After declaring bankruptcy in July of 2013, Detroit is struggling to develop a restructuring plan under emergency manager Kevyn Orr, to lift Detroit out of bankruptcy. A lack of a functional and affordable transit system, a failing school system, the privatization of the water and sewage system, poverty and a high crime rate all contribute to Detroit’s current conditions.
I recently had a conversation with CSI’s Racial Equity Fellow Linda Campbell, a member of the Building Movement Project team, to discuss her work on racial equity and Detroit. Her work with Building Movement Project includes building the capacity of social service agencies and neighborhood and resident leaders to have more voices and power around structural and systemic changes in Detroit.
1. When did you first become interested in working on racial equity in your community?
My first notion of inequality was as a freshman in high school back in St Louis Missouri. There was a lot of concern about the school millage [A tax on property that is used to fund schools], that the school millage might fail, and what that would mean for African-American schools. At that point we were officially an integrated school system, but the reality was our schools were largely segregated, and I was attending a segregated high school. If it failed, I knew we would bear the disproportionate brunt of the lack of funding to support overall school instruction, building, supplies and resources as a segregated school. It was my first awareness and it was also my first demonstration. My friends and I made big placards and held up signs along busy intersections and encouraged people to vote for the millage.
The school I went to Charles Sumner High School also prided itself in developing young leaders. As soon as you entered the school you were assigned to a club or organization and it was expected you would work your way up and assume leadership. We had peer leaders that guided your development, so I kind of grew into my leadership beginning in high school.
Then I went to college in the 60’s, and that first year as a freshman I was a Black student on a White campus at a small elite liberal arts college. Those were challenging times for Black students; we came out of culturally rich and nurturing environments. We were seen as leaders and were groomed for future leadership in our community, but on these campuses we were met with a dismissive attitude about our academic and cultural competency; we were expected to assimilate and in many ways abandon our heritage. So there was a lot of rebellion on white campuses from Black students like myself, fighting for identity, fighting for reshaping curriculum reflective of the African American experience, fighting for Black professors, for more racially just admission. That’s the movement I came through; I really came into my racial justice identity as part of the Black student movement.
2. How did your experiences help you develop and lead you to the work that you do now with Building Movement Project?
During my formative years, one of the things I came to terms with was race, and how race is such an important factor in this country and understanding folks in neighborhoods and communities. African Americans are often subjected to racial bias in a number of ways whether it’s in housing, the education system, groceries stores, and its present everywhere. Looking at the structural changes and the collapse of structural opportunities in our communities, more and more people are relying on social service systems to survive. And from my observations social services often focus on the individual and group needs, but they don’t look at the structural issues that create the conditions in the community.
I was asked to document some of what I was seeing in Detroit, in terms of the growing social service agencies and the shift away from looking at structural change in the city. When I came to Detroit in 1972 it was a progressive beacon; there were so many movements that were given birth here in Detroit, especially Black movements. I grew up as a professional here in Detroit. My work became to reconcile the conditions, to figure out how to build capacity of social service agencies so that conditions for children and families could improve based on systemic and structural change work and not just individual behavior change.
3. Where do you feel are the entry points in Detroit for engaging in your type of work?
It depends on what kind of involvement engagement you’re looking for. There are opportunities for youth, there are service learning projects, internships, and some colleges have ongoing internships with nonprofit organizations. It really depends on what you want to be engaged in and how deep you want to go. The work that I focus on focuses on five areas: transit justice, land justice, access to healthy food, good jobs and good government. We want to build the capacity of communities to organize and influence change across a variety of issue areas. How deep you want to go depends on your skill set and your ability to interface with the community. To be effective requires that you do a lot of learning from the community… Sometimes young people struggle with that, especially when you come from the outside. Being from the outside is often compounded by issues of race and class.
The other thing I want to point out is that with the collapse of the job market, the disinvestment in the community, the takeover by the State along with the hyper development, you cannot underestimate the impact it has on people. Local neighborhood schools have disappeared from many neighborhoods, people struggle to receive city services, and you’re living in this city that’s becoming like two cities. A good ally is someone who recognizes that fact and is ready to do something about it…
4. Biggest challenge in engaging in the work you do?
One of the biggest challenges is accountability, there are lots of people doing interesting and good work, but seldom are we challenged to be held accountable around that work. We have to build authentic systems of accountability, particularly during this time of scarce resources. Our first accountability is to the community. When we receive grants to move the work it’s in some ways the community’s money to enable meaningful change. It is important to continue to raise the question of how does community have an authentic voice and power in judging whether we are doing our work in a way that is aligned with community needs and vision.
5. Biggest lessons you’ve received working in Detroit?
Since I’ve been here all these years? (Laughs) The recent lesson for me is never underestimating the wisdom and knowledge of community. I’d say that was my first real lesson. Also, the power of narrative, how powerful narrative is in shaping the reality of people’s lives, on both the positive and negative side. Narrative can be transformative, or it can be destructive.
6. What do you hope to achieve during your fellowship?
Part of the fellowship is to help develop and support a cohort of young leaders who are interested in social and racial equity and how that gets developed through social policy in the city. I care about who will come behind me and the vision they hold for the community. I am depending on the next generation of leaders to continue the fight for a fair and just society for all.