Work Together to Build a Better Detroit

Citizen Detroit offers residents the opportunity to understand the complexity of governing

Sandra Svoboda


Stephen Henderson:

I went to a meeting held by Citizen Detroit, which is former city councilwoman Sheila Cockrel’s effort to put Detroiters through decision-making exercises designed to increase their understanding of complex public governance and finance questions.


Citizen Detroit arms regular Detroiters with facts and other information about budgets, about the process of governing. Then lets them choose their own path, alongside their neighbors.


Last night, the subject was the plan, coming out of bankruptcy, to restore a better mix of city services in Detroit neighborhoods.


Citizen Detroit staged a recreation of a portion of the bankruptcy trial. I played Judge Steven Rhodes. WDET Bankruptcy Reporter Sandra Svoboda played the expert hired to assess the plans, to explain exactly what was promised after bankruptcy and whether it would work.


And then the citizens were set out on their own, grouped by city council district, to discuss how they would prioritize the action items. More police coverage or better street lighting? Lower insurance or better maintained parks and recreation centers?


There were about 60 participants, from neighborhoods all over the city, representing a pretty wide age range..


They came up with some predictable outcomes (everyone wants lower crime and quicker police response time), and some not-so-predictable: Nearly every group was big on government transparency and the need to increase the caliber of candidates for elected offices.


But more than any one decision, what stood out was the process; the earnestness and vigor with which neighbors worked through a complex set of problems and dense information to come up with ways to make their city better.


Get involved. Work together. Talk to each other.


Bankruptcy and elections and political activity are all very important. But the nuts and bolts of turning this city around, of turning neighborhoods around, is centered around ground-level activity, involving ordinary citizens.


That’s the whole conceit behind Citizen Detroit. It was on magnificent display last night. Anyone who cares about the future of this city, whether you live here or not, should be inspired by that individual, ordinary drive. That willingness not just to identify our problems, but to work at the most basic level on real solutions.


Toward the end of last night’s meeting, a 75-year-old woman stood to talk about her group’s priorities for her neighborhood in northwest Detroit. She talked about the city-owned house across the street from her, the one she can never get them to tear down. She talked about how her children, now adults, won’t live in Detroit, and don’t want her to stay, either.


Then she said, – “But I ain’t goin’ nowhere’. I ain’t never leavin’.” Her statement was as much about the fervent resolve to fix things as it was to stay.


As long as the city keeps people like that, there’s a chance to make things better. There’s hope.


If you want to find more information about Citizen Detroit, you can go to their website at FOCIS. And you can listen to my March 23 interview with Sheila Cockrel, the founder of Citizen Detroit.

Views expressed in Stephen Henderson’s commentary are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of WDET, its management or the station licensee, Wayne State University.


  • Stephen Henderson
    Stephen Henderson is host of Detroit Today and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. He is Executive Editor of BridgeDetroit and host of American Black Journal on Detroit Public Television.