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Yearlong Project Will Seek Feedback on What Detroit’s Black Residents Need to Thrive

Crain’s Detroit Business
Sherri Welch

Feb. 3, 2022

A yearlong formal effort to collect feedback on what Detroit’s Black residents need to thrive is taking shape.

The goal of the Detroit Thriving Index project is to inform development, city planning, and philanthropy in the neighborhoods, said Lauren Hood, founder and director of the Institute of AfroUrbanism, the newly formed nonprofit leading the research effort.

The project has attracted more than $500,000 in early support from major foundations toward a $1 million goal to fund the study. It will seek feedback from Black residents in the 10 areas that are part of Detroit’s Strategic Neighborhood Fund, along with the North End, where there is also development happening and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is focusing grants.

“People are certainly on alert that things are happening in their neighborhood, and there’s outside interest,” Hood said.

They want things to happen, but when the interest comes from outside, it creates anxiety, she said. “Those are the places where I think it’s important to look at what people are feeling and what they need.”

Feedback from residents has often been considered anecdotal or one-offs, said Hood, who chairs the Detroit Planning Commission, led the Live6Alliance in Detroit from 2015-17 and has a master’s degree in community development from the University of Detroit Mercy.

The index will validate what people are saying so it can’t be dismissed, she said.

“At the core of this is just understanding the whole story is not told by unemployment numbers or housing values,” she said. “Feedback from citizens on how they are experiencing all this change is also needed.”

Launching a network

Hood launched the Institute of AfroUrbanism, a think tank and action lab focused on the intersection of racial justice and community planning, last spring with a $125,000 grant from the New York-based Ford Foundation. She has been developing plans for the “Black Thriving Index” since then.

Detroit Mercy is serving as the institute’s fiduciary while it waits for nonprofit status approval from the Internal Revenue Service.

To date, the Black Thriving Index project has attracted an additional $375,000 commitment from the Ford Foundation and a $175,000 grant from the Skillman Foundation.

“We believe that the Institute will move us beyond the traditional approaches to urbanism and will act as a platform at the University of Detroit Mercy for Black Detroiters to share their lived experiences, ideas, and solutions for revitalizing their own communities,” said Kevin Ryan, Detroit senior program officer for the Ford Foundation. “The Institute’s work fits our strategy to advance equity by ensuring that Black Detroiters have a voice in shaping community development priorities in the city.”

Talks are also underway with Boys & Girls Clubs of Southeastern Michigan, which is looking at a comprehensive partnership that supports AfroUrbanism with space through nonprofit incubator Ponyride, workforce development talent through its Industry Clubs and additional financial support, Chief Executive Officer Shawn Wilson said.

Hood has set an early goal to capture feedback from about 2,000 residents in the target neighborhoods.

She is working with a pair of graduate students from her alma mater, the University of Detroit Mercy’s School of Architecture and Community Development, to conduct research and develop the index.

As part of the project, the institute will hire a trusted resident “fellow” with strong relationships in each of the target neighborhoods.

“Instead of it being an academic or nonprofit practitioner, the thinking is you get more authentic input when people are talking to people they know already,” Hood said.

Each fellow will receive a $40,000 salary and an additional $10,000 for supplies and other costs, including an Ancestry.com subscription. Analysis of their background will be included in the curriculum for the fellows, Hood said.

“It’s part of holistic education. In addition to them studying Black thriving, I’m trying to activate Black thriving in them, too,” she said.

Fellows will go through education on Black thriving communities globally and training in research methodology so they know exactly how to interview the people, Hood said.

Updating the index

She’s working with an independent researcher and plans to seek a Detroit Mercy research partner, as well, to develop interview questions. They are likely to include residents to share times in their lives when they felt they or their community were thriving or a time when they did something that had a benefit on someone else, she said.

“In all of my community development teaching, the only time Black (residents were) mentioned was in the context of subsidized housing,” Hood said. “Communities where Black people were thriving, like Paradise Valley in Detroit … weren’t part of my community development studies.”

Traditional community development teaching focuses on what a neighborhood needs, whether a certain number of parks, religious organizations or something else, Hood said. But she’s focusing on what Black people, specifically, need to thrive in terms of relationships, networks and social supports and studying places like Paradise Valley that have thrived in the past.

“What Black people and White people need in order to thrive is different,” Hood said.

Everyone needs the basics of food, shelter and safety. But Black people need their culture reflected back to them, with positive examples of leaders who look like them, she said.

Hood is conducting the first 50 interviews and expects to release the results of those in March.

“We will come up with a hypothesis of what the standard conditions and criteria will be and then go city-wide for the next year,” she said.

Hood said the plan is to replicate the index again after the first year to track changing responses in the neighborhoods. She’s consulting with other data groups like Detroit Future City and Data Driven Detroit to determine how frequently the index should be done.

Beyond gathering current feedback from real people living in the neighborhoods, the report might be a good basis for conversations on what Black residents want in terms of reparations, Hood said.

“Part of these conversations is to help people flex their asking muscle,” she said.

Especially when there’s a community benefits agreement with developers, residents don’t ask for enough, Hood said.

When residents are asked what they want, “if they haven’t been primed to think about it or are stuck in survival mode, their responses don’t give all that is possible,” she said.

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