A Jan. 12, 2023, panel discussion at Wayne State University offered insight on advancing equity in the city. The event was held as part of the university’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. tribute. (Photo by Eric Hobson)

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave an early version of his “I Have a Dream” speech in Detroit in 1963 and last week, a group of residents gathered to celebrate the civil rights giant and evaluate the current state of economics and equity in the city. 

“Unlike many other minority groups, there’s a history of anti-Black racism that has affected us and continues to affect us in many ways,” said Lucius Vassar, corporate counsel and executive vice president of equitable engagement with Cinnaire, a Detroit-based community development finance group. “If we’re going to move the needle, we have to be intentional and very focused about how we address it.”

Vassar was among the Detroiters taking part in a Jan. 12 panel discussion at Wayne State University to offer insight on advancing equity in the city. The event was held as part of the university’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. tribute and the first held in person since 2020.

Lucius Vassar serves as corporate counsel and executive vice president of equitable engagement with Cinnaire, a Detroit-based community development finance group. (screenshot)

While many in America were taught mainly of King’s iconic speech and nonviolent protest methods, King spent the later years of his life raising up labor rights and the economic factors that kept Black and white communities on unequal footing. 

The panel – with leaders of financial institutions, consulting and development firms – spent the evening affirming the need for companies and municipalities to be deliberate when it comes to efforts to address diversity. The group urged leaders working in different economic sectors to adopt benchmarks to measure the advancement of Black people. 

For Cinnaire’s part, Vassar said the company is preparing to launch a new fund, Ubuntu, based around the virtue of “I am because we are,” to provide equity and lower barriers that Black developers face when trying to access the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program. He also noted a Cinnaire initiative to help single-family renters become homeowners and how the company has aided a cohort of five Black women developers – licensed builders and the only tier-one engineering firm working with the state’s transportation department – in securing capital and with networking.

The event comes as Detroit’s City Council works to establish a reparations task force and amid discussions over reparations for the descendants of Black Detroiters who were displaced by the construction of the I-375 highway. The one-mile stretch of freeway destroyed the historic Black Bottom and Paradise Valley neighborhoods and, with it, hundreds of Black-owned businesses. A state project to replace the highway with a six-lane “urban boulevard” has sparked conversations about who should get property in that area and how past wrongs can be made right.

Parallel to the conversation of equitable development, Black Detroiters are finally able to open recreational marijuana dispensaries in the city, an issue that became contentious as some city leaders argued legacy Detroiters were owed preferential treatment due to the long lasting impacts of criminalization and incarceration because of the war on drugs. 

This year will mark the 60th anniversary of Dr. King’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where he delivered his seminal ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. The anniversary was the impetus for the WSU event’s theme of economics. Earlier in King’s famous speech, he made a case against incrementalism that he argued was an impediment toward reaching the goal of equality and economic equity, highlighting that America had issued the Black community a bad check that had been returned because of insufficient funds. 

Progress in the workforce has remained uneven. According to the 2018 U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission report, Black workers are far less likely than their white counterparts to reach senior-level management positions nearly six decades after King’s march.

Intentionality was a central theme of the program convened at the Industry Innovation Center across from TechTown and moderated by BridgeDetroit Engagement Director Orlando Bailey and Camille Bryant, chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer for Walker-Miller Energy Services. BridgeDetroit was a media sponsor for the event. 

Jillian Blackwell, global marketing manager for Amazon Leadership Development. (screenshot)

The panelists spoke to a crowd of faith leaders, business students and leaders and the community about ensuring Black people had the opportunity to get high paying jobs. For Jillian Blackwell, global marketing manager for Amazon Leadership Development, it’s about making sure young people know how to use their personal interests to find good jobs. 

“So when we talk to students, we say if you’re interested in math and science, look at a career in tech, where most of my peers make six figures,” Blackwell said. 

E’Lois Thomas, president of Solutions for Energy Efficient Logistics, which contracts in Detroit with DTE and Consumers, believes it’s not enough to just tell people about high paying jobs. Thomas said people need to have the training opportunities to even qualify for the jobs. She challenged everyone who runs a business to increase efforts to pay a diverse group of vendors. 

“Increase your commitment, increase your reach,” Thomas said. 

Christopher Jackson is co-principal and managing partner at Queen Lillian Development, a Detroit-based development firm. Jackson said before starting any project, he brings in Black contractors. Jackson put these words into action when his firm built a 63,000 square-foot office building in Midtown with Wayne State University School of Psychiatry and Neurosciences as its tenant. 

“My project is not successful if I’m not bringing other people along with me,” Jackson said. “We actually sat down and had that conversation about hiring Detroiters and hiring African American Detroiters, because that was a priority.

Christopher Jackson is co-principal and managing partner at Queen Lillian Development, a Detroit-based development firm. (screenshot)

Jackson believes Black businesses will be successful when entrepreneurs are given the resources they need to compete. 

“The tools that we need to accelerate economic advancement include access to capital, investment in our businesses,” Jackson told BridgeDetroit.  “There is now and always has been a very vibrant African American development community in the city that you don’t hear much about but they are doing a lot of projects throughout the city.”

Jackson also talked about the importance of having banks that are focused on lending to Black-owned firms.

“We have the know-how, we have the talent, we have what it takes … and Dr. King knew that,” he added. “We just didn’t have the level playing field and access to the funding.”

Beverly Watts, president of BME Consulting, ended the discussion by encouraging everyone to go into career fields that they might be uncomfortable in because being uncomfortable “is part of your journey.”

“And always, always build up your community,” Watts said. 

Bryce Huffman is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. He was formerly a reporter for Michigan Radio, and host of the podcast, Same Same Different.

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