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All together now: Diving deeper into Model D discussion on race

Adriel Thornton moderates Come Together
Adriel Thornton moderates Come Together

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The rain was turning to snow and making a mess of the roads the night of Model D's Speaker Series on race relations, but that didn't stop a dedicated and passionate audience from packing out the auditorium at 1515 Broadway.

The event was called "Come Together," and come together we did to discuss race, business, and intentionality in Detroit. Model D publisher Claire Nelson kicked things off by asking who was excited about Detroit's future. Virtually everyone in the audience raised a hand. She then asked who was nervous, and again the vote was nearly unanimous. The conversation began on common ground.

Nelson introduced Adriel Thornton, the man behind FreshCorp and Wink who collaborated with Model D to organize this speaker series event.

As the recent 7.2 Sq MI report shows, Detroit's greater downtown is experiencing demographic shifts. Thornton had been milling these changes and decided it was time to have a public conversation about the elephant in the room -- race.

"Detroit is a major city with massive potential. It has had a massive set of challenges as well. Race has been a factor in so many things here," Thornton said. "We have to acknowledge the historical legacy while thinking about moving in a new direction, but we don't have to be trapped by the historical legacy."

The subject of race is always a heavy one, but Adriel wisely set a proper tone, calling for a fun, loose conversation. Though there were a few tense moments, that's exactly how it went.

Adriel moderated a panel that included Lauren Hood (Deep Dive Detroit), Jenny Lee (Allied Media Projects), Marsha Music (Kresge Artist Fellow and A Grown Woman's Tales from Detroit), Scott Rutterbush (Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Company), Zana Smith (Spectacles), and Hubert Yaro (Craft WorkRonin Sushi, and Commonwealth).

He asked the panel how they intentionally focus on inclusivity.

Marsha Music said her work brings the invisible people in the community into focus. She said the black community has been invisible in some of the narratives around development in Detroit. She turned the common narrative that whites are moving to the city "to save Detroit" on its head.

"I say that whites are not here to save Detroit," Music said. "They are here to be saved by Detroit."

Much like Ms. Music, Jenny Lee said her work with Allied Media gives people in the community a voice by empowering them to construct their own narratives.

Lauren Hood said that Deep Dive Detroit gives voice to those outside of the power circles directing change in Detroit. "We intentionally give more voice to people that are residents of the community. Just because she doesn't have a master's degree in urban planning doesn't mean that the woman who's lived in the neighborhood for 50 years doesn't have anything to contribute," Hood said. "She probably has (even) more meaningful information to contribute."

Hubert Yaro, a seasoned restaurateur, is opening his first business in the city. Its called Craft Work and will be located in West Village, where Yaro recently moved himself. "It's a diverse community. I want (Craft Work) to be a place where everyone feels welcome. I need to make sure the staff reflects the neighborhood." Scott Rutterbush echoed these sentiments, saying that hiring within the community is important to Great Lakes Coffee.

Zana Smith, whose store Spectacles has been a downtown retail and social institution since 1984, chose to locate downtown because of its more cosmopolitan nature in comparison to the neighborhoods. "I wanted to meet people who traveled the world and have a cosmopolitan lifestyle."

Adriel asked the panel what things businesses do, intentionally or unintentionally, that disconnect themselves from the communities in which they are located.

Marsha Music said that design matters. Intentional or unintentional, the design of a place can exclude different types of people by making them feel uncomfortable or unwelcome.

Lauren Hood pointed out the discrepancy between businesses' staffs and the neighborhoods around them. "Midtown is 64 percent black, yet many of the new businesses have staffs that are mostly white."

Jenny Lee talked about how logistics can make a difference. The Starbuck's at Mack and Woodward's proximity to a major bus stop adds to its inclusivity. Southwest Detroit's Cafe con Leche's proximity to area schools makes it a natural hangout for kids in the neighborhood.

Scott Rutterbush warned of being too reliant on Internet feedback. "Going on Yelp, Facebook, and Twitter is not the true pulse of what people think of your business. We are trying to make our business exciting for everyone, and it's listening at events like tonight that help us learn."

Adriel then turned to the audience for comments.

One person asked everyone in the audience to introduce themselves to someone they didn't know. It was a simple gesture that helped the conversation feel more natural.

Another asked us not to immediately criticize businesses for being exclusive. "There is such a thing as a target market. It's a problem when an entire neighborhood takes on an air of exclusivity, but we shouldn't point our finger at a single business (that wants to sell high end goods)."

Zana Smith acknowledged the right of businesses to sell whatever they want, but emphasized that they need to be open to a diverse clientele, making sure that everyone feels welcome even if some can't afford the products.

Marsha Music challenged the notion that there is no gentrification in Detroit. It is happening, she said, "but we have the opportunity to do this differently than anywhere in the United States."

The only high school aged member of the audience bravely spoke up, saying that Detroit high schoolers -- mostly black teens -- love coming downtown and that they don't feel excluded. This contrasted with some of the earlier presumptions about how African American youth in Detroit tend to be excluded, intentionally or not, from some businesses.

Other audience members reminded us that the issue of race isn't just black and white. Though those are the prevalent groups in Detroit, it's important to include Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern and other communities in the conversation.

One person said that maintaining diversity is difficult. She asked the audience to point out the places and businesses that accomplish this and asked us all to consider why and how they do it. One person pointed out that these places are intentionally inclusive. Adriel added that this begins with individuals intentionally cultivating diversity in their own networks.

Someone commented that key players were absent from the conversation. "Where are the police officers, developers, and politicians, the people that affect our lives in huge ways?"

Tuesday night was a great starting point for a conversation that needs to continue. "Cities are living, growing, changing things," said one audience member. A key takeaway from this event? It's important to make sure those changes, and that growth, are just and include everyone in Detroit.

Matthew Lewis is project editor for the Blue Economy series series, which alternates monthly in Model D and sister publication Metromode. He also reports on speaker series events for Model D.

Photos by Walter Wasacz
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