A lesson in humility helped bridge a racial divide in Detroit
What a nonprofit CEO learned about equitable neighborhood revitalization—and recognizing blind spots—in one of America's most segregated cities.
I’m convinced the main reason urban poverty continues to exist in America is because we haven’t learned how to play well with one another across race and socioeconomic differences. When it comes to matters of neighborhood revitalization, I’ve found that if you invite two people who are polar opposites on issues of race, religion, or politics to sit down at a table, look each other in the eye, and work it out, 9 times out of 10 it isn’t a productive conversation. However, if you invite those same two people to work shoulder-to-shoulder on a project they both agree on, something magical happens. They begin to respect and value one another, which is one of the main reasons why we mobilize 10,000 volunteers every year to beautify 4-square-miles of Detroit in only six days.
From 2014 to 2016, we led more than 30,000 volunteers to beautify three Detroit neighborhoods, and we invested $15 million towards revitalizing these same communities, including major renovations to three existing schools. Even as a white male, I thought I understood the realities of racial strife in Metro Detroit. I believed Life Remodeled was navigating these turbulent waters with humility, as evidenced by Black community leaders and neighborhood volunteers working hand-in-hand with white volunteers, mostly from the suburbs. There were many smiles ear-to-ear.
However, I was about to learn a valuable lesson in community engagement and community development.
In 2017, our organization made a major shift in strategy when the Detroit Public Schools asked us to repurpose a soon-to-be-vacated 143,000 square-foot school building instead of renovating the existing Central High School like we’d planned. Prior to this change, every community member we’d met seemed happily on board to work with us. Soon into the negotiation process with DPS, we informed community leaders about the change in plans to repurpose the Durfee Elementary-Middle School building, and they appeared supportive. However, they didn’t know (because we didn’t tell them) the property was about to become ours for 50 years, and for only $1 per year. In hindsight, I had no idea community members would be angry at this deal. Actually, I thought they’d be excited.
Once the transaction was inked, we made it public in January 2018. However, we quickly discovered reactions we’d never anticipated. This same month we hired a new project manager, Dwan Dandridge, who is now Life Remodeled’s vice president. Dwan has taught me more than anyone about Black and white relationships, and when I interviewed him for the initial job, he shared he could help our organization overcome some of our blind spots.
More than 250 people showed up to our next community meeting, an open mic opportunity to share ideas for the future of this project. For nearly three hours, Life Remodeled and I were labeled colonizers and gentrifiers who would displace Black people. The next meeting was even worse with plenty of crying and screaming.
Initially, I was caught off guard by these encounters because we had previously experienced phenomenal relationships with community leaders in every other neighborhood. Through conversations with Dwan, and after deciding to spend even more time breaking bread with community residents, I began to understand what was happening with new eyes.
People explained they’d lost their homes, and here we come into their community and grab up a beautiful building for a dollar. Some explained they too led nonprofits and had or lost buildings, but as people of color they’d never been offered any opportunity to receive this building. Others talked about the realities of displacement.
I hadn’t personally experienced being on the other side of gentrification, but as a lover of good food and someone excited about Detroit’s downtown revitalization, I thought back to how it made me feel sick to my stomach to experience a meal downtown and often not see a single Black person in the establishment (including staff) in a city that is over 80 percent Black.
The more I listened to how people really felt, the more I realized there were significant power dynamics at play in neighborhood revitalization. Race didn’t come up in the previous Detroit neighborhoods we invested in, because we weren’t seen as a threat. After acquiring significant real estate, it left people wondering what else we would “gobble up,” and based on their experiences, I now believe they were right to be concerned.
Even after the announcement of the $1-a-year lease, Life Remodeled had a significant number of supporters of this project within the community, but too many who were against it. In the process of listening, Dwan and I informed community members we were not asking them to blindly trust us, but we were inviting them to show us what their community needed and hold us accountable to see if we did what we said we were going to do.
Eight months after the open-mic night that rocked my world, Andre McCullough, the first person who grabbed the mic to criticize our organization, became a friend and a partner. He now sits on a council of 10 residents who advise us and hold us accountable, alongside two youth advisory councils at Durfee Elementary-Middle and Central High School. I’ve learned more from Andre than he’s learned from me.
Since these initial conversations, neighboring Durfee and Central students officially renamed our building “The Durfee Innovation Society” and it has grown to house 37 nonprofit and for-profit tenants who work to impact outcomes in education, workforce development, entrepreneurship and human services in this community. None of this building’s success would have been possible without the leadership, input and support of students and community members early on in Life Remodeled’s journey.
Remodeling other people’s lives often sounds like a lot of fun. It was harder to recognize the remodeling I needed to do in my own life. That said, I’m grateful for the times I’ve had my teeth metaphorically kicked in, and even more for the Black Detroiters who’ve worked with me to create sustainable change in this community.