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Opinion: Want to solve Detroit's problems? Look to (and invest in) city residents

Pamela Lewis

For many of their residents, the cities of Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park can be challenging places to live. For more than 60 years, these cities have struggled with declining populations and tax revenues, resulting in corresponding declines in core services upon which they depend. 

But in the face of immense challenges, residents refuse to give up. Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park remain cities of ingenuity because their greatest assets—residents—continue to build a better future for the places they call home. Not waiting for saviors, they have been enacting their own ideas and innovative projects to improve the health, safety, and economic vitality of their neighborhoods. 

And while these homegrown innovators can't solve all of their communities' problems on their own, supporting them and their ideas, rather than imposing top-down strategies, will ensure that revitalization efforts in the city are just and lasting.

In addition, these innovators have lessons to share not only with peers across Detroit, but also with people in other cities around the country. They have become experts through experience, and deserve attention, celebration, and investment. 

Take Shamayim "Mama Shu" Harris and Jackson Koeppel, residents of Highland Park who refused to accept conditions of blight and inadequate street lighting in their neighborhoods and respectively launched two initiatives, Avalon Village and Soulardarity, to address these challenges.

Or take Ezekiel Harris, who, along with neighbors and fellow members of his faith community on Detroit's east side, are working to revitalize the long-neglected commercial corridor on Mack Avenue by building out and opening The Commons, a gathering place for residents that will feature a coffee shop and laundromat. 

Examples of resident innovators like Shu, Jackson, and Ezekiel can be found throughout Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park, though they may not be immediately visible. That's why we at the New Economy Initiative (NEI) partnered with Issue Media Group, publisher of Model D, to share stories of innovators from across those cities who are working in, with, and for their communities to build the future they want to see. We're also launching our own platform, DetroitInnovation.org, to collect these stories in one place. 

Through this storytelling platform, we hope to learn more about what these innovators need to further their ideas for their neighborhoods. Funding, of course, will be part of this. But so too will providing them with exposure to counterparts across the city and country, as well as opportunities to learn from experts.

Since 2007, NEI has been working toward its mission to create an inclusive, innovative culture in southeast Michigan by building a network of support for entrepreneurs of all kinds. Elevating the stories of resident innovators is the latest extension of this mission, and we look forward to sharing those with you.

Pamela Lewis is director of the New Economy Initiative. Follow her on Twitter @PamintheDLewis.

Read more stories of Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park innovators making change in their communities at DetroitInnovation.org.
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