Detroit Revitalization Fellows: Falling in love with the city again

"My childhood was pretty typical," declares Sarida Scott Montgomery, sharing memories of playing outside with kids from the neighborhood, going to Vacation Bible school, taking the bus downtown for movies, running cross country for the high school team and attending outdoor concerts.  

Nothing surprising about that--until people hear that she grew up in Detroit. 

"Not in the suburbs, but in Detroit," Scott Montgomery says. "First on the East Side and then in Northwest. Then come the same old stereotypes. A lot of people from other places have no concept there’s anything but tough neighborhoods here."

"I didn’t have what some would think of as a typical Detroit upbringing." She says. "My parents are both college educated and did not work in the auto industry." Her father is a psychologist and her mother worked in the city’s planning department. She now lives a block away from her parents with her children and husband, an entrepreneur who runs an IT company.  

Scott Montgomery is Chief Program Officer at Michigan Community Resources, which provides community groups with pro-bono legal and other technical assistance. With her sister and cousin, she also owns Good People Popcorn, which sells ten flavors of gourmet popcorn (including chocolate drizzle and cinnamon) in a downtown shop and online. 

"I’m a city girl. I chose not to live in the suburbs and I am happy that my daughter will be a city girl," she says. "We have a membership at the DIA, go to Eastern Market on Saturday mornings and play at Belle Isle in the summer. We go skating at Campus Martius. We walk on the Riverwalk."

But Scott Montgomery did not always plan on staying in Detroit. After an engineering degree from the University of Michigan she earned a law degree at Berkeley. "I took a job back here just as a pit stop while I looked for work on the East Coast. But then I fell in love."

In the process she also fell in love with Detroit again. "Our first date was at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, said to be the oldest jazz club in America. Our wedding reception was at Belle Isle."

She never looked back. "I saw the kinds of places my friends lived in New York and Washington D.C. while I had this beautiful apartment here in West Village. Once I decided to stay I tapped into the art community and made a lot of new friends."

She worked with the city of Detroit as an assistant corporation counsel and with the Legal Aid and Defender Association helping abused children before joining Michigan Community Resources in 2006. Last year she was named a Detroit Revitalization Fellow--a Wayne State University project (funded by the Kresge FoundationFord FoundationHudson-Webber FoundationSkillman Foundation and Wayne State University) that matches rising professionals with organizations working at the forefront of Detroit revitalization efforts.  

At first, Scott Montgomery was interviewing potential fellows for the program but "the funders had the idea that Sarida would be a good Fellow candidate herself," explains Michigan Community Resources CEO Heidi Alcock, who says the Fellows program has made Scott Montgomery even more valuable to the organization. "What is very impressive is her development in thinking about how we fit into the overall Detroit system (since becoming a Fellow)" Alcock notes. "She’s a wonderful partner in this work."

While Michigan Community Resources (which recently changed its name from Community Legal Resources to better reflect its expanding scope of work) serves the whole state, much of its work is based in Detroit. Scott Montgomery oversees all their programming, including legal and policy assistance, education, outreach and technical planning to empower community groups that serve low-income individuals and neighborhoods. Michigan Community Resources is also involved in the long-term community engagement process of the Detroit Works project--a city-led exploration of planning options for the 21st Century.  

"We recognize that Detroit has lost a significant part of its population," Scott Montgomery says. "We need to decide what we want the Detroit of the future to look like. It’s easy to inflame people about the idea of shrinking Detroit, but what’s important is to talk about the issues."

This fits with her overall vision for the city. "I tell people to look at what’s missing in Detroit and see that as an opportunity to make things happen, not a deficit."

But she cautions that a full-scale transformation of Detroit will depend on overcoming the inadequacies of the school system.  "The dominance of the auto industry lulled us into ignoring the importance of education. As a region, we still don’t place a high value on education."

She believes that improving education is also central to healing Detroit’s legacy of racial tension. "Education means exposure to different people and different ideas, which makes you more open to everybody. That really affects the dynamics of racial relations."

Looking forward to Detroit in the year 2032, Scott Montgomery sees "small businesses sustaining the economy, not just the one big industry like the past. There will be more emphasis on entrepreneurship. It will be a more diverse city in many ways."  

Jay Walljasper, author of The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, is a Senior Associate with Citiscope and Senior Fellow with Project for Public Spaces. 
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