Detroit’s Grassroots Economies

Behind the doom-and-gloom headlines, a collective response to the city’s problems is already happening.

Jenny Lee and Paul AbowdMarch 17, 2011

The D-Town Farm, a four-acre organic farm located in Detroit's Rouge Park, hosted a harvest festival in December 2010, during which residents met to learn about urban agriculture. (Photo via Detroit Food Justice Task Force's Facebook page.)

Detroi­ters are redefin­ing econ­o­my.” Through­out the 20th cen­tu­ry, com­pa­nies com­pris­ing Detroit’s indus­tri­al econ­o­my pro­vid­ed jobs to peo­ple who bought things and paid tax­es to gov­ern­ment, which pro­vid­ed ser­vices. In Detroit’s grass­roots econ­o­my, which has evolved over many decades, peo­ple are cre­at­ing their own jobs and exchang­ing local resources direct­ly. Com­mu­ni­ties are solv­ing basic eco­nom­ic and human prob­lems col­lec­tive­ly. At the same time, they are pro­duc­ing new knowl­edge and resources, restor­ing rela­tion­ships across gen­er­a­tions, and heal­ing neighborhoods.

Two citywide networks exemplify the grassroots' ability to do what the city, the corporate sector and philanthropic community cannot: create a vision for economic development that includes all Detroiters.

In con­trast to com­mu­ni­ty-dri­ven efforts, last fall May­or Dave Bing kicked off the Detroit Works Project (DWP) with a series of town hall meet­ings to dis­cuss the city’s future. Accord­ing to its web­site, the project is an evolv­ing roadmap designed to make Detroit work for you by cre­at­ing a shared, achiev­able vision for our future.” The effort began with a series of town hall meet­ings that many res­i­dents felt were designed not to fos­ter their par­tic­i­pa­tion but rather to mask the fact that the Detroit Works Project is led by urban renew­al experts” and phil­an­thropic lead­ers unac­count­able to com­mu­ni­ty con­cerns and visions. 

The town hall meet­ings pro­duced a set of data that the DWP team says will instruct the city on how to pro­ceed. Yes, cit­i­zens were giv­en the chance to speak at the meet­ings, but over­all the project’s strat­e­gy reduces Detroi­ters to num­bers that get crunched and fed to a plan­ning and devel­op­ment team, instead of fos­ter­ing their par­tic­i­pa­tion in mak­ing Detroit work.”

For all the atten­tion it has raised, DWP isn’t the only cur­rent effort to solve some of the city’s prob­lems. Dozens of net­works of com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ers criss­cross the city and have long been advanc­ing solu­tions to com­mu­ni­ty prob­lems. These net­works con­sti­tute a col­lec­tive process of social trans­for­ma­tion that encom­pass­es edu­ca­tion, food secu­ri­ty, com­mu­ni­ca­tions infra­struc­ture, com­mu­ni­ty safe­ty and health, envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice, immi­grant rights, arts and cul­ture, and many oth­er issues. An authen­tic Detroit Works Project would begin by lis­ten­ing to the visions and orga­niz­ing mod­els already func­tion­ing at the grassroots.

In par­tic­u­lar, two city­wide net­works exem­pli­fy the grass­roots’ abil­i­ty to do what the city, the cor­po­rate sec­tor and phil­an­thropic com­mu­ni­ty can­not: cre­ate a vision for eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment that includes all Detroi­ters, and orga­nize to make that vision real. The Detroit Dig­i­tal Jus­tice Coali­tion (DDJC) and the Detroit Food Jus­tice Task Force both formed out of visions for healthy com­mu­ni­ties, where all peo­ple not only have access to healthy food and media, but also have the abil­i­ty to cre­ate and dis­trib­ute their own food and media. (Full dis­clo­sure: Jen­ny Lee co-directs a mem­ber orga­ni­za­tion of the DDJC.)

These two net­works are using food and media pro­duc­tion as a means of social trans­for­ma­tion. They are cre­at­ing new economies that are increas­ing­ly insep­a­ra­ble from the health and self-deter­mi­na­tion of Detroit communities. 

Par­tic­i­pa­to­ry democ­ra­cy through media

The DDJC formed after a strat­e­gy ses­sion at the 2009 Allied Media Con­fer­ence, in which com­mu­ni­ty media groups from around the coun­try met to dis­cuss the fund­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties cre­at­ed by the 2009 Amer­i­can Recov­ery and Rein­vest­ment Act’s Broad­band Tech­nol­o­gy Oppor­tu­ni­ties Pro­gram (BTOP). Mem­bers of the Detroit orga­ni­za­tions who attend­ed the first meet­ings of the coali­tion that fall saw BTOP fund­ing as a tremen­dous oppor­tu­ni­ty to actu­al­ize a vision for com­mu­ni­ty media and tech­nol­o­gy in Detroit. But they quick­ly real­ized that their vision for dig­i­tal jus­tice went beyond the para­me­ters of the fed­er­al stim­u­lus grant. They made a com­mit­ment to work togeth­er to imple­ment the vision whether or not they received fund­ing from Wash­ing­ton. The DDJC turned the process of apply­ing for the grant into a com­mu­ni­ty-orga­niz­ing process so that no mat­ter what the out­come, the coali­tion could be successful. 

But the DDJC’s col­lab­o­ra­tive, vision-dri­ven grant-writ­ing did yield a $2 mil­lion fed­er­al award in 2010. It is now in the process of launch­ing a mul­ti-lay­ered pro­gram called the Detroit Media Econ­o­my Col­lab­o­ra­tive, which involves dig­i­tal media train­ing for train­ers, teach­ing pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment, youth-led media coop­er­a­tives and the launch of 12 com­mu­ni­ty media labs. In these labs, the DDJC will offer work­shops on every­thing from com­put­er lit­er­a­cy 101 to oral his­to­ry radio pro­duc­tion to media-based orga­niz­ing for envi­ron­men­tal justice. 

DDJC is build­ing the capac­i­ty of edu­ca­tors, com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ers, artists, tech­nol­o­gists and small busi­ness­es to build a just and cre­ative econ­o­my in Detroit. Its goal is not sim­ply to give res­i­dents the abil­i­ty to apply online for jobs at Wal-Mart. Instead, coali­tion pro­grams will teach peo­ple how to use dig­i­tal media to solve com­mu­ni­ty prob­lems; help the city’s emerg­ing small busi­ness­es become sus­tain­able; infuse dig­i­tal media arts into schools; and change young people’s per­cep­tion of Detroit to see it as a place of hope, not abandonment.

Grow­ing food – and the movement

The Detroit Food Jus­tice Task Force formed out of a need among farm­ers and envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice orga­niz­ers in the city to net­work small­er, local­ized efforts and to assert a com­mu­ni­ty-led vision for Detroit’s future, specif­i­cal­ly with regard to urban agri­cul­ture. At the time of its for­ma­tion in late 2009, nation­al media were fix­at­ed on images of Detroit’s prairie-like open space. 

Very few sto­ries acknowl­edged the decades-long move­ment of urban farm­ing or the fact that Detroit is home to more than 1,000 small farms and com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens. Rather, nation­al media por­trayed Detroit as a blank can­vas.” As a result, Detroit has attract­ed peo­ple from near and far with bold urban agri­cul­ture pro­pos­als to sup­pos­ed­ly save the city. 

The most con­tro­ver­sial of these pro­pos­als came from local busi­ness­man John Hantz, who wants to appro­pri­ate as much of Detroit’s vacant land as pos­si­ble for com­mer­cial food pro­duc­tion and agro-tourism, slot­ting Detroit’s chron­i­cal­ly unem­ployed” into menial farm labor jobs. The pro­pos­al, announced in spring 2009, stems from Hantz’s belief that the major­i­ty of the city does not have com­mu­ni­ty,” a remark he made at the Busi­ness of Urban Agri­cul­ture Sum­mit last April. It is also ground­ed in an out­dat­ed view of eco­nom­ic health in which sim­ply hav­ing a job is the end goal. 

The FJTC offers a very dif­fer­ent vision of urban agri­cul­ture in Detroit, a vision ground­ed in all the ways food pro­duc­tion and food access in the city is about more than cre­at­ing jobs. The net­work of food pro­duc­ers and dis­trib­u­tors, culi­nary artists and envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice edu­ca­tors designed a strate­gic move­ment-build­ing mod­el for food jus­tice that sup­ports the city’s Food Pol­i­cy Coun­cil – estab­lished to devel­op a food secure city – and the Food Secu­ri­ty Pol­i­cy for Detroit while bring­ing grass­roots efforts to a larg­er scale. 

Detroit’s Food Secu­ri­ty Pol­i­cy, adopt­ed unan­i­mous­ly by City Coun­cil in March 2008, is con­cerned with access to qual­i­ty food in Detroit, hunger and mal­nu­tri­tion, the impacts of an inad­e­quate diet, cit­i­zen edu­ca­tion, eco­nom­ic injus­tice in the food sys­tem, urban agri­cul­ture, and the role of schools, pub­lic insti­tu­tions, and emer­gency response in cre­at­ing food jus­tice in Detroit. The Task Force is engag­ing hun­dreds of com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers in pro­grams that will put the pol­i­cy into prac­tice. Pro­grams include the cre­ation of food jus­tice hubs in neigh­bor­hood cen­ters through­out the city, con­struc­tive pub­lic dia­logue to address racial inequities in the Detroit food sys­tem, and food lit­er­a­cy pro­grams to edu­cate com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers about healthy food choic­es and cul­tur­al­ly appro­pri­ate food prepa­ra­tion. It’s not just about bet­ter food, it’s about chang­ing the con­di­tions that makes good food so rare in Detroit.

There are many exam­ples of small farms in Detroit dis­trib­ut­ing pro­duce to local busi­ness­es. From his one acre farm in the North Cork­town neigh­bor­hood, Greg Willerer runs Broth­er Nature Pro­duce, a farm that sells food at local mar­kets and dis­trib­utes to a grow­ing list of Detroit restau­rants that pre­fer the taste and fresh­ness of his greens to that of ware­house pro­duce. This is a way of decol­o­niz­ing our­selves from the cor­po­rate food struc­ture and doing some­thing bet­ter at the same time,” Willerer explains. 

A real Detroit Works Project 

In his first State of the City address in April 2010, May­or Bing pro­posed to right-size” Detroit by shut­ting off city ser­vices to por­tions. But most Detroi­ters have been liv­ing with­out many ser­vices, like street lights, snow removal, libraries, schools and rec cen­ters, for years . Many of those who have sur­vived the system’s fail­ures have found solu­tions and built rela­tion­ships that they couldn’t have dreamed of oth­er­wise. In addi­tion to food and media, there are local efforts to trans­form edu­ca­tion, com­mu­ni­ty safe­ty, man­u­fac­tur­ing and trans­porta­tion – all of the basic struc­tures of exis­tence in the city.

Detroit’s grass­roots economies revolve around much more than an exchange of goods and ser­vices. Where­as the watch­word of the city’s (and country’s) estab­lished econ­o­my is jobs,” Detroit’s new economies are ground­ed in work.” For years, Grace Lee Bog­gs has been draw­ing out this dis­tinc­tion in her week­ly columns in the Michi­gan Cit­i­zen, advo­cat­ing for an eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment strat­e­gy that pro­vides mean­ing­ful work in the process of cre­at­ing our city anew, rather than jobs at com­pa­nies which often leave as fast as they arrived. 

Bog­gs says, Until the emer­gence of cap­i­tal­ism a few hun­dred years ago, Jobs or Labor that you did for a pay­check did not exist. Peo­ple worked to pro­vide goods and ser­vices for their com­mu­ni­ties and to exer­cise and devel­op their skills. As we enter the 21st cen­tu­ry, we are in the mid­dle of a great trans­for­ma­tion or rever­sal: from increas­ing­ly unavail­able Jobs to mean­ing­ful Work.”

The deep­en­ing cuts in gov­ern­ment ser­vices – long a fact of life in Detroit, but now increas­ing­ly the case for towns, cities and states across the coun­try – force us to con­front the rever­sal Bog­gs describes. In the com­ing months, we will see the cul­mi­na­tion of two con­trast­ing visions play­ing out in Detroit: One, top-down and led by May­or Bing and big foun­da­tions, will attempt to relo­cate res­i­dents and attract new cor­po­rate invest­ment. The oth­er, led by long-time Detroi­ters, will attempt to build a new econ­o­my with the resources and rela­tion­ships that have sur­vived the rough decades of Detroit’s recent past.

How we define Detroit’s econ­o­my will deter­mine whether our work only pro­vides for basic sur­vival needs, or allows us to be active par­tic­i­pants in the nar­ra­tive of our present and future.

Jen­ny Lee is a co-direc­tor of Allied Media Projects, which is a mem­ber of the Detroit Dig­i­tal Jus­tice Coali­tion and the Detroit Sum­mer Col­lec­tive.

Paul Abowd lives in Detroit, where he writes for Crit­i­cal Moment mag­a­zine. His work has also appeared in Labor Notes, Z Mag­a­zine, Month­ly Review, Truthout, Coun­ter­punch and The Elec­tron­ic Intifada.
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