North End

3 takeaways from Urban Consulate discussion on how new residents can honor black communities

The North End is an area that's been attracting increased interest from developers and new homeowners. In recent years, the volunteer-based Michigan Urban Farming Initiative was founded, the development firm The Platform has bought and renovated several buildings, and many residents anecdotally talk about more homeowners and resources making their way to the neighborhood. 

What's the uniting factor to these trends? Many of the newcomers are white, moving into a neighborhood that has for decades been almost exclusively black.

As part of our coverage in the North End for the On the Ground series, we've been particularly interested in how longtime residents feel about the changing demographics of their neighborhood. And that's why we co-sponsored a recent discussion at the Urban Consulate which considered the question, "How can white people assimilate into black communities with respect and honor?"

The talk was facilitated by Yodit Mesfin Johnson, Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of Strategy for NEW: Solutions for Nonprofits, who's done a lot of work with organizations in the North End. 

The discussion covered a lot of ground—much more than in this brief recap—and we urge everyone to watch the live feed of the event. But here are three takeaways that we felt were especially important.

A packed house for the event

1. Honor the people who've been there

Johnson wore a shirt that said "Honor The Ancestors." It was also something she spoke about repeatedly throughout the event. 

Johnson began by telling a story about a conversation she had with Shirley Davis, a North End resident who's been there for decades. According to Johnson, Davis told her, "I don't have a problem that white people are showing up here, I have a problem with how they're showing up here." 

"Folks don't realize that organizations have been there, without resources, talent, financing, volunteers, land," Johnson continued. "Then when white folks show up, and resources often come along with them. Don't you think there's tension in that?"

It's important not to enter a neighborhood and institute your vision. Instead come with respect and deference, acknowledging the work and value of others. A savior complex is the worst kind of mentality to bring to a new place. 

Several development trends in Detroit worry her, like the attempt to rename buildings, corridors, or entire neighborhoods (ironically, the conversation took place in Midtown, formerly known as the Cass Corridor).  And she thinks that white people too often co-op the cultural value of a place for monetary gain. "Places that were precious and sacred, cultural centers and meccas, have become spaces of gaze."

2. Understand the meaning of privilege

Money is power. And the simple, unfortunate reality is that white people have more of it. "In 2007, the average black family had a net worth that was one-tenth of a white family. By 2011, that number had dropped to one-sixteenth," Johnson said. 

Therefore it's easier for white people to get things done. It's easier for them to buy property, to renovate, to leverage their networks. So when entering a black space, acknowledge those asymmetrical power dynamics. 

"You've gotta be willing to share power and resources," Johnson said. "Those of you who have class power and privilege, share it. Say, 'This position deserves to be filled by someone who reflects that community."

3. Invest in relationships

Johnson's own upbringing gives her hope. She grew up near the corner of Glastonbury Road and Pembroke Avenue in northwest Detroit during a time when there was much more neighborhood racial diversity. "The remaining white families in 70s and 80s were our friends and neighbors," she said.

She then asked attendees to think about their "Trusted 10"—the 10 people you'd call in an emergency or when you needed a big favor. 

"What you'll find," she said, "is that they're mostly like you. Why does that matter? Because our networks have become increasingly homogenous."

The work of expanding those networks is simple, but requires conscientious effort. And it's absolutely essential to the future of race relations in this city and elsewhere. "If we really want to change, we have to be in relationship with each other," Johnson said. 

But in the end, she is hopeful. "The math is that very few people let each other into their inner circle. But I don't buy into that. You showed up tonight because you're curious about what you can do."

Model D co-sponsored this talk with the Urban Consulate, a network of parlors for urban exchange and conversations. 

This article is part of the "On the Ground" series, where a journalist is embedded in a neighborhood for three months to provide regular coverage. Support is provided by the Kresge Foundation

Read more articles by Aaron Mondry.

Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.
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