Inclusivity & Revitalization speaker series in review

"The core issue is not so much about race as it is about class. You cannot gut the middle class the way it has happened in Detroit and expect things to be okay," said Barbara Murray, Executive Director of AIDS Partnership Michigan. "But there is enormous power in the younger generation." 

Barbara was not a panelist, but her comments were met with a hearty applause from a crowded room at the historic Scarab Club last Wednesday night. 

The topic was "Inclusivity & Revitalization," with a special focus on LGBT leadership and racial equity in Detroit. The program opened with an introduction from Mariam Noland, President of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, which established The HOPE Fund in 1994 to support Detroit's LGBT community. A short film called "Growing Leadership" was screened, followed by a panel discussion.

Among the panelists for the speaker series were Adriel Thornton, of Allied Media Projects and Wink Detroit, Rachel Lutz, owner of The Peacock Room, Elliott Broom with the Detroit Institute of Arts and Michael Perkins with WDET. Desiree Cooper, journalist, founder of Detroit Snob and author of the ongoing LGBT Leaders of Color series served as the moderator. Interested Detroiters and community leaders gathered to listen and share their views on inclusivity and revitalization and the progress Detroit has made in those areas. 

Perkins talked about the need to include marginalized communities in Detroit’s future. “There are powerful people in these communities, but if they don’t feel welcomed in the city, they don’t want to come here. We could be missing out on some real talent," he warned.

Broom, a resident of Midtown Detroit, discussed how Detroit compares with other places. "Other cities have vibrant LGBT communities. In Dallas, it's called the ‘Gayborhood’ and in Chicago there’s Boys Town," he said. "I lived away from Detroit for eight years and when I returned I was disappointed. You have the ‘Detroit Gays’ and the ‘Oakland County Gays,’ and it’s as if the two shall never meet." 

It was agreed that mainstream media can do more to promote LGBT interests -- as well as the city as a viable place to live. But ultimately it comes down to personal responsibility: everyone can support the LGBT community and Detroit in their own ways.

Both Perkins and Broom said they see their professional lives as opportunities to engage the region to discover Detroit’s rich diversity.

"For instance, the DIA set up a booth for Motor City Pride," Broom said with excitement. "I love when people who don’t come to Detroit are invited downtown. It is engaging them and helping them feel as though they are connected and part of something bigger than themselves." 

Thornton suggested that this works both ways. "Be willing to invite non-gay people to whatever it is your doing," he said, and related an experience of how a common interest such as music can draw all types of people together. "We have to not be afraid to engage the straight community." 

Lutz shared how she as a store owner can do her part by giving her customers fair treatment -- like if a male asks to try on women’s clothing. "I can make him feel good and this helps make my environment more welcoming," she said. 

"The media needs to be more open to telling these stories," Lutz continued. "But if you want to see things change in your community, chair an event or join an organization." Lutz has been an LGBT ally and activist for 16 years.

To broaden the perspective, Cooper asked if anyone in the audience felt comfortable sharing a lesbian or transgender point of view. Cassie DeWitt and Preston Van Vliet, two young adult attendees, volunteered and joined the panel. This led to a conversation about the up-and-coming generation and what they can bring to the city. 

New to Detroit, Van Vliet said he felt the youth culture in Detroit is inspiring, especially with the help of groups like Detroit Future Media and Young Brothers United. "I think (these efforts) start bridging the gap and help combine older experiences with new ones," he said. 

Several attendees noted the inter-generational audience and the value of more conversations between different age groups and communities. During the Q&A, long-time residents and advocates shared history about shifting neighborhoods and third places that have evolved over the last few decades.

"I think the LGBT community is going through what every minority group goes through -- the tension between assimilation and maintaining your own cultural identity," said Lutz. "For people who want to be like everyone else, you can end up losing some of yourself."

After the discussion, participants lingered to continue talking outside in the garden while enjoying refreshments from Detroit Vegan Soul, a new catering company started by wives Kirsten Ussery and Erika Boyd, residents of The Villages.

The event was supported by The HOPE Fund of the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan and MSHDA and presented in partnership with Between the Lines, and The Huffington Post.

Leah Johnson is Model D's Development News writer.