Citizen-led initiatives scored big wins in the midterms. But now this form of direct democracy is under attack.
“Nobody asked us if we wanted a new hockey stadium in the middle of the city,” community activist Sajeda Ahmed said in an interview for a new report on the role of women of color in the future of Detroit. “Nobody asked our opinion, and we’re the ones who have to live around it and deal with everything that comes along with it.”
It’s hardly surprising that Ahmed, a Bangladeshi American woman, isn’t much of a Red Wings fan. White men completely dominate hockey. And as a community activist in a city ravaged by poverty and joblessness, she can think of many needs more pressing than an ice rink.
So who exactly was behind the new Detroit hockey arena that opened last month? That would be Mike Ilitch, the billionaire owner of the Red Wings and Little Caesars Pizza. Although he died in February of this year, Ilitch is credited with selling the arena plan to local officials and obtaining about $324 million in public subsidies for the project.
And this is only one example of billionaire-driven development in Detroit. Dan Gilbert, who made a fortune as the founder of Quicken Loans, now runs a venture capital company that has bought more than 90 buildings in Detroit’s urban core – enough to earn the area the nickname “Gilbertville.”
Sajeda Ahmed: "The first thing I’d do is make sure that women’s voices are heard. That’s something that we have not seen so far in this revitalization. It’s been big businessmen and policymakers making all these decisions."
Asked how she would handle Detroit’s re-development efforts, Ahmed said, “Definitely the first thing I’d do is make sure that women’s voices are heard. That’s something that we have not seen so far in this revitalization. It’s been big businessmen and policymakers making all these decisions.”
The importance of giving women of color a seat at the table is a major theme of “I Dream Detroit: The Voice and Vision of Women of Color on Detroit’s Future,” a new Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) report based on in-depth interviews, focus groups, and surveys with Black, Latina, Arab, and Asian women across the city.
Women of color make up 47 percent of Detroit’s population and yet more than 70 percent of those that participated in an IPS survey said they do not feel included in city’s economic development plans.
Linda Campbell, one of the 20 women of color profiled in the report, has played a leadership role in several coalition efforts to steer economic resources towards low-income residents. She’s contributed to efforts to increase the local minimum wage, ensure access to affordable housing, and leverage public investments in economic development for jobs and education.
In 2016, she worked with Detroit People’s Platform in a path-breaking effort to pass a ballot proposal that would’ve mandated legally binding community benefit agreements between local authorities and developers. The terms of such agreements encourage projects that create good jobs and meet the needs of the city’s low-income residents.
The momentum behind the ballot initiative provoked a competing proposal for a non-binding community benefits agreement. And in the end, the weaker measure received greater support. But Campbell is proud that her coalition got almost 100,000 votes and lost by only a narrow margin. “And we now have the opportunity, after a year, to go back and advocate having it amended. So we’re going to build on that,” Campbell said.
By telling the stories of women like Ahmed and Campbell, complete with high-quality photographs, “I Dream Detroit” aims to raise the profile of the city’s women of color leaders and counter prevalent negative perceptions of them. The report is organized around four types of “solutionaries”: service providers, those who are fueling economic development, policy advocates, and entrepreneurs. It concludes with a set of recommendations for sustaining their important work, including increased investment in their enterprises to overcome the limited access to capital faced by many women of color. It also calls on local officials to involve them in all economic development decision-making spaces.
“Inaccurate perceptions of women of color, especially poor women, influence public policy decisions and choices about when and where development investments are made,” the report’s co-authors, Marc Bayard and Kimberly Freeman Brown, write. “We’re working to bring the experience and ideas of women of color from all walks of life more fully to bear in shaping Detroit’s development plans.”