Detroit: The Wired, Wild West of Community Engagement

Detroit was one of four communities selected for an in-depth case study in the NLC and Knight Foundation's Bright Spots in Community Engagement report. The full case study is reprinted below.

“To understand what is happening in Detroit, you have to get comfortable with innovation at the micro-, micro- level...It’s gritty and it’s happening almost in spite of institutions in every sector that are broken or ineffective at fostering change.”
— Dan Gilmartin, Michigan Municipal League

When you talk to civic entrepreneurs in Detroit, you hear a common refrain: this city is like the Wild West, you can do anything here! Nick Gorga of Hatch Detroit explains it in economic terms, claiming that the “barriers to entry are very low” for people who want to try something new and interesting. And if you succeed, you will be noticed — “just opening a sandwich shop in downtown Detroit will get you on the evening news.”

Part of this Wild West feeling comes from the physical surroundings. Even though Detroit is an older Rust Belt city, the wide avenues in the downtown and the new wide-open spaces in neighborhoods, which have emerged in part through demolition of blighted housing, make it seem emptier than is actually the case. In fact, Detroit has greater population density than Denver or Phoenix. Still, some people mention the coyotes that have moved into neighborhoods near downtown. And Delphia Simmons of Kiva Detroit complains about the pheasants that now occupy the vacant lot next to her house and wake her up early in the morning with their calls.

The support of several foundations, including the Knight Foundation, combined with the wide-open environment for civic entrepreneurs, has fostered a number of bright spots in Detroit’s engagement scene.

DetroitMost of these bright spots, particularly those supported by Knight, rely on the same successful principles. All of them are intentional about building supportive networks of people, and use social media in concert with face-to-face meetings to make and sustain those connections. they are all information- and idea-rich, allowing innovation to spread rapidly and gather support through the network. And they all seem to incentivize experimentation and entrepreneurship by adding a ‘cool factor’ so that there is a psychological reward for people in these networks when they do things that seem innovative and civic-minded.

This network-building is in the service of tangible goals. Kiva Detroit, for example, is focused on economic development in low-income neighborhoods. Hatch Detroit aims at downtown retail development, partly to attract new residents. The local Code for America fellows work to expand access to government data. These individual networks seem at least somewhat connected to one another, both through social media and via regular face-to-face gatherings like Detroit Soup.

The public institutions of Detroit do not seem to have much of a presence in these networks. Nick Gorga reported that though he and his Hatch Detroit partners had spoken with hundreds of people as they set up their organization, they hadn’t talked with a single person in local government. Sean Mann noted that most of the successes he and his collaborators have experienced have come in spite of, rather than with the support of government institutions. The Detroit Public Schools were also treated as a completely separate institution. Universities such as Wayne State were mentioned more often, but seemed like more peripheral players in Detroit’s engagement scene – important to particular neighborhoods, like Midtown, but otherwise less engaged.

Lessons and Observations
One result of this division between civic entrepreneurs and civic institutions is a lack of coordination among people working to solve public problems. The new civic networks
represent a great deal of work to tap assets outside government and other institutions; the absence of a connection with those public institutions, however, means that the vast
majority of the money and manpower available for public problem-solving (the traditional public assets, which in dollar figures or man-hours still dwarf the extra-institutional actors) is being directed in ways that don’t necessarily reflect or connect with what Detroiters want.

There is a largely unspoken racial dimension of this division. The civic entrepreneurs working in Detroit seemed to be disproportionately white, well-educated, and middle- to upper-income, whereas the workforce in City Hall and the Detroit Public Schools is dominated by the African-America middle class. Despite this demographic disparity, the issue of race and difference did not emerge in interviews unless the interviewers brought it up, and there was some resistance to the notion that it was something worth talking about. Similarly, the regional nature of the challenges facing Detroit was not a common topic in the interviews.

Like the Knight Foundation, the Kresge and Skillman Foundations are also supporting engagement efforts in a variety of ways, focusing on engagement as the key ingredient to catalyze other work. Case in point: the Detroit Works project, which has received support from the foundations, is an explicitly cross-sector effort that involves civic entrepreneurs and public institutions. Detroit Works seems to have recovered from a rocky start, and has engaged thousands of Detroiters using various techniques. It isn’t clear, however, who exactly will be called upon to implement the plan for Detroit that emerges from the process — and this question is complicated by the fact that the state government now has a legal role in local governance as a result of recent scandals and ongoing financial strains.

And while Detroit Works has built a city-wide network of stakeholders as well as networks within three targeted neighborhoods, there doesn’t seem to be a plan for sustaining those connections in the way that the other civic groupings have been sustained. Though it has enjoyed great promise, Detroit Works needs additional energy, investment, and institutional commitment to succeed.

While the Wild West is in some ways an appealing analogy for civic entrepreneurship in Detroit in the context of open spaceand available opportunities, there are more foreboding sides to the story that may also be relevant. The real Wild West was dominated by violent struggles between newcomers and natives, between farmers and cattlemen, and between the forces of law and order and outsiders. There may be ways that technology- assisted, socially savvy network-building can help to bridge similar types of divisions in Detroit, making it a city that is more innovative, equitable, and engaged.