Back to Detroit: Roland Leggett works to bring progressives together

After leaving Wayne State, Roland Leggett was burned out from juggling school, work and internships. So, he moved to Chicago for the summer to decompress, but he wound up staying for four years.

Chicago is like a huge vacuum sucking the young and talented right out of Southeast Michigan. While our regional leadership fumbles for an off-switch, they should pay attention to people like Leggett. He came back, you see. He missed us.

"Frankly, before I moved, I was involved in some interesting things going on in the city," he says, as we sit down for coffee and sandwiches at Avalon International Breads in Midtown, near his office. "I sort of put those aside when I moved to Chicago, but I missed them. I missed WDET, I missed Detroit Summer, I missed Back Alley Bikes, the things that are unique to Detroit."

Detroit could do well to bring back more "boomerangers" like Leggett. The 28-year-old Hubbard Farms resident is a field organizer for the ACLU of Michigan, and is hell bent on bringing together young progressive people. He sees a wide progressive population in the city, but a population weakened because it hasn't found a way to come together.

Leggett will be a speaker at Model D's speaker series Feb. 25 at the Majestic Theatre. Sign up here to attend the free event. He'll be on a panel discussing what young Detroiters want from their city, and how the city can embrace its diversity to be a place to which his expat peers in Chicago would consider coming back.

So we asked him for a quick preview. Amid the din of the bakery and coffee shop, which is always buzzing mid-afternoon, Leggett talks about his job, the city, and his favorite Detroit haunts.

Model D: First, can you tell us about your event, March 10 at the MOCAD.

Roland Leggett: When I first came to work at the ACLU, one of the things that I recognized we needed to work on was engaging a younger audience. There's a progressive, advocacy-based infrastructure here in this city, and we hadn't tapped into that.

So, this year we are having our 50th anniversary for the state organization, and we are having a series of legacy lectures that deal with traditional ACLU issue as well as things that are not traditional. In March, Dustin Lance Black is coming. He's the screenwriter for Milk, Big Love and several other things. He's quite the outspoken LGBT advocate. He's talking about building inclusive communities, and making the tradition from artist to activist. It's our hope that through this lecture it's going to be our catalyst to start that dialogue with that progressive infrastructure here in the state and the city that we haven't met yet.

MD: A lot of people may not perceive Detroit or Michigan as being progressive because of various, ahem, legislation, and overall attitudes here. Do you think that's accurate?

RL: It's a little complicated. What happens in Detroit legislatively, and as far the city government, is very different from what happens on the state level. In reality, when we talk about progressive social agenda, Detroit is far ahead of the state legislature. There's a city ordinance that gives protection to LGBT individuals, and of course we all know how much state protection LGBT individuals have. Of course we all know how Detroit has issues, too.

There are a lot of progressive people in the city, ... but sometimes we have a difficult time coming together to see one particular goal happen. That can happen: Council by districts -- that's a really great example of the progressive community really working with other organizations, building a coalition and getting this thing passed.

MD: You grew up in Auburn Hills, how did you get interested in the city?

RL: My real interest in the city began with my grandmother. Her house is on Edison, so in the summertime I would come down and spend the summer with her. ...

I was really fortunate. My family wanted me to experience different things, so I went to all the museums and aquariums and state fairs. My favorite thing to do was to go with my grandma and get a loaf and bread and go to Belle Isle and feed the seagulls. So all that money spent -- thanks Mom and Dad -- but a loaf of bread is what really did it for me.

MD: What inspired to come here and move back to Detroit? You can say family. A lot of people do. I did.

RL: I did miss my family. I am a mama's boy. But my family is actually going to be moving to Florida in a few years. ... Living in Chicago, I volunteered on and off, but when I worked for Obama for America, it really whetted my appetite for organizing. I couldn't think of anywhere else I'd rather be, in that capacity, than in Detroit.

One thing I love about the city so much is that -- it is a good place to make your mark. You have unlimited potential for innovation here. If you are dedicated, if you are responsible, and if you are thoughtful in the way you plan things, you can make such incredible things happen here. There are such interesting things that happen here on a daily basis.

MD: What do you love about your neighborhood in Southwest Detroit?

RL: My neighbors are awesome, but the food is awesome. There are some crazy bakeries over there. But on a serious note ...

MD: Oh, food is serious. Keep talking. What bakeries do you love?

RL: I love Sheila's, and actually Mexicantown Bakery is awesome, too. Sheila's (2142 Springwells) is my place. It's so good. I don't know what it's called, but they have these little doughnut scone things. It's so good.

MD: And those neighbors?

RL: Southwest Detroit does a really great job of getting people together under the umbrella of making the community better. They have a great listserv over there. They are great at community events over there. They have a lot of social justice programming over there. There's a lot of stuff that deals with immigration, health care, education there.

MD: I found being away for a few years and then coming back, I saw a whole different city. Is that your experience, too, or do you think you saw things from a different point of view?

RL: I think it's really easy to be dismissive of Detroit especially when you are from here originally. In reality if you are from here and you are from the suburbs a lot of times you are raised on this negative idea. So the opposite of that is that every other city is like this utopia: New York is like heaven. L.A. is like heaven. No, I don't think L.A. is like heaven, but some people do. (He laughs.) Those other major cities, there's nothing wrong with them. But certainly when you move there, you get to see the reality of that.

Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey is the editor of Model D. Send feedback here.

Dustin Lance Black will be speaking at MOCAD, March 10. Tickets are $30 for ACLU members, $40 for non-members, $15 for students, and $100 for VIPs. For more details, click here.
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