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In Detroit, flipping the script on inequality

Kevin Ryan joined the Ford Foundation’s Equitable Development team earlier this year, leading our grant making in Detroit. Here, the Detroit native talks about his family’s history in the city and region, the changes he’s seen in Detroit over the years, and the shape and scope of the foundation’s grant making there. 

You are the Ford Foundation's first program officer in Detroit in 60 years. What does this role mean to you? What might it mean for the foundation's engagement with the city and the region?

The challenge for national foundations who are funding significantly in a particular location is that from a distance, you can't really know everything that's happening on a daily basis. Cities are complex, and things change so often that it's hard to keep up. Living in Detroit, I have a chance to spend a significant amount of time with our local partners and community leaders, learning about the issues that different neighborhoods and populations are facing. I’m also working to synthesize what I learn through these local interactions with the Detroit Working Group team back in New York, so that we can think deeply about both our long-term and short-term strategies, what investments are having an impact, and how we might pivot.

Being able to have that kind of deep engagement with so many different stakeholders on a regular basis—and to do it in my hometown—is what makes my role at the Ford Foundation so special.

Tell us a bit about your own history in Detroit.

I really think about growing up in Michigan as a regional experience. I was born in Detroit and raised on the northwest side of the city and in Southfield, Michigan, a suburb across Eight Mile Road. I played Little League for my uncle's team in Highland Park, a city within the city boundary of Detroit, and a place that my uncles and aunt still live. The move to Southfield in the 1980s was very significant because I attended junior high and high school in one of the few integrated suburbs in the metro area.

That move was a real life-changing experience because it brought to light a lot of the challenges that the city and the suburbs faced, including severe residential and educational segregation. I was fortunate because I was a high school student during a brief window of time when Southfield's schools and neighborhoods reached the peak of integration. Being able to spend some of my formative years in this setting helped to open my thinking about people of different backgrounds. 

My family’s history is similar to a lot of other families in Detroit and throughout the Midwest during the boom and wane in manufacturing in the United States. My grandfather and my grandmother and her family moved from Georgia to Detroit during the Great Migration of the 1920s and 1930s. My grandfather, my uncle, and my dad were all auto workers. My mother was a nurse for more than 40 years at several hospitals in Detroit. We were a typical working-class family that benefited from Detroit’s status as a strong, prosperous blue-collar city. I grew up on the tail end of that chapter of Detroit’s history, and my dad made it very clear that we shouldn't forget our roots, that we should understand where we came from. That's something that has always stuck with me. Even after I left Michigan for New York, my goal was always to come back and find a way to contribute to the city that had given my family so much.

What’s something people tend to get wrong about Detroit?

I think there's a broad misconception that community members are just waiting for the city or state to invest and revitalize their neighborhoods. The reality is that residents have been very entrepreneurial. Thousands of people all across the city are, and have been, actively involved in improving their neighborhoods, despite the challenges they have faced.

In that same vein, there is also an assumption that these communities are downtrodden and that people are just complaining about the problems in their neighborhoods. Detroit has so many community advocates, activists, hustlers, and doers of all ages and backgrounds, as well as strong (formal and informal) institutions that are developing and preserving affordable housing and taking control of abandoned property and turning it into open space where kids can play. There are community art installations, small community farms, and small businesses driven by a deep entrepreneurial spirit. There are youth development programs that are preparing young people to succeed in school, start businesses, and take advantage of job opportunities. All of these efforts are not the kind of stories that are talked about on the national news, and it's not community-centered work that gets lifted up as innovative or strategic. But in so many ways, that is the heart, soul, and backbone of this city—always has been. If you're not on the ground and listening and talking to people in neighborhoods around the city, you're not going to see those things or appreciate them.

What's your favorite thing about the city?  If you were showing somebody around on their first visit, where would you take them, what would you show them?

My favorite thing about the city is the people. In the first few months I've been back, I've already met hundreds of people who are involved in all kinds of different efforts to increase quality of life for their friends and family, and for the whole community.

If somebody was visiting Detroit for the first time, I would just drive them around all over the city, so they can see its full breadth and depth. Let’s go to a neighborhood and walk around, talk to residents. From Southwest Detroit to Island View, Brightmoor to Finney. I’d show them the familiar landmarks and stop and talk to folks and get a sense of how everyday people are living. You can't really understand the brightness of a city—and its challenges, as well—if you don't get out and see it.

What do you see as some of the greatest challenges and opportunities facing the city in its recovery? Is there an area or issue there that’s of particular interest to you?

There are some significant challenges: revitalizing the Detroit public school system, finding ways to create employment and entrepreneurial opportunities for all Detroiters, and improving the public transportation system so that people across the city can get to jobs and to school.

But what stands out to me most are issues of affordability and development. There's a significant number of middle-income to luxury housing developments being built in various neighborhoods across the city. A number of them are supposed to be completed and come online in the next couple of years, so there will be a significant housing stock for people with higher incomes.

In every metropolitan area across the country, there's difficulty in building and preserving affordable housing that meets the needs of current residents. The Detroit Future City group just came out with the 139 Square Miles report that honed in on some of the challenges. The poverty rate in Detroit is about 40 percent. In many cases, affordable housing is developed for people who earn between 80 and 120 percent of the metropolitan area’s median income. In reality, because of the city’s high poverty rate, the city is in need of affordable housing for residents at zero to 60 percent of the area median income.

So many times, in cities across the country—whether it's Washington, DC; Oakland; or New York—we have seen what happens if a city is not focused on providing housing supports for the  people who are most in need of it. Acting on this challenge cannot be an add-on or an afterthought. The focus on equitable housing must be a priority in the beginning stages of affordable housing development or revitalization. If it’s not, the result is significant displacement and continued economic segregation that prevents so many people from taking advantage of the opportunities that come with revitalization.

An important part of the Ford Foundation’s role is trying to renew the conversation about real affordability for Detroiters. This city has an opportunity to envision and implement a new model for what a community-centered equity approach can be: ensuring that those people who are most in need, whose leadership and empowerment our grant making supports, have a voice at the table when it comes to what Detroit looks like as an inclusive, prosperous, and equitable city.

What’s the landscape of inequality like in Detroit? How is it distinct from other places—and where are there overlaps?

Because of the size of the city and the scope of the challenge, it is complicated to fully identify where inequality exists. Detroit has experienced significant population loss. This is a city of 139 square miles, and its population has gone from more than a million in 1990 to about 670,000. That’s a significantly reduced tax base in a city that is emerging from the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history. In the last couple of years, the city has been able to restore some of the basic services that most other cities continually provide for residents. Detroiters also face one of the highest auto insurance rates in the country and high water rates and taxes.

So, how do we ensure that revitalization and quality of life improvements are actually connecting to all Detroiters? How do we fight inequality in the early stages of revitalization? I think Detroit has a real opportunity to flip the script when it comes to how inequality is addressed, to work with residents and create a new community-centered strategy for sustainable, long-term change.

The foundation’s strategy in Detroit puts a lot of emphasis on community participation and leadership—making sure the people of Detroit are at the center of building a more vibrant and inclusive city. What does that look like in practice?

One organization we support, Mothering Justice, organizes mothers around key policy issues that impact their lives. Fighting for paid sick leave and affordable child care are two examples of issues on their agenda. The organization and its leadership have helped to build the Economic Justice Alliance of Michigan, which brings together a number of other organizations, mainly grassroots and led by women of color, to form a policy strategy on community benefits and fair wages. We are supporting an emerging set of organizations, alliances, and coalitions that are working in concert with other stakeholders who believe that systemic changes are required to build true equity in Detroit and across Michigan. We believe that together, they can have a real impact on city and state policy.

In supporting emerging organizations, we are assisting in building their capacity to reach larger numbers of Detroiters and to connect and align themselves with other neighborhood-based organizations and citywide groups. That way, they will create a much stronger network and a pipeline of leaders and residents who are engaged in policy change efforts and are at the table when decisions are made about issues that deeply impact their everyday lives.

In addition to connecting like-minded organizations to broaden existing collective and coalition efforts, we are considering how we can link Detroit groups with efforts in other parts of the country, or other parts of the world, so that Detroit can learn lessons from leaders and organizations in New Orleans—and vice versa.

Tell us about a Detroit-based project you’re particularly excited about.

Through our joint investment with our philanthropic partners and the City of Detroit in the Strategic Neighborhood Fund, and our first mission-related investment in Detroit, we are creating a portfolio that is focused on reimagining community development. I'm really excited about the opportunity to participate in conversations and strategy development with our colleagues around the intersection of deep community engagement with equitable neighborhood planning. I’m looking forward to helping shape a vision for how residents can be involved and have a voice, from the initial discussions about revitalization, to the implementation of those physical projects, to stewarding them over the long term and ensuring that new development meets the needs of all residents.

That work is in the early stages, but I am optimistic about the role we can play in helping to develop a deep sense of community engagement and leadership through this process.

I know you’re still pretty new to this role, but what does a typical day look like for you?

The beauty of the job is that every day is different. One day, I might have a meeting with a philanthropic colleague to learn about their history and strategy in Detroit and see where we might be able to work together. I might have a meeting with a community-based group where I'll learn more about their work. I’ll walk around a neighborhood and talk to people to get a sense of that community’s perspective on Detroit’s recovery. I might meet with people in government to talk about some of the work that we are jointly funding.

There’s such a wide range of people who are working on various issues in Detroit and who care deeply about the city. It is wonderful to be able to meet and have conversations with so many different groups, so many different people who are change makers in the city. These conversations are really helping me understand the politics and culture of this place and the work ahead.

All that said, I don’t know if there is a typical day for me. But I can say this: Every day I am learning more and more about the complexities of the relationships and the investments and the needs of Detroiters. In this role, I will continue to listen and learn to ensure that the Ford Foundation is doing our best to support the vision of Detroit’s future as an inclusive and equitable city.

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