Celebrating Women of Color “Solutionaries” in Detroit

In dialogues about the fiscal future of Detroit, large corporations and policymakers are noticeably excluding women of color. A newly-released report retelling their stories seeks to combat that exclusion and bring Detroit’s women of color to the forefront of policy decisions in the city as it moves forward with development and expansion projects.

Some of the women profiled in the I Dream Detroit report. (via idreamdetroit.org)

In partnership with the Kellogg Foundation, the Institute for Policy Studies published “I Dream Detroit”— a compilation of personal accounts of women of color identified by Grace Lee Boggs as “solutionaries” who are working on revitalizing the economy and empowering their community. The 20 women profiled in the report come from a variety of backgrounds and lived experiences—they are entrepreneurs, legislators, philanthropists and teachers. Using a photojournalistic style, the project is a concerted initiative to emphasize the need for policy makers and large corporations to include the voices of women of color in any and all decisions regarding rehabilitation efforts in Detroit.

Marc Bayard, the project director, claims that the IPS is “using this document as an important public policy tool,” ensuring that “policy makers understand that these women of color are a phenomenal asset, and are willing to be a part of the vision of revitalization in Detroit.” Bayard also hopes to change an egregious, commonly publicized narrative. “We know that people’s images of Detroit are of bankruptcy and can’t pay your water bills,” he said, “and all of these negative stories of the city just aren’t true.”

Kimberly Freeman-Brown, the principle author of the report, affirms Bayard’s avowals. “We wanted to make sure that the interests and the needs and the concerns of the communities of Detroit were being heard,” she said, “in policy conversations, and in decisions that were being made about the city’s future.”

In Detroit, women make up 53 percent of the population. Within that demographic, 91 percent are women of color. However, of the 500 women surveyed in the IPS report, 71 percent professed to feeling entirely disregarded in the city’s plans for economic expansion. The rehabilitation of Detroit has been a topic of national significance since the city faced economic devastation in the wake of the Great Recession. In 2009, the reported rate of unemployment for “America’s Motor City” rose to an alarming 28 percent— nearly three times as high as the concurrent national average. Recently, revitalization efforts in Detroit have pressed forward with mounting momentum, and the city is bearing witness to a surge in gentrification.

Rev. Roslyn Bouier, one of the women profiled in the report who overcame domestic violence and drug addiction to establish Detroit’s largest food pantry, says that, to her, “revitalization looks like restoration,” declaring that “Detroit needs to have inclusivity.” Rev. Bouier’s sentiments echo the dejection felt viscerally by the individuals in this large demographic. “They are letting you know,” she said, “this is the plan and you’re not a part of it. This is the future. We don’t foresee you here.”

A mere 50 percent of women surveyed for the report reportedly net a living wage, despite 34 percent having obtained undergraduate degrees. The number of women of color living below the poverty line belies Detroit’s most pressing economic ills. “People know how to work,” Rev. Bouier said in the report. “Give them a job. Give them a livable wage job. Remember, a food pantry is the symptom. The illness is non-livable wage job.”

Linda Campbell, a prominent member of the Detroit People’s Platform who was profiled, identified five essential issues facing Detroiters in the report: public transit, affordable housing, equitable employment opportunities, inclusive governance and nutrition. Last election, Campbell, in partnership with the DPP, spearheaded the drafting of a community benefits agreement that would address issues of representation in development efforts. The CBA proposed included a mandate that developers negotiate a legally binding agreement with the residents of the community in which they intend to build, ensuring that citizens had a voice in economic decisions. The DPP’s proposal gained substantial backing despite its loss in the general election, and was instrumental in establishing a framework for a CBA. Now, with a potential Amazon headquarters acquisition looming for the city of Detroit, Campbell and her constituents hope to see a commitment not he part of government to the ordinances established in the new agreement.

“We’re fighting every day to make sure that Detroiters can get around within their city in terms of rides of necessity, like rides to get to work, rides to get to the doctor, rides to get their children to school,” she said, adding that 40 percent of people in the city don’t have private cars. She also noted that “more and more Detroiters are being displaced by high rents”—and faults the current economic revitalization strategy for their challenges. In lacking equity and representation, she claims, “it doesn’t seem to be sensitive to issues of affordability.”

With the exposure from this new report, Freeman-Brown and Bayard are hoping more women like Campbell are included in economic expansion efforts. “The main goal of I Dream Detroit was two-fold,” Brown told Ms. “One was to find these solutionaries and get them talking to each other about how they were experiencing the revival. [The second was] to make their work more visible so that wherever there’s a conversation about economic development in Detroit, the point is raised that there should be a woman like the 20 that are profiled in the report at those decision-making tables.”

Sarah Alexander is a recent graduate of Cal State Northridge. In addition to being a writer, she is a visual and performing artist, and attempts to use film, music and online platforms to spark conversation about social activism. She is an anomalous LA native, which affects her personality in a plethora of unique ways.

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