Revolution in the Motor City

At Echoing Green, we believe that place plays an important factor in the potential for success of any social enterprise. Place often defines our worldview and our sense of the possible. A report from The Heinz School at Carnegie Mellon University looked at 800 socially innovative organizations around the United States and sorted them by city to create the “Fertile Ground Index.” Their goal was to answer a variety of questions about the connection between successful social endeavors and the cities they do their work in. Their study ranked Detroit's number of socially innovative organizations below thirty-four other American cities. It is obvious that since their 2007 study, much has changed. Despite journalistic rhetoric, no city is truly a "blank-slate," especially not Detroit. Having heard so much, we were excited to dive deeper into the current landscape of social innovation in Detroit.

Detroit is one of America’s great cities. It’s a city of revolutionary ideas, from the continuous production assembly line of Henry Ford to the cold funk of techno originator Juan Atkins. Throughout its history, Detroit has been a place where big important ideas have taken root and grown to influence the world.

It’s also been a city forced to hear its own obituary rehashed for decades. Auto-manufacturing peaked in 1955 and by 1961 Time Magazine ran an article entitled “Detroit in Decline.” 2010 census data reveals that Detroit’s population has dropped by twenty five percent over the last decade. The New York Times called it “the country’s most startling example of modern urban collapse.” Against the backdrop of abandoned factories, burned out houses, and vacant lots you can also find an incredibly robust community of social innovators whose boldest ideas are transforming their city one day at a time.

Watch Detroit poet David Blair recite "Detroit (While I Was Away)":

Even if you can't book a flight into DTW for next month's SOUP—a regular dinner funding micro-grants for creative projects—there are still plenty of ways to stay up on, and even get involved with, innovation in Detroit. The Urban Innovation Exchange showcases diverse visions of social entrepreneurship ranging from after-school fencing programs to free recording studios.

Watch Delphia Simmons explain the Urban Innovation Exchange:

Watch Steve Nawara describe his free recording studio:

Detroit is well known for grassroots urban farming and food distribution plans intended to fill the gaps of the city's food deserts and foreclosed lots. Mike Score, president of Hantz Farms, offers a corporate driven vision of what the agricultural future of Detroit might look like. He was quoted in the LA Times in 2009 saying that, "Farming is how Detroit started ...and farming is how Detroit can be saved." His bid to purchase 170 acres of Detroit's east side from the city to turn into a tree farm looks like it will go through sometime later this year.

Organizations and coalitions like the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network offer a radically different view of what might happen to the third of the city now owned by the city due to foreclosures. These groups promote urban agriculture, co-operative buying, healthy eating habits, and a community of mutual support for equity and food justice in Detroit. They also operate a number of community agriculture projects, including D-Town, a seven acre farm in River Rouge Park. Executive Director and founding member Malik Yakini describes their mission as “creating a model of community cooperation and self-determination.” Meanwhile, smaller projects like the Detroit Youth Food Brigade train high school students to intern with local sustainable food producers.

Watch Detroit Black Community Food Security Network founder Malik Yakini describe their work:

There's also a sizable contingent of entrepreneurs, investors, and community organizers hoping to transform Detroit into a media and technology driven economy. 

Twitter opened an office in Detroit earlier this year, but it’s really smaller community ventures like Detroit Future that are at the cutting edge of social innovation and technology in Motown. Detroit Future is a federation of programs including Future Youth, Future Schools and Future Media, that create a robust ecology for developing young digital media-arts practitioners and create real work opportunities for them. The Detroit Digital Justice Coalition, meanwhile, runs workshops and creates publications to ensure that, “all members of our community have equal access to media and technology, as producers as well as consumers.” Both Detroit Future and the Digital Justice Coalition are committed to sustainable community-directed investments in talent development and technology.

Dan Gilbert, Quicken Loans founder and chairman, has a vision of a future digital Detroit predicated on creating downtown techno-utopia and drawing talent from outside the city to populate it. He wrote recently on his blog that, "There is absolutely nothing more important than former rust-belt, manufacturing-dependent, major urban cities like Detroit and Cleveland to become attractive, exciting places for young, eager, wealth-creating entrepreneurs to embark on their business journeys." To quicken this development, he's begun aggressively buying office space in downtown Detroit and remodeling it for the needs of tech start-ups and media companies; Gilbert also owns shares of many of these companies. According to Crains, one portion of Gilbert's real estate portfolio now comprises 1.7 million square feet and roughly 3,500 parking spaces in Detroit, making Gilbert the second-largest private owner of office space in the city's Central Business District, behind General Motors Co. In March, Gilbert claimed that his family of companies would soon have 5,400 full-time employees in Detroit. Like Mike Scores, Gilbert's plan is not without detractors, but it cannot be denied that he is providing a much needed influx of capital to a city whose financial state has continually brought the specter of state stewardship onto the horizon. It remains to be seen what importing a tech economy into the core of the city will truly do for regular Detroiters.

Watch participants in Detroit Future Youth "Image How Free We Can Get If...":

If it’s hard to wrap your head around a city simultaneously investing in tilling and coding android apps, you might want to register for next year's Allied Media Conference. The conference draws together diverse stakeholders with a focus on queer and brown community leaders and media producers creating their own narratives of representation. This year’s theme was “Create, Connect, Transform.” Unlike many innovation conferences, AMC is deeply connected to the specificity of its hosting city. Jeanette Lee, one of the co-directors of Allied Media Projects says, “We shifted from being a national organization based in Detroit to a local organization that holds a national conference."

At Echoing Green, we're always eager and interested to learn about hotbeds for social innovation. Cities like Detroit can be the vanguard of best practices for the rest of the world. We know there are many, many more organizations that deserve attention in the city. If you have any that inspire you, please let us know in the comments. We can't wait to hear of the next revolution to emerge from Detroit.

Watch Allied Media Conference Testimonials:

Photo: Cletch


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