Who Belongs? EP 7 - Abandonment in Detroit with Peter Hammer and Amina Kirk

Interview

March 05, 2019

Download an MP3 of this episode here.

In this episode of Who Belongs? we speak with Peter Hammer and Amina Kirk, who have been working in a variety of capacities for equitable development and racial justice in Detroit for many years.

Peter is a Professor of Law and the Director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University Law School. The Keith Center runs the Detroit Equity Action Lab, whose purpose is to address structural racism in Detroit.

Amina Kirk is the Senior Legal and Policy Advocate & Organizer with Detroit People's Platform, a racial and economic justice organization. She’s an affordable housing activist, and earned her JD and Master’s in Urban Planning from the University of Michigan.

This episode was produced in collaboration with the Haas Institute's Civic Engagement Narrative Change Project.

Soundtrack Credits:
Intro song: "Traction" by Chad Crouch
Outro song: "Wide Eyes" by Chad Crouch

Transcript

Peter Hammer: At the end of the day you can't fight for social justice in Detroit if you're not an optimist despite the challenges, but you also have to be a realist. And I think what abandonment is sort of a wake up call, that says, particularly in cities like Detroit, you probably have to go through a phase of self help, self analysis, and political consciousness building to build political power, at the same time that you're trying to find allies in different parts, and certainly trying to build bridges.

Marc Abizeid: Hello, and welcome to this episode of Who Belongs, which is the second installment of our civic engagement series produced in collaboration with the Haas Institute's Civic Engagement Narrative Change project, and today we're going to try a slightly different format, we'll be talking with two experts from Detroit about the issue of abandonment, or the lived reality of many Detroiters that political and economic leaders have left them behind. And we'll talk about the role of civic engagement work to respond to this abandonment in the areas of politics, housing, and economic development.

Marc Abizeid: But to facilitate the discussion will be my colleague, Josh Clark, who is a political participation analyst and lead researcher for the Civic Engagement Narrative Change project here at the institute. So thank you, Josh for leading this episode today.

Josh Clark: Yeah, thanks, Marc. Thanks for having us on Who Belongs.

Marc Abizeid: So you'll be interviewing our two guests who are on the line from Detroit, Peter Hammer and Amina Kirk, who have been working in a variety of capacities for equitable development and racial justice in Detroit for many years. So now I hand it over to you to more formally introduce our guests and lead today's discussion.

Josh Clark: Thanks again, Marc. So today we'll be joined by Peter Hammer, who is a professor of law and the director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University Law School. The Keith center runs the Detroit Equity Action Lab, the purpose of which is to address structural racism in Detroit. And our second guest is Amina Kirk, who is the senior legal and policy advocate and organizer with Detroit People's Platform, a racial and economic justice organization.

Josh Clark: Amina is an affordable housing activist and earned her JD and masters in urban planning at the University of Michigan. So thank you very much Amina and Peter for joining us remotely. We're happy to have you here.

Peter Hammer: It's a pleasure to be here.

Amina Kirk: [inaudible 00:02:33]

Josh Clark: Okay. So our guests make the case that traditional forms of voter and civic engagement will have limited effectiveness in Detroit. And that one of the biggest reasons for this is the phenomenon of abandonment. They say that abandonment is a real and widespread issue in the city's neighborhoods. And while Detroit maybe an acute example of the phenomenon of abandonment. They also note that there are lessons that can be learned from Detroit, and from their work that would benefit civic engagement organizations, and the funding community and wider ecosystem that support them in different parts of the country.

Josh Clark: And to help these actors to think differently about what work for broad participation should actually involve. So I wanted to start by just giving Peter and Amina an opportunity to each say a bit about what they mean when they talk about abandonment. What is abandonment? And how do you identify it? Peter, I first heard you speak on this subject. So maybe we'll start with you for this question.

Peter Hammer: Thanks Josh. When we think about abandonment at the Keith Center and the DEAL. We start with a framework of spatial structural racism. And if you did opportunity mapping in Southeast Michigan, you could actually see entire geopolitical boundaries of Pontiac, and most of Detroit from outer space is opportunity deserts. And when I say opportunity deserts what I'm really talking about are the social, political and economic institutions that are necessary to create opportunity. And if you overlay racial demographics on top of opportunity, you find that this region is segregated not just by wealth and opportunity, but by race, wealth and opportunity. And that's our notion of spatial structural racism.

Peter Hammer: So now what does it mean to have an absence of opportunity, and we have to start seeing things that are not there. And this is where the notion of abandonment gets folded in. You don't have a regional market, right? There's no regional housing markets. There's no regional transportation market. There's no regional food market. There's no regional jobs market, and there's an absence of political market. So the social, political and economic markets really have to be thought of in conjunction.

Peter Hammer: And what you've had over time is a reproduction of this racialized space and this abandonment, 50 years ago you would have had segregated space inside the city of Detroit. Now what has happened through a period of white flight and transportation housing policy is the reproduction of that racialized space almost at a city wide level. And one implication when you start drilling down to the neighborhood, is not only are the neighborhoods not connected to the regional economy, oftentimes the neighborhoods around the city are not even connected to each other. So what we're trying to lift up this notion of the absence of these institutions to create opportunity, this political and economic abandonment of citizens in Detroit, and then imagine what that means for civic engagement.

Josh Clark: Great, thank you. Thank you for offering those words about how you diagnose this phenomenon. Amina, I wondered if you wanted to add anything further about how you're thinking about the issue of abandonment and how it's identified, what it is, in Detroit.

Amina Kirk: I don't ... I think Peter really words it perfectly and I will say that the way I think about it in my work, it really does mirror what Peter has already said. Is that the absence of those markets is part of abandonment, and also the situation, I think about policy, is that abandonment is present where the environment, where the market exists, where abandonment is president has involved such that the spatial structural racism has been operationalized, and is now an essential component of the successful functioning of the markets outside of the abandoned geographic area.

Josh Clark: Great. Thank you for that. Amina, I wonder if I could ask you to speak a little bit to how this translates into a lived reality or shapes a worldview of residents in the neighborhoods that we're discussing. In your organizing work, in the work that you've done in the city, what do we know about the way that life prospects and possibilities, people's sense of what their options are, are shaped through the structural failures that you've both described so well.

Amina Kirk: I definitely think that one of the essential characteristics and how it shows up in residence life, is the disempowerment that abandonment can have over residents sense of agency and power over how their lives function. Detroit initially in its past had a very engaged citizenry, particularly its black residents. And so we had political engagement and social engagement, residents band together in 1967 to protest police brutality and economic and social exclusion.

Amina Kirk: There were also union reforms that took place in the 60s when black residents in the automotive factories came together because they were not being included in all that unions have to offer, and helped to get some union reforms on the books. And then we also have political will where residents elected the first black Mayor, Coleman Young after the rebellion. And there was just a very strong community network, social network, labor network, neighborhood networks that existed. Over the past decades, as we've seen the abandonment that has taken root in Detroit, we've seen the dismantling of these networks, and that it's also disempowered residents politically and economically. So economic opportunities simply do not exist in the city for the average residents, we are a majority black city, and yet we see that most of our residents have to commute out into the suburbs, because that is where the economic opportunities exist, we see that the education system has been completely dismantled where residents have to go to private schools if they're looking for quality education. And the disempowerment comes because they have been so removed from decision making intentionally, and even when they are organizing themselves to participate, we still see a strong struggle against allowing that voice to have any true power.

Amina Kirk: And so you can see our residents become disillusioned where they are not participating economically or politically, because when they attempt to, it does not have an impact. And this has gone on for such a long time that we certainly see that residents have completely removed themselves from those processes in some instances. There is still a strong vein of that organizing spirit and that fighting spirit, and we see that in our grassroots organizations and our community organizations. However, the strong culture that was pervasive in the city prior to the phenomenon that we're discussing here today has definitely been weakened.

Josh Clark: Right. So it sounds like this networked character that used to be alive and well in neighborhoods when folks were able to work, maybe not in their home neighborhoods, but closer, to have their kids attend neighborhood schools, that creates these sort of dense social ties, right?

Amina Kirk: Absolutely. It creates the social fabric of communities that are necessary for any healthy urban area. And so we have unhealthy urban areas, and we have residents that have continued to make a life there. But the situation is that it's simply isn't... We don't have healthy vibrant communities. And then we have the new generation of residents, if they are not familiar with the past history, there're two different kinds of perspective that residents can internalize. And one is that this is the way it's always been. The communities have always been economically and politically isolated, and disenfranchised. And so there's no point in engaging with the political or economic systems because there's never been anything beneficial there for us.

Amina Kirk: Then there's also another perspective when people are unfamiliar with the past history of the way things work before abandonment. And that is that the community and the residents that are there, they are the reason that abandonment occurred, and so therefore there's no reason to try to have any influence economically or politically, if you see that your participation and your presence were actually part of the motivating factor that caused abandonment.

Josh Clark: Okay that's actually a great segue to the next kind of set of questions that I wanted to hear from you and Peter about, which is to move sort of a little bit more directly into this question of how abandonment influences folks' willingness to become civically engaged, to engage with institutions, community and civic institutions within the context of doing things like voting, but also other forms of political participation. And it sounds like you've answered that question, that there are these two threads that you just mentioned.

Josh Clark: I guess kind of going back and forth, because we've been going back and forth between you and Peter. I wonder if he wants to add any other comments about that, about how this condition of abandonment influences attitudes about civic engagement?

Peter Hammer: Sure. And I just endorse what Amina said. I would add a couple of sort of different dimensions of, if you think about when was the era of abandonment, I would really say it probably went from the late 1960s until about 2010. And we're actually having to add one more subtle narrative on top of that since about 2010, and really the entry of emergency management in bankruptcy. These neighborhoods have really been targeted not for development but for displacement. So you have this sort of decades long notion of complete abandonment and neglect from both political economic markets, and while people may read about all this come back about Detroit is limited to know more than 7.2 miles of a city that is nearly 140 square miles in size. And they're not getting investment. And indeed, if the neighborhoods are not connected economically as the claims that we're making, you can pour all the money you want downtown, and it flows only out to the suburbs, it doesn't flow to the neighborhoods. What has happened in the neighborhoods at the same period have been over 100,000 residences having their water shut off. What's happened in the neighborhoods has been over 100,000 homes being foreclosed for failure to pay taxes, taxes which are often unconstitutional and illegally over assessed. What's happened to these neighborhoods after abandonment is actually a housing crisis, where rents are skyrocketing, people don't have access to affordable housing.

Peter Hammer: So from that perspective of abandonment and then targeted displacement, you come up and ask them to register to vote. You come up and ask them to fill out the census. This notion of the civic ladder assumes that you have these political, economic, and social institutions to ground that ladder in. The reality of abandonment is that ground has been displaced. That doesn't exist. And therefore, you have to think about new approaches if you're having people to engage civically, and it's got to start from very different premises than we normally project in urban areas.

Josh Clark: Right. So you're referring to a very common kind of metaphor or approach that's used in conventional civic engagement outreach lingo: the ladder of engagement. Sort of the idea that you meet people where they are, maybe they're at the floor, no engagement, maybe they're one or two rungs up and you work from where they are to get them to increase their levels of engagement, take on bigger responsibilities, bigger roles. And it sounds to me like you're kind of saying that this condition of abandonment doesn't fit into that metaphor at all, that this is something qualitatively different and you can't work it in as though, well, maybe if we encounter people in a position of abandonment, they're there in the basement.

Josh Clark: But you're saying that doesn't really work. This is something different. Is that right?

Peter Hammer: Yeah, the house hasn't been built, or the house has been destroyed. And from that perspective, what you're really saying in this notion of abandonment, an absence of functioning American political and social institutions, is you are really thinking if you want to engage people, you have to engage them around issues of self help, you have to engage them around issues that actually meet their basic survival needs. You have to engage them around providing water for households that don't have water, providing decent education where there is no education, providing housing where there's a housing crisis, and that's a very different environment than simply saying, “I'm going to register you to vote. I'm going to give you this campaign brochure.”

Peter Hammer: You have to really envision a period of self help and ideally in that era of self help be building political education, political consciousness that can lead to building political power, that can lead to changing the policies that have inflicted the abandonment.

Josh Clark: And Amina this is kind of some of the work that you've been doing with the Detroit People's Platform. Is that right?

Amina Kirk: Yes, that's the work that we have been doing, is trying to engage people in the democratic process, and encourage those in power to understand how to engage people. And I actually want to go further than engage because the language we use is empower, we want to empower residents in the democratic process and empower residents participation and decision making with our elected officials, to understand how that should work in an environment where there is a healthy democracy. Because as Peter stated earlier, emergency management really was the removal of the democratic process in Detroit without any pretense, which took place in 2013 and that actually had an extreme chilling effect on citizen participation in our municipal democracy.

Amina Kirk: We did have resident outcry. We did have some have civil disobedience. We did have resident participation to resist emergency management, and to resist the decisions that were coming out of the emergency management process, and yet it proceeded as if residents were not speaking out against it at all, all the decisions went forward, and the emergency management process was carried out until it was completed, until it accomplished the goals that it was intended to. That had an extreme chilling effect on residents who had been engaged in the political system in the city before who were from grassroots organizations, and were used to organizing for power and this was just such a huge entity that completely wiped out the democratic process in the city.

Amina Kirk: And to come after that with the ... As Peter spoke about all of the issues that came after, the water shut off, the extreme housing crisis that we're facing right now with skyrocketing rents. All of that came afterwards. And we still actually continue to see resident engagement and participation. And examples of that would include the creation of the Nations first community benefits ordinance, which came out of the People's Platform, engagement with the Equitable Detroit Coalition, a grassroots group of organizations and residents who had been present in the resistance of emergency management. And we started to see the privatization of so many of our resources in the city, and felt that a community benefits ordinance was one way that we could start to reclaim some residents power by creating ordinance that mandated, not only engagement but empowerment through negotiation, and the actual provision of resources from the corporations that are coming into the city as part of revitalization.

Amina Kirk: We also saw it in the creation of the inclusionary zoning ordinance and the Housing Trust Fund, which is another ordinance that was created with a coalition. We do all our work through coalition, which is extremely important because it is the way that Detroiters have traditionally operated, as I spoke about the past history is coming together in communities, in neighborhoods, working together towards a common goal. And yet, even with those wins the creation of these ordinances that are intended to create resources where there aren't, to create housing, affordable housing, where there isn't, to create money for the commons where there isn't through the CBO.

Amina Kirk: We also continue to see the philosophy of abandonment and disempowerment that is part and parcel of the fabric of our political system in the city. The community benefits ordinance was created and put on the ballot for residents to participate in their democracy by voting as a ballot initiative if they wanted this ordinance to be passed. And we see that the city administration created an opposing ballot initiative and placed it in the ballot at the same time, that created a much weaker version of community benefits. The same thing with the Housing Trust Fund, we see that we get a fund for affordable housing, and the city will not fund it adequately and the city administration several months after that law's passing, creates an opposing fund that lacks transparency, that lacks resident engagement and starts to seek the private funding for that fund, rather than seeing this fund as a resource... as a resource and a return to democracy where city resources are used in a way that benefit all residents and they have a say in it. So we see this constant pull where it is not a state of complete despair. Residents are still fighting, and yet we see that the administration is very rooted in this pathology of austerity and abandonment where, even residents are coming up with these ways to redistribute democracy, and redistribute resources, there's a great effort to resist it that exists in the city.

Josh Clark: Yeah. So it sounds like you pulled out some mobilizations and some initiatives where you have had great success in getting people to show up and to work in coalition with one another despite this condition of abandonment. I wonder besides you mentioned the importance of working in coalitions, if you had any other kinds of examples of what it is, or how it was that you were able to have success despite the circumstance that folks found themselves in. And I ask this partially because I don't want people to walk away with the takeaway of, “Oh, well, what they were saying essentially, is that if you solve a lot of these economic issues then people will participate”. So it's, solve the economic and then the political participation will follow. I don't think that that's it, but I want to give you the opportunity to make sure that you clarify that.

Amina Kirk: I definitely think that solving the economic strategies, solving the economic problem is important, but I think that the spatial racism element and the fact that that is the foundation that abandonment rests on, is really important. It has to be the starting place for an economic approach, for a political approach. Every approach has to look backwards at the racial inequalities that created the situation in Detroit and the fact that the way our political systems, and our economic systems are operating right now are sitting on that foundation of racial inequality before we try to attempt solutions.

Amina Kirk: And so I don't think that simply solving the ... Attempting to solve the economic situation in a vacuum without looking at the past that created the situation, and without looking at the present that is still very firmly rooted in that racial inequality, would be successful. I don't think that those strategies to be successful and actually addressing the problems. The traditional economic development strategies therefore don't work in Detroit and that is the lens that right now the administration and those in power are using to try to revitalize the city, are based in traditional economic build the strategies which look only at the markets, and getting the markets to function properly. And they are absolutely not paying attention to racial justice, to racial equity, to the foundations of these problems.

Amina Kirk: We are looking at pouring money and resources into solutions like privatization that still don't work, into solutions like philanthropy, choosing winners and losers, into choosing winners and losers with neighborhoods and concentrating resources and wealth in certain areas. Because we feel that racial inequality -- and when I say "we," I mean the individual, elected officials and individuals that are making decisions in the city right now. They feel that racial inequality is not important. Residents are discouraged from talking about, discouraged from bringing it up. It is not addressed, the mayor is going to have a state of the city very soon. And when we talk about race in Detroit, we talk about successes. We talk about it as if it's been conquered, as if we're making enormous strides and we don't actually look at the problem before we seek to say that it's solved, and we don't have to worry about it anymore.

Peter Hammer: I think it's actually a little bit even more perverse, as dire as that sounds. I agree with you, Josh, that we need to solve the economic problems. The problem is that our traditional approaches we've used for the last 50 years, not only don't solve the economic problems; they actually have co-created the issues of abandonment. So when we're looking to off the shelf solutions, we're actually making the problem worse in cities like Detroit and not better, and therefore we have to be very intentional about building new economic markets and new political processes. And that's why I think you conjoin this notion of abandonment, with a notion of anti-racist solutions. And in that light, you see the real important potential of an authentic community benefits ordinance that came out of Detroit was advocated by the People's Platform, and Equitable Detroit Coalition. There's an active water affordability plan that's been advocated in Detroit to solve water shut offs. It won't be adopted in Detroit, but it has been adopted in Philadelphia. So you have this notion of perhaps abandonment, but you have tremendous innovation in Detroit, you have tremendous activity among a number of creative ... Of activists. But you're going so far uphill and you're trying to actually create new economic and political processes in the face of traditional systems that actually continually undermine us.

Amina Kirk: I think what Peter said is so important -- that we cannot rest on traditional methods of trying to revitalize cities or trying to bring economic development to scale. And in Detroit particular we see that because we know that there's there is exploitation, and extraction that has been integral to success, economic success outside in other parts of the region outside of the city. And so when we look in the city to replicate that success, then we're looking to bring extraction and exploitation into the city just in a smaller scale.

Josh Clark: Yeah, the centrality of racism and of what the two of you have described as ... Well, Amina you said a philosophy of abandonment. So I feel like that puts a strong point on the fact that this is strategic. This isn't by accident, and it's absolutely, unarguably racialized. It kind of brings me to a last question that I wanted to pose to the two of you. At the Haas Institute as you both know, we talk a lot about bridging and about striving to build bridges across socially recognized forms of difference, by finding other commonalities or connections, shared experiences that can give rise to a bigger "we" -- a "we" in which everyone can participate and belong and feel that they belong.

Josh Clark: I wonder what each of you would say about whether there's any bridging opportunity here that you see. We've been talking mostly about Detroit, which is a predominantly African American city. And it's a city in which as you've both described, there's been racialized abandonment, racialized attacks, and extraction and exploitation. And I wonder if in this context, do you feel that there are ways in which folks from other communities outside of Detroit, whether there are places that have similar experiences outside of Detroit in Michigan, whether there are opportunities for bridging that you see? Peter, I think you suggested to me that you thought there were, so maybe we'll start with you.

Peter Hammer: Yeah. And this notion that's coming out of the Haas Institute about civic engagement and bridging is so important. But as you know better than I do, it's not easy. And bridges have to be built on solid foundations. So I'll share my intuition. It's often commonly thought that, "well why don't just poor white folk and poor black folk recognize the inequality they both suffer, and fight for common causes?" And there's a superficial logic to that and persuasiveness. I think there has to be a separate political analysis within the both the white and the black community first, and I think abandonment especially in the black community frames that. But I think similar analysis in the white community frame that. And that if they can go through that phase of understanding the political forces that have created the disadvantage which they both suffer, then you have a greater possibility of bridging those differences.

Peter Hammer: Because then the bridge on each side is going to be built from a strong foundation. So I think what this calls us to do, as I said before, is reimagine the kinds of engagement that we are looking towards, reimagine the fact that the change that we're trying to advocate for, and build commonality around has to be transformative change. It can't just be integrating people into a burning building. And that there has to be prerequisites to that. So at the end of the day you can't fight for social justice in Detroit if you're not an optimist despite the challenges, but you also have to be a realist and I think what abandonment is sort of a wake up call, that says particularly in cities like Detroit, you probably have to go through a phase of self help, self analysis and in political consciousness building to build political power, at the same time that you're trying to find allies in different parts and certainly trying to build bridges.

Josh Clark: Okay, Amina did you have any reflections that you wanted to offer on that question?

Amina Kirk: I definitely think ... Agree with what Peter has to say. And I believe that there has to be an acknowledgement of what the abandonment was, because right now we look at it as structural. Most people look at it as structural. We abandon the structures of the city, we abandon the schools, we abandon the buildings, the factories, but we really have to come to terms with, and really dig into the abandonment of the people -- that they were a people who were determined by other people, that they were expendable in the name of some greater, larger, more important success of other people. And so the decisions that were made were to abandon a population and the impact that that has beyond the buildings.

Amina Kirk: And I think that when we look at the abandonment of the people, we start to get to some of those policies of economic development that actually address the people, and not just buildings and not just businesses. There's a really great quote by Audre Lorde that's really famous and it's, "the masters tools will never dismantle the masters house." But actually the rest of that writing she goes on to say that fact is only threatening to those who still defined the masters house, as their only source of support. I think that's really important, because as citizens start to reclaim power and these abandoned cities like Detroit -- and I do believe that there are other situations of abandonment that occur on smaller scale, in the inner ring suburbs and in rural areas -- we as residents have to recognize that we are a vital support, source of support for the movements that we need in order to dismantle the house. So I think that the engagement comes from that self reflection, and internalizing the idea that the structures themselves are not the only support. We actually have the power to be our own support to reclaim the house.

Marc Abizeid: And that concludes this episode of who belongs. I'd like to thank our guests from Detroit, Peter Hammer, who is a professor of law and the director of Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University Law School, and Amina Kirk, who is the senior legal and policy advocate and organizer with Detroit People's Platform. I'd also like to thank our guest host today, Josh Clark, who's my colleague here at the Haas Institute, and Josh works as a political participation analyst and researcher for the Civic Engagement Narrative Change project. A transcript of this episode is available on our website at haasinstitute.berkeley.edu/whobelongs. Thank you for listening.