My Covenant with Detroit

I believe that we rise or fall together. It’s how I was raised as a kid, and it’s a belief that still guides me. At issue today is what happens to hard-hit communities like Detroit? What commitments are we willing to make? Here’s my covenant with Detroit, my pledge about how we will work with the people of Detroit. First, we held the Harwood Public Innovators Lab in Detroit last week. It was the largest Lab in our 20-year history. Originally the Lab was planned for Las Vegas or Miami; but instead we chose Detroit – I believe we needed to stand by the community. Right now, it’s too easy for many of us to turn our backs on hard-hit communities and people. Rather than run from Detroit, I wanted to actually go there and show support and engage with people. This is the first part of my covenant – we must see and hear all Americans; we must not turn away.

Second, during the Lab, participants went into the streets to “Ask Detroit” residents about their aspirations for the community. We didn’t merely ask people “what’s wrong” with Detroit, as so many do, nor ask people for some unattainable “wish list.” Instead, we listened deeply to people, and let them tell us what they value. Now, we’ll pass along what we learned and the discussion materials to other partners in the community so they can continue to “Ask Detroit.” The second pledge of my covenant is to always focus on people’s aspirations for change – those beliefs that live in people’s guts, that relate to their daily lives, and which they’ll go to bat for.

Third, we now have a partnership with Communities In Schools Detroit as part of our new, three-year Kellogg Foundation initiative, to demonstrate how the Harwood approach can accelerate and deepen efforts in transforming the lives of vulnerable children and families. We’re excited about helping to create and deepen this pocket of change and spreading what we gain from the experience. A third commitment in my covenant is to show impact and results and prove that change is possible.

Fourth, there are various leaders and organizations already doing good work in Detroit, and they should be recognized. They also need a safe place to come together and forge new relationships – away from politics as usual and turf battles. I am told that we have the credibility to play this role, and so we will. I pledge in this covenant to use our credibility to open up more safe spaces for people and groups to innovate and build stronger networks.

Fifth, the stories we tell each other often dictate the sense of possibility we hold. Thus, there is the need to highlight good works in Detroit, so people can gain a sense of faith in themselves and one another that they have the experience, wisdom and know-how to move ahead. We hope to build on our recent work with WDET, Detroit’s public radio station, in this regard; WDET is rapidly transforming itself, and its top staff attended the Lab. The fifth commitment of my covenant is that we must be brave enough to tell authentic stories of change, even amid despair.

Sixth, while we work for the betterment of Detroit, we will continually speak out about issues that are common to so many communities across the U.S. today – job loss, poverty, vulnerable children, inadequate public schools, the lack of civic capacity for change. Thus, in this covenant, I pledge that whatever we do in one community will benefit others in another.

Seventh, we at The Harwood Institute must recognize that our contribution to Detroit will be small in comparison to the challenges at hand. We must not have any illusions about this. Our task, then, is to join with others, always, and never operate alone. Thus, the seventh commitment of my covenant is to know humility, and understand the space we occupy, even as we charge ahead full speed.

These efforts reflect our sense at Harwood about how change occurs in communities. We must support and strengthen public innovators and boundary spanning organizations that can be the catalysts and engines of change. We must give rise to people’s voices and aspirations so efforts are rooted in the community. We must create pockets of change and tell authentic stories about that change; these are the seedbeds of authentic hope. And we must open up safe spaces for innovation and network-building so people can learn from one another, join forces, and spread change.

People ask me all the time, “Why are you doing this? Why Detroit?” Here is my answer. It is because our nation faces an historic economic recession and societal transition. And yet, communities far and wide, like Detroit, have not given up on themselves, and I am humbled by their brave efforts and courage, and feel called to stand next to them. If my own work is not about such change, then what is it about? Now is the time to see and hear all Americans, no matter their plight. Now is the time to make hope real for everyone.

We rise or fall together. This is my covenant with Detroit.