Angry. Impatient. Frustrated. Excited. Non-trusting. Hopeful. Inspired. Enthusiastic.
These were some of the answers shouted from the 200-person crowd at Eastern Market during last Thursday’s Better Arguments Project discussion when speaker Jennifer Jones-Clark asked, “How do you feel about changes happening in Detroit?”
Jones-Clark is a program consultant for the international nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves. It is partnering with the Aspen Institute and the Allstate Corporation to encourage Americans to engage in more productive dialogue about core American ideals through the Better Arguments program.
In the case of Detroit, the focus, driven by local partner Urban Consulate, was to delve thoughtfully into how participants felt about Detroit’s evolution and to talk about the arguments they’re hearing or having related to the place of newcomers and longtimers.
“Detroit is a great American city that embodies the opportunities, challenges, and arguments that shape civic life — especially the tensions between longtimers and newcomers,” said Eric Liu, executive director of the Citizenship and American Identity Program at the Aspen Institute. “Those tensions are about race, class, place, and respect and because the style in Detroit is to get real. … We thought it’d be a great location to invite people into better arguments.”
The morning involved a structured program of remarks, including a spoken piece by writer and Detroitist Marsha Music and a panel discussion moderated by Liu that looked at stereotyping and how a better argument would be one in which we face history and ourselves. Liu asked panelists to weigh in on how to have a better argument.
African American panelist Lauren Hood, a longtime Detroiter who heads up her consultancy Deep Dive Detroit, said, “Enter from a space of self-awareness. Be mindful of your own biases. You have to know yourself and not be afraid of what your biases are.”
Jacob Evan Smith, a newcomer, said to not view people’s skepticism personally. “Know there are legitimate reasons their guard is up.” Coming from a light-skin Jew who is viewed as a white guy, even though he is part of a marginalized community, his response was empathic.
Following the remarks and panel, a healthy chunk of the morning was carved out for guided table discussions. Here, sharing and listening, chances to offer advice or be corrected, were the focus.
But first, participants were schooled on the principles of a Better Argument: 1) take winning off the table, 2) be present and listen to learn, 3) connect and respect, 4) be honest and welcome honesty from others, and 5) make space for new ideas and room to transform.
Around tables, individuals shared the false narratives they hear from others about Detroit, like how now prospering neighborhoods are still seen as locations of rampant crime and unsavory activity or how whites are the only people who like craft cocktails or Shinola watches.
Still, there was a sense of hope for many. “I mostly feel excited when talking about how Detroit is changing because a majority of people, both newcomers and longtimers, have good intentions,” says Smith.
Stereotypes are often perpetuated through stories, and many participants noted that they are are still living those stories. Ian McCain, a young white man who works at TechTown Detroit, spoke of how a fellow resident at Lafayette Towers greeted him and noted that McCain was the one always walking in with Whole Foods bags. In reality, McCain frequents other local grocers more regularly. McCain said, “He thought, ‘As a young white newcomer, of course you shop at Whole Foods.’”
A mixture of perceptions emerged about economic development, but it was clear that many believed that those with privilege and power have a responsibility to invite all to the table and find ways to share in ownership and prosperity. “It’s an injustice that change is happening that only serves a few when the poverty rate is approaching 40 percent,” said Hood. “A lot of the rooms I go into, the people are somber. They’ve forgotten their self-worth.”
Event participants, with their varying histories and emotions, were clearly engaged in better arguments, as attested by the growing din of the room.
“Everyone in this room of all ages and races and histories was willing to engage in arguments and discussions not in order to win but in order to understand,” said Liu. “When you do that, a space for a new possible opens up. Trust begets trust, even if hard things are being said. I was surprised how readily people got to that honest but open place.”
They not only spoke with passion at their table discussions and challenged each other, but also challenged the format of the event, and even the language used to present information. But in the end, the internal activists in many prevailed, and some left inspired to do more.
“It’s time for conversations to reach out to everyday people, the people we don’t normally see. We need to encourage more conversations with people who don’t have a ‘name’ or access,” said Aaron Foley, an African American man who works for the City of Detroit and is a longtime resident. “How do we open up the circle?”
Said Hood, “I came in thinking that people are tired of these conversations. I’m leaving thinking there is room to convene more people about these topics.”
Laura Tavares from Facing History and Ourselves said that the Better Arguments Project had not done an event of this scale before (most are 20 people or so). “This is our first really large one, and Detroit was a perfect place to do this. There is an incredible level of engagement and involvement.” Tavares lives in Boston.
“The 300-plus registration is a sign of how invested people in Detroit are in this conversation,” said Tavares. “They were triggered by symbols, the Whole Foods bags, the Shinola watch, but it goes much deeper.”
Previous Better Arguments have taken place in New York City; Dumas, Arkansas; and Anchorage, Alaska. A Denver event is planned for June.
Photos by Valaurian Waller, courtesy of the Aspen Institute.