Talking Race

Shirley Stancato is not afraid to play bad cop. When people try to change the subject to squirm out of tough conversations on race, she reels them back in.

"That other stuff is easier to talk about," she says. "When you deal with your own personal experiences and personal feelings around race, that's really letting people into a place that's not normal and not natural. But it's just the most amazing way to develop relationships that I've ever seen."

Stancato is the head of New Detroit, an organization born after the 1967 riots, at the request of Gov. George Romney, Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, and business leader Joseph L. Hudson Jr. For nearly four decades, the group has been building tough relationships, driving a conversation about race relations in the city that challenges government and business leaders to work together and make changes.

Now Stancato and New Detroit are planning the group's first Leadership Summit on Race. Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, as well as other business leaders, community leaders and religious leaders will converge in the city to discuss how to better break down racial barriers in the community.

Stancato's amassed a list of national leaders — people who've had success overcoming such barriers — to help spur the conversations and bring real solutions to the table. The event will be Oct. 8-10.

She sat down with Model D to discuss how overcoming racial barriers is key to fostering regional development.

Model D: The world is getting smaller, we know. And creating understanding among races is important to our future economic development as a region.

Shirley Stancato: We're in a global society. It's no longer just here on these shores. Because of that, you need to understand the issue of race.

It is quite possible now you could go interview with DaimlerChrysler, here, and wind up working in China – somewhere else in the world. And from that perspective you need to start understanding other cultures, other races, and that understanding is really going to bring us closer together.

MD: And the city proper, you can no longer think of it as black and white. Everybody's here now.

SS: While we have this dubious distinction of being the most segregated community in the U.S., we are much more diverse now as of the 2000 Census than we were 10 years before. You know we have the largest concentration of Arabs outside the Middle East. We have a large Bangladeshi population over around Hamtramck, and a large Hmong population in northeast Detroit. Clearly we're African-American, and the Latino population is growing in Southwest Detroit, by as much as 50 percent. We're very diverse.

People talk about the population of Detroit being 84 or 85 percent African-American, but the African Americans move who move from Detroit move to Macomb County move to Oakland County. Macomb County in the last five years has had an 87 percent increase in African Americans, and Oakland County has had a large increase in African Americans and people of color.

MD: Race becomes a part of everything we talk about in Detroit, including economic development in the region. But it's not a discussion that people always like to have.

SS: They don't want to have it. They are afraid of it. What we've learned is you have to deal with it, and in a no-fault environment. In other words, we don't blame people. We focus on the issues. And our role here at New Detroit is around changing policies and institutions, and so that's long-term.

But the first step is in developing relationships, and in order to develop relationships you have to have conversations. …
MD: That's where your leadership summit comes in.

SS: We have to really demonstrate to people that leadership is doing this. These are the individuals who have the power, the authority and the ability to change the things that we need to change.

MD: How is racial prejudice an obstacle to redevelopment?

SS: I hear people say all the time, 'Oh, it's not race anymore, it's economics.' It's not either, it's both-and. If you look at any category — for example, 2001 the average net worth of a white person was $120,000, of an African American it was about $19,000 and a Latino was about $11,000 … If you look at home ownership, for whites it is about 76 percent, for African Americans it is about 48 percent, and for Latinos it is about 45 percent … I can go on.

So if people say economics, yeah, it is economics. But when you can measure the disparity by race, it is about race.

Our focus at New Detroit is on changing those institutional policies that help to widen the gap.

MD: So what are the solutions? What can be done?

SS: That's what this summit is about. We are bringing people to the summit and we are saying to them, 'We want you to talk about a solution that you've been instrumental in implementing around the issue of race, but within the context of economics and education.

So for example, Mitt Romney, the governor of Massachusetts. We're asking him to come and talk about how he built a multiracial, multipolitical coalition to be able to implement health care for the state of Massachusetts and help close a gap there. …

Herb Kelleher who is the chairman of Southwest Airlines. When we talked to Herb, he said, 'I don't know why you want me to come. All I did was go out and hire the best people.' We said, 'That's what we want you to say – that your staff looks like America, and you have been successful.' For 32 consecutive years they've been profitable.

MD: What's going to happen at the summit?

SS: We are going to get these leaders together, dialogue is going to be the key, but we are going to work on an action plan that we can use in this community.

MD: Especially when you talk about race, it seems to be of utmost importance to be authentic. People see through the B.S. pretty easily.

SS: Especially younger people, too. You can't do this kind of work and beat around the bush. You have to be honest, you have to be direct, and you have to be authentic, because if you aren't you'll fall flat on your face. And I think people are looking for places where they can participate in discussions on race and be authentic.

Shirley Stancato Photos and 8 Mile Road Sign Photo Copyright Dave Krieger

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