many things in Grand Rapids), Steelcase and Meijer.

“The founders of those companies and their descendants still reside in Grand Rapids area, and match their deep roots with deep pockets of philanthropic dollars.” 

The article’s author is defeating his own argument with each quote he gets from local Grand Rapids leaders. They recognize that there were some similarities in how the decline in industry had effects on both cities, but are not as naive to think that what worked for Grand Rapids will work for Detroit.

Unemployment in Grand Rapids is still very high and not surprisingly this disproportionately affects minority communities. Detroit is a city of minorities, unlike Grand Rapids that holds its roots in the white, anglo-saxon, protestant traditions with traceable histories, long roots to local areas, propped by family assets and connections. The city government of Grand Rapids is also facing serious budget cutting and is working with unions to decrease benefits.

Grand Rapids is the “greenest city in the US” with more LEED-certified buildings per capita. This could also be attributed to the growing trends in environmental sustainability and the wealth that exists in Grand Rapids. Where Detroit can take a lesson is in offering more opportunities for Green Jobs. The Grand Rapids Community College just opened excellent training courses for various “green” industries. I will begin writing more about “green” solutions in following posts.

Detroit doesn’t have the hard cash wealth that Grand Rapids has, but it does have other rich assets when it comes to new ideas and initiatives for improvement. As in Grand Rapids, these ideas don’t come from the government or its funds.

A last final and important take-away from the article was a quote from Mayor George Heartwell, “we can’t afford to see Detroit fail. But if Grand Rapids recovery took two decades, how long will it take Detroit?”
No one can afford for Detroit to fail.

your thumbprint stays the same

Over the course of your life you will grow and your fingerprints will grow along with you, except for your thumbprint. Michigan is much like your fingerprints and Detroit is the thumbprint. As the state has grown (sometimes negative growth), Detroit has remained the same, “trapped” if you will, in its post-automobile slump. Alright, so I know Detroit isn’t in the thumb of Michigan, but it was nice analogy. Beyond the images of Detroit’s destruction lie the seeds of real growth. The economic situation of Detroit isn’t all lost and the state doesn’t need to sign on to stimulating reforms to make it happen.

Few people seem to grasp that the economic situation of Detroit reflects that of the state of Michigan. Where, unfortunately, politics plays a larger role. For many years there has been an unspoken clash between the former economic power that was Detroit and the political power that is Lansing. With Detroit’s decline, no region of Michigan has been able to match and replace the city’s production power and “driving” economic engine. To the rest of the world Michigan is Detroit and until politicians in Lansing recognize that fact – then the state may be doomed. However, the issue goes far beyond image, as I wrote before. One important point made in Professor Ritchie’s post, Is Michigan a Third World Economy?, is the need for “strong political leadership” which is missing in both Detroit and the state of Michigan as a whole.

The one thing that I have found to be a constant in Detroit is the sense of community. From people who live in the city at large, the various enclaves and districts of the city, and the groups and organizations that work to make Detroit a better place. Unlike any other major city, this sense of community needs to be fostered and developed. The city needs to stop trying to bring in people from the suburbs and from outside the city. There needs to be a greater focus on the people who are already here. Living the struggles of Detroit and working to make the solutions.

Thankfully there are examples from initiatives in other struggling cities across the US to give direction as to how Detroit can begin to thrive again. The Governor and many experts have talked about innovative industries. Detroit and dense city centers like it can capitalize on the new “green” industry. But will “green” be enough to “save” Detroit? Hardly, and the third installment about Detroit will highlight solutions happening and the people who are pushing to make their communities better.