On Tuesday the Detroit Works Project kicked off with a mass meeting at Greater Grace Temple on the far west side. Nearly a thousand Detroiters answered the mayor’s call, filling every seat and lining every wall of a huge room at the church. The energy in the crowd was palpable as the mayor’s deputies took to the podium, but the promise of the first few minutes soon gave way to confusion and frustration. Expecting a presentation, the crowd was instead told to break into smaller groups to brainstorm the city’s future. The unexpected (and unfocused) format led to discord, with angry voices calling out, “This is not what we came for!”
The breakout groups were overcrowded and loud. The facilitators struggled to keep order, and not every room had a microphone, forcing some residents to shout to be heard. In my group, the facilitator, a community liaison from the Skillman Foundation, asked the audience to envision what the city would look like in 20 years. Most of those called upon ignored the prompt and focused on their current frustrations, airing grievances, asking pointed questions, and demanding action from the city now. Only after Mayor Bing addressed our group in person did the session take a more productive turn, with residents volunteering suggestions from rehabbing abandoned buildings to giving neighborhoods access to broadband. Just as the conversation got going, however, the evening came to an end.
It was an inauspicious start for a process expected to last 18 months and result in the reshaping of the city. The format was off-putting, the facilitators were unprepared for the size of the crowd, and residents’ incoming concerns about the process itself were not addressed from the get-go. That created space for the mayor’s doubters and outright opponents to seize the floor and take control of the discussion.
If Mayor Bing hopes to salvage these meetings, he will need to address the full audience at the beginning, not the end, and directly address the fears and concerns that have arisen on the question of shrinking, downsizing, or rightsizing the city. While they weren’t the loudest voices, many in the large and diverse crowd seemed open to long term reform, but they wanted to understand what the options were and whether they could trust the mayor to respect the community’s concerns. Bing needs to speak directly to these residents and win their trust and participation. If he can marshal their support and solicit their ideas, the Detroit Works Project might actually live up to some of its ambitions.