Equity and Development in metro Detroit

This year’s Mackinac Policy Conference has been particularly useful and engaging (#MPC16). The conference is an annual convening of the political, business, foundation, non-profit, and educational leaders of southeast Michigan to promote dialogue and collaboration, organized by the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce. The program this year focuses primary attention on the real social problems the state faces, and especially the problems faced in metropolitan Detroit.

Key problems facing southeast Michigan include creating equitable economic development bringing economic progress for all sectors of citizens; creating a sustainable solution for the fiscal crisis of the Detroit Public School system; and addressing the facts of racial inequality and disparities in the state in an honest way. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan spoke passionately about the urgent need for the Michigan House of Representatives to pass legislation modeled on the Senate package that adopts most of the recommendations of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren.

Other discussions focused on the urgency of creating tens of thousands of jobs for underserved youth — and the high school and post-secondary programs that help them be job-ready and a valuable source of talent for the businesses who need them. A realistic plan for regional mass transit received a good deal of attention and the Flint water crisis got a lot of discussion as well.

There is a strong sense that the business and corporate leaders of southeast Michigan are “all in” for progress on these key issues. There seems to be much more of an explicit recognition among these leaders that the legacies of poverty, poor schooling, and racial disadvantage are not only the unjust consequences of past discrimination — they are real and measurable drags on the possibilities of economic and social progress in the region in the future. And they make it harder to run a successful business in the state.

We need to build on this emerging consensus and make the case for achieving the “racial disparities dividend” that would result from elimination of the compound disparities that exist around race with respect to education, health, property ownership, and employment in the state.

This high level of agreement about principles is particularly evident in the strong consensus evident in session after session of the crucial importance of high quality K-12 schools in every city, town, and village in the state. This is an essential component of social justice; but it is now also understood to be a crucial component of economic development and growth in the state. The Skillman Foundation has played an outstanding role in attempting to achieve that goal in Detroit, and Coalition co-chair John Rakolta has been an honest, persistent, and passionate voice for legislation implementing the Coalition’s recommendations about how to solve the crisis in the Detroit Public School system.

So there is a lot of passion behind the effort to address the schools crisis. But, as Reverend Wendell Anthony, Jr. said very memorably in a session on the lessons of the 1967 uprising in Detroit, “what matters isn’t the sermon; it’s what you do after the benediction.”

There are powerful voices advocating for real progressive change in metro Detroit on all of these tough challenges. Companies, foundations, universities, and non-profits have reached a high level of shared vision and goals that align for real improvement in quality of life, equality, and economic progress for our region. Organizations and individuals need to work in concert to bring about positive change in these areas. And our elected officials need to help by creating the policy frameworks that will allow progress to take place.

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