Detroit is going through a historical shift both in terms of governance and quality of life, regardless of how that movement is viewed by the many different voices within and outside of the city.
The Detroit that once was and is glorified by those who saw the city evolve in many phases before and after the 1967 rebellion, is not the Detroit that is evolving before our eyes now because the present political and economic dispensation offers a different climate that is now forcing city hall to change the way it does business.
Things are changing, but what hasn’t changed is the spirit of Detroit and the resilience that has kept many Detroiters loyal to their city, steadfastly believing that it can return either to the golden age or become a more advanced urban center where city services are delivered in a timely fashion with the requisite leadership. What has changed recently, as a pattern in the course of the big debate that is being held about an emergency manager and where Detroit is headed in the future, is the silence of the men and women we often refer to as the civic leaders of this city. Individuals who brand themselves as gatekeepers and who are often quick to put anyone in check who takes Detroit for granted seem to be missing in action.
I haven’t heard any word from these individuals sometimes defined as the conscience of the community about what they think should be done in the context of the financial crisis that has this city’s future held hostage as well as the services that should be delivered to residents and businesses invested in the city.
The deafening silence is even more notable in the clergy, which traditionally has been outspoken on the issues that impact this community.
Recently, at the Philadelphia Airport while heading to Washington, DC, I met one of our local area ministers who is deeply involved in the political process. He expressd his view about the silence of our ministers and he basically agreed that the silence is notable given the past advocacy of religious leaders who have demanded political accountability in the city.
But now that the city is going through a new phase of governance structure and a financial malaise, all of which will affect the people of Detroit, it makes you wonder why those who are supposed to be speaking out are keeping quiet.
Why is this a concern? Because in the past we’ve seen what happens when civic leaders galvanize around an issue and stake a position on the most important matters of great significance to the city.
I don’t want to buy into the idea that some have already aligned themselves with certain forces of power and thus cannot speak their conscience about what they see inherently troubling about Detroit’s political leadership. I don’t want to buy into the idea that those who have for so long been at the forefront of issues that this city has been grappling with all of a sudden have abdicated the role that has made them voices in the city.
Perhaps one of the few ministers who has tried to stir a healthy debate and take a position on the financial crisis facing Detroit has been the Rev. Bertram Marks of First Community Baptist Church. The minister and trained lawyer has not only been speaking out on how he strongly feels about an emergency manager for Detroit and the Belle Isle proposal question, among other issues, but has also been writing guest editorials in newspapers to circulate his thoughts.
Marks understands that his obligation is not only to the duties confined within the four walls of First Community Baptist, but also to the larger community and for posterity.
We must have a healthy debate about where Detroit needs to be at this point and examine the current options on the table. The lack thereof is part of the reason the city is in this crisis. Leadership is not and should not be defined by titles, but by the positions that are taken in the public space and how those positions impact the quality of life here.
In the last couple of weeks I have been invited to many meetings and the one thing that keeps coming up is, where is Detroit’s civic leadership?
If you support an emergency manager for Detroit, say it loud and clear. If you don’t support an emergency manager coming to the city, your voice should also be heard. But to remain mute on the question and avoid the very issue that could be a seismic shift for the city is troubling. Silence can be betrayal.
Certainly, Detroit is not monolithic in thought as Rev. Marks has shown in some of his guest editorials. But the essence of different voices speaking to this issue shows an active leadership in play in the city, and sends a message that there is leadership that is both actively and publicly concerned about the future of the city and is doing something about it.
Beyond the Nicodemus-type meetings that are being held to discuss the next chapter of leadership in Detroit lies a deeper responsibility to let the public know about the positions of our many civic leaders. Beyond the secret meetings is an obligation to inform the public about the stance that Detroit’s civic leadership is taking and it shouldn’t just come from one individual.
Detroit has a treasured history, and there are many voices from many different backgrounds and with many experiences that should be contributing to the dialogue. This has never more important than now. So we need to hear from the mosaic of leadership. If not now, when?
The late Whitney Young, the respected leader of the National Urban League, was one of the voices that had a strong influence on President Lyndon Johnson and his administration’s ideas about the Great Society. Young pushed the administration through one-on-one discussions with the president and his insightful writings, including his book “To Be Equal,” to address the growing urban crisis facing Black America at that time. In fact, Johnson’s famous Howard University commencement speech was largely influenced by the writings of Young who spoke so eloquently about the urban crisis.
In our current situation we need more voices like Young, who are genuinely concerned and influencing privately and publicly the right policies to move Detroit forward, not just contentedly sitting around the negotiating table in the corridors of power without offering any constructive dialogue or lasting solution to the compounding financial crisis the city is facing, among other issues.
History will judge this era and those in leadership regarding what they have done to move Detroit to a place where everyone can be proud, and where civic leaders are committed to doing what is expedient, not for themselves but for the people and the communities. And that they can meaningfully enhance quality of life by proposing concrete measures, not just shotgun/press release approaches, in a city where many of our children are dying before their time.
Bankole Thompson is editor of the Michigan Chronicle and the author of the forthcoming book “Rising From the Ashes: Engaging Detroit’s Future With Courage.” His book “Obama and Black Loyalty,” published in 2010, follows his recent book, “Obama and Christian Loyalty” with an epilogue by Bob Weiner, former White House spokesman. Thompson is a political news analyst at WDET-101.9FM (NPR affiliate) and a member of the weekly “Obama Watch” Sunday evening roundtable on WLIB-1190AM New York and simulcast in New Jersey and Connecticut. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his personal page at www.bankolethompson.com.