5 takeaways from Model D's ReImagining Equitable Development event

Model D wrapped up our series on Equitable Development this past Saturday with a special event at Marygrove College called ReImagining Equitable Development. The day featured a mix of discussion and activities aimed at sparking productive dialogue about development and building skills related to getting better community benefits outcomes for local residents and stakeholders.

John Goldstein, founder of the activist network Coalitions, Campaigns and Community Benefits (COCACOM), kicked off the gathering that morning with a keynote speech looking at the struggles and successes of the community benefits movement from a national perspective.

After that, participants engaged in a special board game designed by the nonprofit Doing Development Differently in Metro Detroit (D4) that encouraged them to take on the role of a local developer. Different players worked together in teams to build their own developments, making decisions with investment chips and responding to chance cards to see who could accrue the most profits and community benefits.

D4's Sam Butler then moderated a panel discussion featuring former Detroit council person and Citizen Detroit CEO Sheila Cockrel, Live6 Alliance founding director and Detroit City Planning Commission member Lauren Hood, IBEW Local 58 business representative Byron Osbern, and Invest Detroit Senior Vice President of Lending Tosha Tabron. The day’s activities were rounded out by breakout sessions workshops on community-controlled funds and job training/local hiring, followed by closing remarks by Lauren Hood.

Here are five lessons about community benefits organizing we learned from the event:

Tosha Tabron, pictured with microphone.
1. Focus on community needs

During the panel discussion, Tabron remarked she feels there’s stigma around doing development in Detroit that often hinders people from enjoying its benefits. Embracing a position of engagement, she highlighted the importance of focusing on outcomes.

"We all want development, [but the issue is] how it looks in your neighborhood," she said. "You want your neighborhood to be reinvested in but in a way that is conducive to what the community is looking for."

Participants raise their hands during the day's keynote address,
2. Raise expectations

When it comes to negotiations, you don't get what you don't ask for. At the event, Hood emphasized the importance of raising expectations.

"Sometimes I think the bars are set really low for what people think they can get," she said. This is especially true for newer organizers who worry that asking for too much might derail a project.

"If you're at the point where you're having conversations with the developer, it's going to happen," she added. "So people need to stop backing down. Ask for everything!"

John Goldstein

3. Find a champion

Passionate leadership is a common denominator that Goldstein has found again and again in successful community benefits campaigns.

"There needs to be a champion leading the work. Someone who believes you can recruit whatever number of people is needed and will go out and defend the program," he says. "Unfortunately it doesn't happen a lot. And without a champion these programs really don't generally work."

Sheila Cockrel, pictured speaking with microphone.

4. Make use of leverage

Context is everything. When Cockrel was growing up, the city of Detroit declared Corktown a slum. In fact, at the time, her activist parents were involved with a community struggle just to preserve the neighborhood. Nowadays, market values in Corktown are way up. So neighborhood residents negotiating for community benefits with Ford over their new R&D campus at Michigan Central Station have a lot more bargaining power.

"When you have something of value, you have more power to negotiate what you want in that area," says Cockrel. "People in Corktown now have some serious leverage."

ReImagning Equitable Development participants play a development-related board game.

5. Think outside of the box

The importance of being creative with organizing is something Goldstein stressed during his keynote. The most memorable example he gave had to do with a community benefits agreement centered around a new cancer center being built in New Haven, Connecticut.

 "The way they got the community engaged was by getting a list of every person who owed medical debt to the Yale New Haven Hospital," he said. "They knocked on every one of those doors and made debt forgiveness part of the community benefits agreement. That created a huge amount of energy around that community."

This article is part of our Equitable Development series, in partnership with Doing Development Differently in Metro Detroit, where we explore issues and stories on growing Detroit in a way that allows people from all races, classes, and abilities to participate and benefit. Read more articles in the series here

Support for this series is provided by the Knight Foundation, Knight Fund at the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, and W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

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Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.