Once the industrial center and the fourth largest city in the United States, Detroit is a crucible of social transformation and participatory democracy, where residents have been making a way out of no way for decades.
In recent years, its residents have challenged a “comeback” narrative that leaves too many of its people out. The narrative largely focuses on corporate-led initiatives, negating any mention of extraction of resources, lending discrimination, and redlining practices leveraged by commercial actors against the residents of this majority Black city. Any “renaissance” the city has experienced is profoundly uneven in its distribution: Detroit led the country in unemployment and child poverty rates in 2013, and in 2015 the Federal Communications Commission found that 40% of residents lack access to broadband internet, highest among big cities.
Our work in Detroit is situated within this context, and against a backdrop of recent crises for residents of the Motor City. Between 2011 and 2015 the city foreclosed on one in four homes due to overdue property taxes. Community members and scholars have decried the foreclosures as illegal, resulting from improperly conducted tax assessments and blatant disregard for the State’s constitutional safeguards. This flawed tax assessment dataset has devastated communities.
Meanwhile, since 2014 the city has shut off water to tens of thousands of households, nearing 100,000 residents in just three years. In a city where African-Americans make up over 80% of the population, foreclosures and water shutoffs have a discriminatory impact, following a history of institutional racism in the city stretching back to the response to the Great Migration that brought thousands of black folks to Detroit.
But contemporary Detroit also draws on its history as a center of human resilience, from the legacy of work coming out of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership and the formation of Detroit Summer over 20 years ago, to groups like Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, People’s Water Board Coalition, We the People of Detroit, Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, Allied Media Projects, and more.