Closing Our Common Future in America’s Comeback City

Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, wasn’t the only one in the room at the final plenary session for Our Common Future who had been energized by Detroit. We were closing out a packed, three-day conference, and the room was buzzing.

We listened in on a candid conversation between Walker and Dan Gilbert, chairman and founder of Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans, Inc., the largest private employer in the city of Detroit. Gilbert’s passion for the city, he says, is fueled by the passion of the people around him, an approach to business that has inspired the phrase “for-more-than-profit,” to describe the space he believes Quicken occupies: profit-driven, sure, but also people-driven. “When you give without condition, people will stick around,” he says.

As a real estate developer, Gilbert is literally helping to rebuild the city of Detroit. But how to do that, as a white man in a majority-black town while maintaining a consciousness for the power dynamics of race? “We need to know and spend time in communities,” says Gilbert. “We can’t be the Caucasian Express.”

Gilbert’s four-pillar approach to re-building the city centers on blight, crime, jobs, and education. Blight came first, then crime, then jobs. “The best thing you can do,” says Gilbert, “is bring jobs. Give people a point of entry. And Quicken has—now employing over 3,400 Detroit residents.”

Gilbert is, in many ways, a one-man PR campaign for the city. One of his proudest professional moments, he says, was leading a bid committee for Amazon’s next global headquarters to find its home in Detroit. He’s not alone—a groundswell of Detroiters and supporters across the country are in support.

As part of the campaign, Gilbert shared a compelling video, “Move Here. Move the World” created by local filmmaker, Stephen McGee. Featuring vibrant visuals narrated by the powerful poetry and voice of Jessica Care Moore, another Detroit native. A message of resilience and ingenuity, grit and diversity, bold aspirations and deep history, the video swelled with pride for Detroit.

On his aspirations for the city, Gilbert said, “It doesn’t matter how far or how deep you fall, it’s about getting back up. We’ll be a model for the world.” And in the words of Jessica Care Moore:

Dream chasers built Detroit.
This is the world’s city.
Design here, design the world.
Build here, you’ll build the world.
Create here, create the world.
Move here, move the world.”

* * *

The keynote address by Krista Tippett, American journalist, author, and entrepreneur, dared all of us to consider love and joy as tools for social changemaking.

Despite our best intentions and noble aspirations, “even in our most mission-soaked spaces, we’ve all inherited ways of being that mirror the chasms that are tearing our world apart,” she said. According to Tippett, we face an epidemic of despair and anger today that characterizes every side of our cultural chasms, an epidemic that distorts our missions and demoralizes us, preventing us from achieving the world we want.

And there are a multitude of callings we should, as movers of this work, keep in our toolbox, alongside well-exercised muscles of action, so that we can remain grounded alongside those on the front lines of danger. Love and joy are two of those. These are tools that can exist with full awareness that there are battles to be waged, people on the front lines of danger, and tremendous work to be done to uproot the structures that keep injustice alive. “And we can be bold enough to call that, mobilizing towards love,” Tippett said.

Love, like civility, gets a bad rap, said Tippett. It’s become watered down in a way that sends a message of niceness, tameness, safeness, and politeness, and avoiding the difficult, complex work to be done.

“When we submit to those stereotypes about love, we are ignoring the intense intelligence each of us possesses in our intimate lives. Our lives with our families, our friends, our co-workers. Hour after hour, day after day, to love the people closest to us, is full of as much passion and fierceness and disagreement as about harmony and niceness.”

As a society, we have begun, collectively, to take hate seriously. We call it out, see its power, and have even created legal categories to address it. “This creates an opening and even a mandate to aspire to the only human capacity that is big and audacious and transformative enough to meet hate,” said Tippett. “What would it mean for us to figure out how we could make love as galvanizing, as muscular, and robust as hate has become?”

Tippett reminded us that John Lewis speaks of the civil rights movement as “love in action, though we scarcely remember it that way.” After her speech, she was joined onstage by Darren Walker and Bob Ross, President of The California Endowment, self-proclaimed “unofficial chairs” of the East and West Coast Krista Tippett Fan Clubs, respectively.

Their conversation mapped out the challenges of forging a common future. With Tippett’s framing, lifting up the need for joy on the long and difficult and uncertain path toward social justice, Walker offered a critique about the structures that manifest these challenges, and contribute toward inequity and exclusion. Joy might be a human right, but it’s excruciatingly difficult to access under oppression.

Ross pointed out how the Black American experience can serve as a blueprint for how to find joy on the other side of that tension, the very dynamic that inspired classical Negro spirituals: a musical reflection of struggle and “the fight, the battle, but the joy of getting there.” The fight is necessary for survival and the struggle must ultimately continue.

He related a conversation with the Pope’s Chief of Staff, who shared the Pope’s belief that “Communism is equality without opportunity, and capitalism is opportunity without equality. And it’s your job [in the independent sector] to fix that.”

Walker pressed him: I think he meant something even more profound than that, that there is something fundamentally wrong with our system. That we, in philanthropy, are products of this system that at its core produces too much inequality.

Ross added, “We’re the illegitimate offspring of capitalism. Giving helps correct for these structural issues, if and until we’re able to change the systems.”

Yes. “I’m a capitalist,” said Walker. “I believe in the idea; it has just gone off the rails in this country. And if we don’t fix it, there will be consequences. And I feel morally, spiritually, obligated to do something about it.” Inclusion is powerful, he added. Not just a set of values, but as a strategy. “Many of us are willing to mouth the rhetoric of that, but executing is about a loss of control. And we don’t like doing that.”

As the conversation came to a close, it found its way back toward Tippett’s urging toward love and joy. Even, as Walker suggested, “when we face catastrophe and decay and hatred 20 times before breakfast,” love and joy allow us to feel connected to ourselves and to one another, and will prevail as enabling conditions of creating a common future.

Adiel Suarez-Murias is communications director at Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE).

Types: Blog
Global Topics: Civil Rights, IS Member, Nonprofit Capital, Race, Equity, and Inclusion, Upswell