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The Power of Conversation

Cohesion requires difficult dialogue

By Sandy Baruah

Page 4

Gentrification. Inclusion. The UAW. These are not topics typically embraced by a business organization, paid for by business to address business issues. In fact, some would argue there is simply too much risk delving into these issues. Yet over the past five years, that’s exactly the type of thought-provoking content the Detroit Regional Chamber has brought to our members and the entire state via both the Detroit Policy Conference and Mackinac Policy Conference.

This is our role as an organization serving business in the most populous, diverse and economically dynamic region of Michigan. It is up to us to host the difficult conversations needed to move our state forward. Using conferences at Detroit and Mackinac, two of the state’s most prominent policy forums, our organization can elevate issues and convene people who are essential to translating that conversation into action and results.

At February’s Detroit Policy Conference, former Mayor Dave Bing delivered provocative remarks about inclusion of African-Americans in the city’s recovery as well as his concern about racial tensions. Some nodded in agreement. Others were infuriated or saw it as unnecessarily divisive. But there’s little doubt everyone left thinking about what he said.

Whether you agree with the former mayor or not, it reflects a perception that is real and shared by some in our community, and that makes it worth exploring. His comments served as part of the dialogue from our event – entirely focused on the neighborhoods – which continued the next morning on WJR and through the rest of the week on television news, as well as media outlets throughout the region.

Much like our continued conversations at previous events about economic inclusion and “uniting two Detroits,” not everyone agreed. Not everyone was happy. But that’s a good thing, unanimous agreement is uncommon, and can be blinding. However, difficult conversations that are fair and include the entire community can build trust and strengthen relationships. They are also central to collaboration and will be critical to ensuring the opportunity realized downtown and midtown reaches the rest of the city.

Figuring out how those in underserved neighborhoods have the opportunity to participate in our economy is a monumental challenge. Mayor Duggan is demonstrating exemplary leadership in his efforts to grow Detroit’s neighborhoods. That growth holds the key to the future of the city and region where our members work, live and play. It cannot be achieved by one conference, leader, organization or community. It is going to take a cohesive regional effort with a commitment to the same basic long-term vision: An inclusive city of Detroit.

That will not come without having the honest, difficult, intentional and inclusive conversation followed by action. Understanding issues of race, gentrification and social unrest can help the region cohesively work through these issues, particularly as the 50th anniversary of 1967 approaches. That will require hard work and a certain level of discomfort but it is necessary to move forward.

However enjoyable Conference attendees found David Maraniss’ keynote remarks about 1963 and “Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story,” we don’t want him back here speaking about a sequel on the missed opportunities in post-bankruptcy Detroit. He has enough best-sellers.

Let’s write Detroit’s next historic chapter together – and not forget, it’ll be more prosperous if it includes everyone.

Sandy Baruah is president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber.