Ken Whittaker, a lifelong Detroiter, says grassroots organizing gives power to people who need it most. (Courtesy photo)

Michigan United announced this week that Detroiter Ken Whittaker is the organization’s new executive director. Michigan United is a nonprofit that works with labor, business, social service and civil rights members across the state. 

Whittaker has been with the organization since 2014, and most recently served as the director of movement politics. He said he is proud of the organization’s ability to “pivot” during a pandemic.

“We (went) from being one of the largest door-knocking organizations to doing all of that work through our relational organizing, phone calls and text messages,” Whittaker said.

Last year, Whittaker said the organization focused on immigrants’ rights and health care, COVID-19 resources and voting safely during the pandemic. 

Whittaker became a political organizer in 2004, when he worked with state Rep. Isaac Robinson, a Detroit Democrat who died last year after a suspected case of COVID-19. Whittaker would eventually work as a legislative aide and a campaign coordinator for the Metro Detroit AFL-CIO labor union.

Whittaker, also named Grassroots Organizer of the Year at the 2019 African American Leadership Awards in Detroit, said organizing is all about giving power to people who need it most.

“The political sphere that we find ourselves in caters to those who are in office, (mostly) wealthy white men,” he said. “Without grassroots organizing, it’s the 99 percent of us that aren’t able to wield the power, but we need to change our lives.”

In Michigan, nearly two-thirds of elected officials are white men, yet white men make up only 35 percent of the state’s population. Whittaker said the lack of representation is a problem. 

“Our government is not reflective of the real and lived experiences of the people in this state. Instead, the elite run for office,” he said. “Those who have money, who can afford to not work for eight months and run a campaign. (They) are the ones who get elected to office.”

Whittaker said more Detroiters should be engaged in the political process, but he understands that is one of the many struggles city residents face. 

“When I was out doing voter contact, I was getting answers like, ‘I don’t have time to think about that.’ ‘I have to go to work.’ ‘My kids need to eat,’” he said. 

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In Detroit, getting voters engaged has proved challenging. During the 2020 election, the city had just 50 percent voter turnout, but still the highest it’s been in decades. Whittaker said he’d like to get more people focused on local politics instead of just the presidential elections. 

“There are people who proudly flashed an ‘I voted’ sticker after voting for president, but when you ask them who their city council person is or how many people are on City Council, they have no clue,” he said. “But these local folks help clean up your street and make sure people in your neighborhood are taken care of.”

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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