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 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.


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:


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.


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.


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.


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.

samaritan’s dilemma: privilege & root causes

The world is full of incredible opportunities to do good. Many of us are raised with a background that informs us to serve others, particularly the “less fortunate.” Yet we face an ever increasing dilemma that requires us to check out prejudices at the door and delve deeper, beyond the surface of social issues.

We face these issues when encountering individuals in our own communities and when we choose to donate to well meaning organizations internationally (or work for them).

If you give a beggar money. . .

The homeless population and beggars around the world cause many to feel incredibly uncomfortable. We have mixed  emotions for a population that we feel equally empathetic and uncertain towards. Many religious texts tell us to serve the poor, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, etc., but we’ve all heard the horror stories of people who have faked being homeless or have been warned of giving money for fear that it might be used for drugs or alcohol.

“The ‘homeless’ guy I gave $5 to yesterday just paid to get on the bus- holding Starbucks and skates. Holiday generosity stock depleted.”

This seems to be credible dilemma, but it only skims the surface of the issue. How are we to know a stranger’s story? Is their predicament related to race and privilege, maybe societal power structures have adversely affected opportunities in their poor communities?

While at a social justice conference in Detroit with colleagues from around the country we were approached by a woman asking for money. It was a moment of questioning for all of us. Do we act as good social change agents and give some money or do we take a step back? In the end we all denied that we had any cash to give. Our discussion after that encounter came to the conclusion: “its always hard to know the best thing to do.”

What happens to your good intentions if you see them tomorrow?

Is it just a function of our privilege that we expect our small donation to a “less fortunate” person to change their life? Do we expect that since we took the time to be nice, that they will then no longer need to ask for more?

I’ll begin this section with a story.

A woman is approached by a middle-aged African-American couple in her quiet white suburb. They say their car broke down and they just need some money for bus fare to get home. She offers to give them the bus fare and give them a ride to the bus stop, but they say they’d just like the bus fare. A couple of days later, she sees the couple again at a department store telling the same story. The store employees scowl and say the couple is often there asking for money. This angers the woman and she feels cheated. Why does the couple have to cheat people who just want to be nice?

The real question should be: “What are the social implications that cause them to need to beg for money every day to get by?” Its all too easy to chalk up our failed giving expectations to a few bad apples, but there is often more to think about than the oversimplification of just one bad person.

Where did the person come from? What was their community like? Are these common issues that correspond with discrimination based on income level or race?

All of these questions are critical to being able to understand the root causes to the issues that people face. Very often there are dynamics of privilege and power at play. Historically, African-Americans have come from areas where they have been marginalized due to their race, which predisposes them to reduced opportunities in education and career, which can lead to lower incomes and continued discrimination.

Personally, I often struggle with the dynamics of being approached on the street and so I often neglect to give anything. Occasionally, I give a small amount to individuals who seem to be genuine, but that’s all too easy for me to pass judgment with my privilege. I guess I would prefer to donate to local organizations that work with the homeless instead of doing my own cash grants on the street.

Good intentions + organizations = addressing root causes?

The quick answer is “NO!”

We can’t begin to imagine that our choices to “do good” will completely change systems or flip our societal order in favor of the poor or racially discriminated. There is much more work to be done than handouts and volunteering if we are going to change entire systems and see change in our lifetimes. Social change takes many people working together over generations to make real and lasting impacts.

It is unfortunate that even humanitarian organizations can either be fake or completely off base. Here the samaritan’s dilemma becomes two-fold. What organizations should you donate your money to? and how do you know where (or to whom) that money is going?

Often service and development organizations fail to take the time to map out the root causes of the issues they work on and get trapped in actions that don’t address the root cause. To say that a beggar is homeless and on the street because they are addicted, lazy, or incompetent is an oversimplification. To say that a multi-country conflict is fueled by a single man shows a serious lack of historical understanding. We have to take the time to learn more and think critically about the social issues that we would like to amend and the people who we would like to help.

We cannot keep picking at the fruits of the social issues we see, we must start chopping at the trunks (institutions & policies) that perpetuate the root causes.

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.

young, white, and in detroit: gentrification implications
Video from: Feministing – Detroit, Gentrification and Good-ass Political Hip-hop

“First-stage gentrifiers” are economically- and socially-marginal “trend setters”. Sociologically, these people are young and have low incomes while possessing the cultural capital (education and a job), characteristic of the suburban bourgeois. They often reside in communal (room-mate) households, and are more tolerant of the perceived evils of the city—crime, poor schools, insufficient public services, and few shops.

Am I a gentrifier? I’m young, educated, low-income, and living in a house with 3 other young people. Uh oh! Since moving to Detroit I have considered what socio-economic consequences I could have on the current population and cityscape. My fiance and I have had many discussions about gentrification and what it means for Detroit. The definition I will be using:

Gentrification denotes the socio-cultural changes in an area resulting from wealthier people buying housing property in a less prosperous community. Consequent to gentrification, the average income increases and average family size decreases in the community, which may result in the informal economic eviction of the lower-income residents, because of increased rents, house prices, and property taxes. This type of population change reduces industrial land use when it is redeveloped for commerce and housing. In addition, new businesses, catering to a more affluent base of consumers, tend to move into formerly blighted areas, further increasing the appeal to more affluent migrants and decreasing the accessibility to less wealthy natives.

I live in the University District, which like most of Detroit is now a majority black community, but that wasn’t always the case. The District has a long history from farmland to annexation with the city, to development as a model community where, “homes could never be sold to or used by persons other than ‘of white or Caucasian race.'” Following the riots of 1967 and full blown white flight to suburban areas, black families began moving into the neighborhood. I live in a home who’s family has a long history of living in the area, contributing to the community, and working with the labor movement.

Being a gentrifier in Detroit has a serious implication when tied to the city’s past. That implication is born of the history of racial segregation and violence in the city of Detroit and the Detroit metro area. Public policy and popular perception of black people systematically marginalized and segregated populations based on race. The extended outcome of those causes can be seen with Michigan’s “blackest” city: Detroit residing a stone’s throw away from its “whitest” city: Livonia. Because of this historical disenfranchisement of the black community in Detroit, gentrification is all that much more a hard topic in a city facing difficult economic development.

Young Detroit

Recently NPR carried a story from Model D, an online news magazine that seeks to create a new narrative for Detroit (they also wrote about gentrification in 2005). The story was about a Detroit neighborhood soccer (futbol) league. Initially I thought it was incredible, but then realized that this was a snapshot of the growing gentrification of Detroit as I noticed in the video that nearly all of the participants were young and white. Many were there for the excitement of working in Detroit for non-profits and other social ventures. A band of “first-stage” gentrifiers? On the flipside how is Detroit supposed to innovate and grow without an influx of young and creative people? How can Detroit bring in excited youth, who are often white and more established, without fueling gentrification or the continued disenfranchisement of the majority black population?

Gentrification is happening mostly in areas around Wayne State University, the historic Corktown neighborhood, and neighborhoods near the Riverfront. The argument that these empty places in Detroit aren’t displacing anyone lacks a long-term vision. The city is beginning to see an increase in the number of “first-stage” gentrifiers and simply what follows is a second and third stage where eventually the first and second stage gentrifiers are displaced themselves by lawyers, physicians, and bankers. While all stages of gentrifiers are displacing the “native” populations of these areas by way of their socio-economic power. Is gentrification a natural fluctuation of the urban landscape? Can gentrification do any good?

Is Gentrification Growth?

No, if you look at the face value of gentrification and its broad economic impact, then sure gentrification is growth. However, when you factor in community and the effects on people – gentrification never equals growth, rather displacement.

Nothing good can come of gentrification. There is a minimal increase in tax dollars being sent to the city government, but that has little impact when (for now) the business dollars are being invested and collected in the suburbs surrounding Detroit. Communities don’t grow and get stronger, communities are changed by economic force through gentrification.

Looking Forward

The important step for Detroit now is to strengthen its community organizations and engage would be gentrifiers to support neighborhood development. Downtown redevelopment only benefits those with social mobility and that is not the majority of the Detroit population. Detroit’s black community has seen years of oppression and gentrifiers come in with a load of unearned privilege and resources.

First-stage gentrifiers (young, white, educated) can change the course for Detroit and instead work to be “allies in development” – partnering for stronger community organizations in black communities and actively engaging in local community efforts: shopping locally, attending block club meetings, and utilizing their privilege to highlight the progress that has been happening by native Detroiters as opposed to outsiders coming in with grand ideas for development.

If Detroit (and Michigan) is going to make it there can no longer be a black and white divide. There needs to be engagement from both populations where black communities have strong neighborhoods and white migrants recognize their privilege and work to assist community development that is already getting started. Get to know your neighbors and community, don’t create enclaves of white privilege, and support your community leaders!

“Detroit’s future is its neighborhoods” – Reframe Detroit

Bringing African Perspectives into US Activism (#USSFafrica)

Thursday and Friday I attended many of the Africa focused workshops – most were very exciting and engaging. They really brought the African perspective into the ideas of the US Social Forum and made delegates think about the US role in issues affecting communities on the African continent.

24 Thursday 10am-12pm

African Unity Towards What? (Pan-Africanism & Nationalism is not enough!) by: University of Kmt

I still haven’t exactly figured out this group and what they do. They run the Kmt Press which publishes books and journals, but all of their sessions that I attended were focused on teaching with an African historical perspective. Their missions states that they are dedicated to educating the new generation of African leaders. Interesting that they are in Detroit and I wonder if they know of the Detroit Public School (DPS) Initiative starting in 1992 where Africa was integrated into school curriculums from math to literature. 

24 Thursday 1-3pm

Prioritizing Africa & the African Diaspora Agenda from Detroit to Dakar (D2D) by: Priority Africa Network (PAN)

This People’s Movement Assembly was geared towards bringing African perspectives into the US Social Forum and continue the discussion as preparations are made for the 2011 World Social Forum in Dakar, Senegal. The room was full of delegates from many African countries, Detroit, and US Africa Advocacy groups. 

Briggs Bomba, Director of Campaigns at Africa Action, spoke strongly about building solidarity with those most affected in Africa. He said, “corporate led globalization has harshest effects on those in the perifery, the underdeveloped.” He reminded us that all of us the privilege to attend conferences like these and make the policies need to prioritize the communities most affected.

A delegate from South Africa spoke eloquently about the social apartheid of displacement – ideologically, locations, in decision-making and governments; in voting process lack of people power and transformational action, and in the social mainstream. “We cover many issues, but it is the same struggle. We come from different areas, but share common experiences.” (i.e. colonialism)

Some top issues that came out of the PMA:

  • Militarization in the Congo (DRC)
  • HIV & STDs from Detroit to Africa
  • political economy – effects seen in everyday Africa
  • African defense (defend communities), liberation (not yet liberated), and autonomy

An exciting and dynamic session that really makes me excited for the World Social Forum in Dakar!

24 Thursday 3:30-5:30pm

The New Africa Command & U.S. Military Involvement in Africa by: African Security Research Project (aka: Daniel Volman)

This session was an interesting overview of AFRICOM by some leading scholars on the topic of US national security interests in Africa. The attendees were less diverse than the Detroit to Dakar session and most people came to learn more because it looked interesting and had studied Africa to some small degree in the past. 

Most interesting was when the discussion turned to private military contractors (PMCs) in Africa responsible for fighting wars in Libera, Southern Sudan, and Somalia. A Ugandan delegate actually talked about being trained by PMCs in Iraq to then return and fight the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda. Great to hear the perspective of the Ugandan delegate and Dan Volman as well as to see so many people interested in learning more about African issues!

25 Friday 1-3pm

Power-sharing Deals in Africa: Implications for Democracy – The Case of Zimbabwe & Kenya by: Africa Action

This was by far the most organized session that I attended at the US Social Forum. The Africa Action team did an amazing job of gathering great speakers, formatting the session, and bringing people into the room for the discussion. Many African voices were heard from delegates representing Zimbabwe and Kenya. 

In both cases of power-sharing, the speakers agreed that the power-sharing deal was a sigh of relief that stopped the fighting and opened their doors to the international community and economy again. However, they also all recognized that power-sharing was a positive in the short-term, but can be positive as in the case of South Africa when Mandela and de Klerk signed a power sharing deal until the national democratic elections.

Here are some take-aways:

  • A weak state can and will be manipulated (i.e. Museveni in Uganda – waiting for a similar situation as Kenya and Zimbabwe soon, elections next year)
  • “The people” are separated from the power – people-centered in needed
  • Power-sharing allows for lessened tensions and time to create national unity towards something better
  • Coalition governments show defeat of “people power”

Crossposted from SCOUT BANANA

reporting from "ground zero" (live blogging US Social Forum #USSF)

The United States Social Forum launched in 2007 based on the successes and excitement of the World Social Forums. The year 2010 is being marked by various regional events like the US Social Forum to take the place of the World Social Forum. So the fact that Detroit was chosen to host the US Social Forum (USSF) is very exciting.

As exciting as it is, it also happens to enable numerous aspects of privilege. As over 10,000 people converge on Detroit, people often to refer to the city as “ground zero” for the economic crisis. The weekend before the USSF, Young People For (YP4) held their regional training at the Renaissance Center for their Midwest fellows. I attended the opening event with alumni and partners to meet the new class of fellows. Like the World Social Forum, YP4 is breaking their national training into regionally based events. Many of the fellows noted that before they came to Detroit they had thought of the city as a place NOT to visit. With a view over the riverfront, looking across at Canada, many mentioned that they had no idea Detroit was so beautiful. Others commented that they had no idea Detroit had a downtown and tall buildings.

These large convergences of people bring Detroit into a brighter light and change the perceptions of many. There are plenty of things to be worried about in Detroit, but not just because it is “Detroit.” Likewise, as the city fills with activists and radicals of all shades, the majority of Detroit residents are unaware of what is even happening. YP4 Director, Rebecca Thompson, informed us that many of her family members in Detroit and friends had no idea that the USSF was happening the next day. I’ve worked with a few local Detroit organizations that canvassed some neighborhoods to let people know about the USSF, but the impact was minimal at best. How can this happen? How can residents of a city, businesses, and even some government not know that 10,000 people are coming to their city to infuse it with new ideas, people, and solutions to social problems?

This could be a result of the slightly disorganized activities of the USSF organizing committee. I won’t go into the stories that I have heard of the power struggles between organizations working to put this event together, but it is worth noting that thoughtful improvement can be made. A thought that occurred to me the other day was: What if the USSF was organized with local groups tackling specific issues host a topic and organize like-minded groups across the nation so that this conference is less focused on talking and more on building potential solutions that Detroit organizations can use and others can take home?

After hanging around, surveying the organizations tables with my girlfriend (Nichole :-D), we headed about 2 miles away for the march. We were a bit behind and stopped in the shade to watch the chanting crowd go by. At the length of almost 8 city blocks (or more) it was an incredible sight to see in a city often referred to as a “ghost town.” And yet privilege came out again as local Detroiters asked, “What is going on?!” and the Detroit Red Cross asked me, “Do you know what all these people are doing?” YP4 staffer, William noted that if this was in DC, everyone would know with posters, twitter updates like crazy, and just the general buzz.

Unfortunately residents of Detroit are not as privileged to be as connected as those in DC. Likewise, residents, in the case of the USSF, have not been a focus of organizing or informing. This has become a common theme that I have noted within government and other activities to rebuild Detroit. Focus on the people who are actually in Detroit! The activists who come for this weekend may hold some new ideas about the city, but in the end they will leave and what will be left for the city of Detroit?

exploiting whiteness

24 May 2008

Saturday – John Metzler’s (MSU Professor) study abroad group stopped in the morning to see the center. It is just their first week spent in Pretoria and now on the Durban. It was interesting as usual to throw college kids into the harsh environment of the informal settlement especially during violent times. They talked with some of the older kids from the center and went on a walking tour to see some schools, the library, clinic #2 and everything in between. Some of the MSU students had good questions – some did not.

When they left (John was sure to check if we had an “exit strategy” – xenophobia) we planned on relaxing with the older kids until China sauntered up – again called me Mr. Napoleon Hill and inquired if we were ready for church. We all were very reluctant to go (somewhat interested) mostly because he planned the day without consulting us. Needless to say the Church of the Nazarean is far from a traditional African take on Christianity or a remnant of colonial legacy. Founded by their prophet in 1920, after he saved Kwa-Zulu Natal (KZN) from a tsunami – depicted on the front of a prayer book and based on Exodus 35 (keep holy the Sabbath) with your cars, cell phones, and portable music players. It turns out after three and a half hours (we were told 45 minutes) the “temple” of the Nazareans was a hot tourist spot in Zonke and we were encouraged (somewhat forcefully) to take pictures and there was an expectation to donate to the offering collection. Nearly well classified as a farce with a living prophet (the current prophet is the son of the original prophet), yet in July 800,000 faithfuls trek to KZN in unity? We were much disappointed in China (and very upset about a wasted day).

Our woes were quelled by a nice pasta dinner and searches for chocolate that ended with white chocolate covered wafer bars still very delicious and 570 Rand raised for VVOCF in shirts bought by John Metzler’s study abroad group.

25 May 2008

Sunday, rainy Sunday
the sunday rain so grey
makes the cold linger and stay
Michigan has arrived in South Africa
gray skies (lighter than MI)
pitter patter on the roof
constant rains
The dry wash will not be done
hanging soppily on the line
washed with care so fine
hidden sun un-utilised

26 May 2008

Today we split the kids into four teams of mixed ages old and young, much like Boy Scout patrols – they made a team name, song, and picked an animal – the song performances were a lot of fun. This is going to be a great way to grow young leaders and foster stronger relationships between VVOCF children. Older children can help younger and older children can learn to take responsibility and lead their peers. China seemed to not favor having all the power in this situation and had no chance to assert his ‘superior’ academic dominance over the children. He is a force that needs to be reined in to increase its positive nature in VVOCF.

Here youth development is essential to community development and country development. Growing young leaders and capable young citizens is essential to fostering a strong and healthy community.

South Africa grant writing is a crazy process – nearly more complicated and involved that US forms. Instant coffee is disgusting. Planning for Lesotho now. I always do things for the experience – not for how easy it will be or how safe it will make me feel in my mind. Everything can not always be as you want it to be.

Today we also went to the administrative center of Zonkizizwe (formerly the Greater-Germiston Council). There is not much there – an unknown Red Cross office, social worker, other random offices, local Department of Social Development office and a great view of the surrounding Zonkizizwe and all its extensions. Got some great pictures.

There is now a massive winter rainstorm headed our way, thunder and lightning all the way, I think it may even be two storms – hopefully it will be dry tomorrow. It gets colder ever night here and it is almost time to break out the winter coat. A lady at the taxi rank was selling winter coats today with the brisk wind blowing.

27 May 2008

We finally left for Germiston by 2ish or later. China and Mr. Ndaba held another meeting without informing anyone. So we had a meeting with a teacher before finally leaving for the taxi rank. The teacher is a great connection to the library and her husband does NGO work with the UN and the government (supposedly). There is a conference with great potential for funding for the center.

At the taxi rank the waiting game begins since you have to wait for a full taxi before leaving for your destination. Uneventful ride to Germiston, saw much of the surrounding area.

In Germiston we headed to the Mall to use internet and pick up supplies. Celumusa and Rachel went to the Social Development Office to take care of the grant, but the person they needed to talk to was not there. I was able to check all my mail and do some blogging. Many people are worried about me because of the news coverage of the violence. No worries. At the Mall we ate at Wimpy’s, a fast-food burger place, oddly sitdown unless you want to take away food. The name fits what the burger looks like when it is placed in front of you – wimpy. Really it was delicious. Bacon and burger with cheese and avocado spread. Kumnandi!

Germiston is like many big cities – dirty streets, street vendors, shops all over, hustle and bustle – the taxi rank is huge. The line for Zonke was all the way in the back and manny people could not believe that three white kids were taking the taxi to Zonke. There is no regular Zonke line so you have to wait. Finally a taxi came and we all crammed in. This is when the ride became interesting. You pay by row – all I had was a 50 Rand bill. So I took the money of the person next to me and waited for the others to give me theirs. Instead, the young man next to me took my R50 and passed it to the front saying “four” to mean paying for four passengers. He never gave me his or the guy next to him’s money. They sent back two R20 bills for change, which was too much. I thought the other guys had paid separate (which sometimes happens), so the young guy took a R20 and gave me the other plus R1. I thought this was the fare for the others so I waited for my change. It never came and so I asked Celumusa. An argument ensued for the remainder of the ride back where the young guy lied left and right (in Zulu so I really had no idea what was said) and I thought Celumusa might hurt someone. The argument was so heated that the taxi fogged up. In the end it was determined that they had sent back too much change and that the young guy took his neighbor’s money and never paid me and also took my change. He never gave it up even as everyone in the taxi yelled at him (in Zulu). An old man who was known in Zonke, who we met in line, told the young guy that if it had been lighter out he would have called him out and beat him – which is common for people who steal money on taxis. As we got out at our stop I stared down the young guy to remember his face. Exploiting whiteness comes in many forms. Yet my only regret in losing the R30 something (about USD $5) is that I could not argue my own case in Zulu – because no one arguing for me actually understood what happened. I am one who sticks to culture and remains thrifty no matter where I am. Just because I am white doesn’t mean that ripping me off makes anything less worse. Even though it was only $5, it is much more valuable here (almost half a day’s pay). I can’t lie even in the US losing $5 would suck.

I can’t say what I’ll do if I ever see this young guy again. I feel like I will see him again since he lives in Zonke. I plan on taking the taxis again so I just might run into him around Zonke or at the taxi rank. I was taken advantage of fair and square, but a thief is a thief no matter what language they speak.

End of the day thoughts:
Africa is not the place to go rid yourself of your capitalist or privileged splurges. Being the big, white American with money and gifts does not lend you legitimacy or prestige. Pawning off your past worldly desires on people is not leveling the field or making you less accountable, Having money does not give you a ticket to “make things better” or easier or nicer. Using your money in effective ways does. That isn’t to say that giving small gifts is a bad practice, but just being the constant giver and ATM is extremely poor practice, especially in development.

29 September 2008 Reflections:

Exploiting whiteness is in no way meant to mean that I deserve to be treated as a god or king on the African continent. I just would like to touch on the different ways that people get used. In my case it is because I am an outsider, I don’t know the language, I can’t understand everything in this new community. Sometimes that gives people the idea that you can get used.

We met a neighbor named Bongani. He was in Secondary School and repeated over and over how black people were bad people. They liked to beat people, steal, etc. He warned us many times to be wary of black people because they were dangerous. We attempted to tell him that white people can also be bad and that you have to look at each person separately. He told us he had many white friends and it seemed that he almost preferred to be associated with white people as opposed to black. I am not sure where this stems from, but he had a lot of difficulty with violence from people close to him in the past.

In the case of China and the visit to the Temple of the Nazareans, it seemed to make complete sense to China that we would want to attend and take pictures and enjoy the ‘African’ novelties of religion. He kept telling us that it was a popular tourist spot. We kept telling him that we were not tourists. We came to Zonke to work because we understood the difficulties and the needs. We did not come to watch people, but to engage them.

The history of whiteness in South Africa is nothing pleasant at all and so I place no blame on anyone for their reactions to us or their actions towards us. White people do not have a great respect in South Africa, especially in the informal and township areas. This is no surprise, but once people found out we were American, then it was all ok and different misconceptions were employed.

American popular culture is something that you can never get away from. There is a iconizing of gangsters, just like in the US. The N-word is regularly used to refer to people and Americans. This was a tough conversation to explain that ‘nigger’ in the US is like saying ‘kaffir’ (derived from an Arabic word meaning ‘rejector’ often translated as ‘infidel’) in southern Africa. The image of Americans was of a person wearing baggy jeans, a jersey, and a sideways cap saying, “what’s up my nigger.” American pop culture gave us a troublesome time, but how else are people to think about America when the only image they see is on MTV or from pop music.

When I was in Ghana I experienced much the same misconceptions of Americans: people with so much money and a large house, read image of america: blinding lights. The misconceptions go both ways.