What does equity look like? Start with housing, income, Detroiters say.

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Tommie Obioha is co-founder of Detroit Block Works, a grassroots community organization that helps develop vacant lots in northwest neighborhoods. (courtesy photo)

Detroit’s youth want safe neighborhoods, a quality education, and access to fresh and healthy food.

Why wouldn’t they?

These basic requests should be the standard. However, in Detroit — where the median household income is nearly half that of the metro area’s — youth say economic equity doesn’t yet exist.

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To determine a shared vision for equity, Detroit Future City surveyed hundreds of Detroit youth, community stakeholders and organizations to learn how an economically equitable Detroit looks. Access to quality everyday needs from food to education, jobs, and housing were the most common answers. The responses were published in the nonprofit’s latest report “Economic Equity: A Vision for Detroit,” a call to action to Detroit residents and the private, public and charitable sectors.

DFC is a nonprofit thinktank and policy advocate in Detroit. According to the shared vision, 40 percent of the city’s residents live in an area of concentrated poverty. Unjust policies and structural and systemic racism are listed as factors to the city’s lack of economic equity.

Anika Goss, executive director of DFC, said increasing access to needs and creating collaborative processes will serve Detroit for the better. Goss said she was surprised to hear from so many young Detroiters who said access to stable housing and quality education were their top desires.

“All of those issues felt really far away,” Goss said.  “We really underestimate how young people are thinking about the world around them. It’s not just makeup tutorials and TikTok videos, and these were not kids who had been trained in all of this, these were neighborhood kids. These were things that were really important to them.”

Goss highlighted the recent teacher pay-scale increases at Detroit Public Schools Community District as a win for systemic changes that support an economically equitable city.

“I was really pleased and think we can build upon DPSCD negotiating with the teachers’ union for an increase in salary,” Goss said. “That’s a lot because one of the key inequities Detroiters have right now is making $20,000 less than their regional partners, they’re making less money.”

DFC hosted an equity forum in February, followed by several smaller group sessions throughout the summer.

 “We have to be intentional about programming to the people who are here today, not particularly planning for the folks we want to bring in.” – Tommie Obioha

Fatima Rahman, an 18-year-old student at Detroit International Academy for Young Women, attended the summer youth forum. The high school junior said she wanted to know how she could contribute to community changes.

“I wanted to know what people were doing to address the problems,” she said.

Rahman, who hopes to become a doctor, said she began to understand equity when she moved to the United States. She didn’t speak English and needed additional resources to help her catch up to her peers in class. Now she sees inequities across the city, namely for her peers who lack consistent access to quality, nutritious food.

Tommie Obioha attended DFC’s February equity forum. The native Detroiter said he heard about the meeting through work but was drawn to participate due to his belief in equitable practices. Obioha left Detroit for college and returned in 2015. He began attending community meetings while learning more about the city’s disparities. This led him to co-found the grassroots organization Detroit Block Works in 2017.

“I was kind of in shock that less than a mile away of billions of dollars being spent in [downtown] development people are still living in abstract poverty,” he said.

Detroit Block Works redevelops vacant lots in Detroit neighborhoods and brings neighbors together to discuss city redevelopment plans. Obioha said small changes like replacing jargon policy-related memos with common language can make a difference for his northwest Detroit neighbors so that they can give feedback on city plans.

Obioha said the shared vision is important because planning processes have largely catered to wealthy white people while ongoing divestment has diminished Detroit’s Black neighborhoods.

“We have to be intentional about programming to the people who are here today, not particularly planning for the folks we want to bring in,” he said. “The planning has to reflect the needs of the people and they should be centered in the planning process.”  

The “vision” published in October details DFC’s ongoing collective action steps through its Center for Equity, Engagement, and Research:

  •       Develop Detroit-specific indicators of economic equity
  •       Share high-quality accessible research
  •       Develop a dashboard of supportive technology to set priorities and check progress
  •       Engage, inform, and influence the private sector, investors, policymakers, and civic leaders

Obioha said the current state of Detroit is not by chance, that dominant narratives have not told the story of how Detroiters were left out of conversations and processes. He’s heard from young people in northwest Detroit who say they want safe, fun places to play and be creative.

“We have to be really intentional about including community voice,” he said. “People do their research and come to the community with an idea of what they already want to do but they should have started the conversation asking what do you need, what are the barriers to prosperity. That’s the first step to getting somewhere.”  

Read more information on “Economic Equity: A Vision for Detroit” at www.DetroitFutureCity.com.

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