Detroit, MI - A mural is painted on a wall in a former warehouse in the Redford neighborhood's Artists' Vilage

Detroit, MI – A mural is painted on a wall in a former warehouse in the Redford neighborhood’s Artists’ Vilage

If you’ve never visit the Motor City, you’re likely of the impression that it is one of the most forsaken pieces of real estate in the United States.

From July 2013 until December of 2014 the City of Detroit was bankrupt, the largest municipal bankruptcy case in U.S. history. It’s politics make the Illinois Governor’s mansion seem like Disneyland. The city’s public school system has largely been a symbol of the need for education reform.

Yet, there are changes afoot in the city. Neighborhoods are rebuilding themselves while clinging to a storied past that rivals the greatest cities of the world.

Detroit is complex. It’s story largely unknown. A multifarious arena where politics, socio-economic status, class, race, and religion all play a role in the story of the city.

The city itself is more than 300 years old. It has been controlled by the French, the British, and the United States. It’s the largest city in Michigan, and the largest city along the U.S. – Canadian border. Even before Henry Ford’s $5 a day wage made the city famous, it was a city of industry and production.

The city was founded by Cadillac and the French, ceded to the British, and even was occupied during the war of 1812. Other than an indigenous population that all but eradicated by the nation’s westward expansion, the city had been dominated by those of European decent since 1701.

African-American residents began to move north even before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed the South’s enslaved populations. With the city’s factories humming, Detroit became not only a stop on the Underground Railroad, for many, it was the final destination. During reconstruction southern blacks, seeking better opportunities for work and to escape Jim Crow laws of the south, moved north. When the industrial revolution created an excess of jobs, the migration continued.

While Detroit was a magnate for people of color, it did not mean that it was exempt from racism and other plagues of hate. The status quo was maintained through a division of labor (blacks worked on the line, white managers and business owners supervised) and by each race being relegated to their distinct neighborhoods.

By the 1950s the climate in Detroit was changing. Federal highways were approved. The Motor City was to receive its share of interstation freeways. Largely white controlled planning commissions opted to have the highways cut through all-black neighborhoods. The results proved to be a tipping point in a racially charged climate that had descended upon Detroit.

African American communities were upset. Although they were compensated for their property, most felt that the amount offered was not a fair market value. Furthermore, the highways would force families to relocate, moving them from their neighborhoods, families, and school systems.

Unethical real estate agents made a play and seized the opportunity. It was common practice to sell a home to a black family in what had been an all-white neighborhood. The real estate company would then quietly warn other nearby homeowners that the blacks were moving into their neighborhood, and that they should sell before their property lost all value. Eager to get out, homes sold well below their market value and what had been all white neighborhoods became all-black areas of town in the matter of months. Racial tensions came to a boil in 1968 when Detroit’s race riots made national news. The remaining white families quickly left to secure a future in areas with less crime, better schools, and the expanses of suburbia.

This “white flight” moved an entire generation from the City of Detroit to new sprawling suburban cities and towns that did not exist even 10 years prior. Novi, Troy, Rochester, Sterling Heights, Clinton Township and other farmlands were converted into moderate to affluent white suburbs.

Meanwhile, the City of Detroit was left behind. As white business owners moved out of Detroit, they took their companies with them. Increased racial tensions denied many African American families equal access to higher paying jobs. At more than 138 square miles, it is one of the largest municipalities in all of North America. A depleted tax base was simply insufficient to provide police, schools, fire protection, and maintenance to the city.   The city began to decay.

That’s where we are today. Detroit, a city who no more than 50 years ago was amongst the nation’s great, now sits at below 1 million residents. A white ring of suburban affluence surrounds her, demanding facilities for sports teams, concerts, and plays while the city cannot meet financial obligations for utilities.

Our current generation of youth knows no other Detroit. Detroit Public Schools are all black, the suburbs largely all white. Michigan’s schools are amongst the most segregated in the country. Other than a Tigers game, or ad adventurous trip to downtown to buy drugs, most teens know little of the city that sits in southeast Michigan.

But, make no mistake, Detroit is rising. This city has residents who take exception to the idea that their city is a “blank canvas.” It is full of history, residents who stayed, those who moved back. Those who are committed to a new Detroit.

Exciting charter schools fulfill the promise of education. Unique community groups create arts communities from abandoned space. Urban farms are retaking the blight-stricken neighborhoods.

Our annual #LASintheD trip is fun, it’s an exciting way for our students to but a bookend on their first year in college. More importantly, it shows them some truths about leadership.

It shows them that leadership is not about position. During the trip we meet with business owners, teachers, volunteers, and retirees. Each plays a role in the city, and each has a stake in making it great again. Those who seem to do the most are those without title, those working against all the systems, often on their own, to create change.

It shows them that need to lead is very real. Detroit was the victim of leadership that was not inclusive. Fifty years ago it was a city that had everything going for it. Today, those leaders are gone, leaving a wake of blight as they left. Why? Because they simply couldn’t handle the notion of sharing power and governance. True leadership is for all.

It shows them that one person can make a difference. We visit the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy. Jalen Rose, former NBA basketball player, has created a dynamic school where education, leadership, and success are instilled in the culture. One man’s vision is now creating opportunities for hundreds of students in Detroit.

By exposing our students to Detroit our hope is that they see leaders in action, leaders that look like them. It is our hope that they see leadership not as simply a class, or item on a resume, but rather a responsibility. They may not have known why they live in the suburbs rather than the city before, or the story of Detroit. They no longer can plead ignorance. This job, to reinvest in Detroit, matters to Michigan and to them.


Dan Gaken is a student affairs administrator, author, and leadership trainer with 10 years of professional experience, primarily in the field of student leadership development. Dan builds environments where others are able to create something that excites them.

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