In the Zone: Geoffrey Canada Is Changing the Odds in Harlem

In the Zone: Geoffrey Canada Is Changing the Odds in Harlem

SCHOOL REFORMER: Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada believes under-resourced communities, where the odds are stacked against kids, must be changed to give their young people the same shot at success as kids in more privileged communities. (Photo: Tom Fitzsimmons/Center for Public Leadership/Wikipedia)

“There are many places in our nation that we have allowed to become areas of hopelessness,” said educator and activist Geoffrey Canada last month at the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit. “Despair rules and young people who grow up there have no way of knowing right from wrong.”

Canada, the founder and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, told Willow Creek ministry leader Nancy Beach that youth become “contaminated” with negative values and principles that must be counteracted. It’s a message he’s been proclaiming in New York and now around the nation for more than twenty years.

Perhaps you’ve seen Canada discussing education on television. He was prominently featured in the controversial 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman, which took a hard look at the tenuous condition of American public education. These days when any serious conversation about public schools turns toward the topic of real solutions, it’s difficult not to reference Canada’s name and work.

In inner cities where overcoming the odds is the only way for children to achieve success, Canada contends that the odds need to be changed. This conviction, coupled with a waiting list for the after-school and summer youth programs Canada directed through the mid-1990s, convinced him to scrap a model social services organization in favor of what The New York Times Magazine calls “one of the biggest social experiments of our time.”

As we begin a new school year, and our nation’s system of public education continues to falter, it’s worth taking a look at Geoffrey Canada’s efforts as a case study on what might be possible if we’re willing to work hard, think innovatively, and put our children first.

The Great Experiment

Founded in 1997 as a corporate reorganization of the Harlem-based Rheedlen Centers, which ran various after-school, violence-prevention, and summer youth programs for 500 children with a $3 million annual budget, Harlem Children’s Zone has embraced a mission to prove that poor children, especially poor black children, can succeed in big numbers. Success means good reading scores, grades, and graduation rates for average students, not just the smartest or most motivated or the ones with involved parents.

The catalyst for Canada’s changed approach was a perpetual waiting list at Rheedlen. Canada became dissatisfied that no matter how many children his centers served, their services merely treated symptoms of far deeper social ills for hundreds of children while thousands went unattended every day.

He was also frustrated with an “apartheid” type of school district where kids living below 96th Street were super achievers and kids above 96th Street chronically underperformed. Grappling with the disparity, he wondered whether it’s even possible to transform the system so that success might become the norm for Harlem too.

INVESTING IN LIVES: Canada (left) works with students in a Harlem Children’s Zone classroom. “We can’t afford to lose another generation,” he says.

Fueled by the belief that individual children will do better if the children around them are doing better, Canada set out to prove that success can indeed become normalized. Unapologetically, HCZ is a social experiment designed to amass evidence that demonstrates how to equalize the playing field so that poor children perform on the same level as middle-class children. Canada foresees a day when, “This isn’t an abstract conversation anymore. If you want poor children to do as well as middle-class children,” to become “typical Americans” who can compete for jobs, “we now know how to do it.”

According to the Times Magazine, “If [Canada is] right, the services he will provide will cost about $1,400 a year per student, on top of existing public-school funds. The country will finally know what the real price tag is for poor children to succeed.”

In 2005, U.S. News & World Report described Canada as having “the street walk and Harvard talk.” That combination generates enough credibility to be given a legitimate shot at making his experiment work.

Holistic Programming, Tightly Networked

Geoffrey Canada’s political philosophy is both liberal and conservative, meaning he believes the economy systematically disfavors poor people no matter how hard they work, but he also believes poor parents need to raise their children better. His solution is a holistic approach that invests in traditional services such as public schools, day care, and after-school programs to remedy structural inequities, while also teaching parenting and life skills to enhance personal responsibility.

None of the Zone’s programs, by themselves, is unique. What is unique is how they create an interlocking web of services designed to nurture poor children in a particular neighborhood from birth through college. The Cleveland Plain Dealer describes HCZ’s distinctive this way: “The Zone is a network of tightly connected initiatives. … What sets them apart is the unifying vision Canada has imposed, creating a single, womb-through-college cocoon for thousands of poor kids … and fierce determination to achieve measurable outcomes.”

Each individual initiative fits into an expansive strategy that meets different needs differently. There’s no one right, cookie-cutter formulation for what every individual child needs. Instead, HCZ offers a panoply of services, including:

• Harlem Gems, a computer-based, pre-kindergarten program teaching Hooked on Phonics

• Employment and Technology Center

• TRUCE after-school program for teens

• Family Support Center and foster care alternatives

• Baby College co-ed class for pregnant parents

• Promise Academy charter school

All of HCZ’s programs are geographically located within a 100-block area of Central Harlem, a neighborhood characterized by a poverty rate of nearly 50 percent and foster-care placement rates among the highest in New York City. The 10,000 children living within this community Canada describes as “my kids,” and his goal for them is “fairness … just give my kids a fair shot.” Once they have completed college, “they’re as equal as anybody else, and they’ll be able to fend for themselves.”

Four Pillars

Harlem Children’s Zone rests its various program initiatives on four pillars.

1. Rebuild the community from within by developing indigenous leaders who already live in the neighborhood. “Mostly we found that to change a block, you had to get between 10 and 20 percent of the people engaged.” Hope spreads and negative elements move elsewhere.

2. Start early and never stop. Provide services from before birth through prenatal parenting classes and continuing through the completion of college. “Our theory is you never let the kids get behind in the first place.”

3. Think and plan big. Overwhelm the negative with positive influences. Make success and hard work normative.

4. Evaluate relentlessly. HCZ holds 1,300 full and part-time employees accountable to predetermined results. “If you took a salary to deliver an outcome and you didn’t deliver the outcome, you can’t stay here in the organization.” All programs have ten-year business plans with goals, targets, and timetables.

Measurable Results

Canada asks no less than 15 years from stakeholders to demonstrate that HCZ’s approach actually works, calling quick fixes to entrenched social problems “pipe dreams.” In exchange, he promises a rigorous reporting and evaluation methodology to track progress and identify program weaknesses.

His management style runs the non-profit like a business and treats philanthropists like venture capitalists. The HCZ business plan focuses on business-oriented ideas like “market-penetration targets” and “new information technology applications” and a “performance-tracking system.”

The Zone regards clients as “customers” and outreach as “marketing.” Administrative staffers wear suits; every meeting starts on time; and reports, budgets, and evaluations flow constantly.

HCZ focuses its energies and resources on what it can control — namely excellent supportive services for children — and not issues beyond their control such as adult marriages and underemployment. Then it recruits relentlessly to register its target market — the most “at-risk” youths in the neighborhood — through door knocking, fliers, sign-ups, raffles, prizes, and give-a-ways (even “bribes”); and promises to deliver excellent results. For example, HCZ called its first charter school Promise Academy because, “We are making a promise to all of our parents. If your child is in our school, we will guarantee that child succeeds. There will be no excuses. … If you work with us as parents, we are going to do everything — and I mean everything — to see that your child gets a good education.”

HCZ’s educational philosophy emphasizes both testing and accountability. They work within the existing public school system while simultaneously opting-out by starting two charter schools. HCZ’s charter schools operate a longer school day, from 8 a.m. – 4 p.m., with supplementary after-school programs until 6 p.m.; and their academic years extend into July. HCZ has met resistance from the Teachers Union because, even though charter school teachers get paid more than union teachers, they work longer hours, a full 12 months a year, and without the possibility of tenure.

The Zone supplements its own service offerings by partnering with parents, residents, teachers, and other community stakeholders to create a safe, nurturing environment that extends beyond its programs. By collaborating with churches, parks, local businesses, and schools, HCZ advocates for education reform, economic development, and crime reductions while proactively rebuilding the neighborhood.

The Challenge of Fatherlessness

The issue of fatherlessness is deeply personal for Canada, both as a central subplot in his own “against the odds” story and as a driving factor in the culture the Zone seeks to overcome. Canada tackles the subject specifically in one of his books, Reaching up for Manhood: Transforming the Lives of Boys in America (Beacon Press 1998).

Raised in the South Bronx by a single mom with four children, Canada’s father left when Canada was only 4. His mother supported them through a combination of odd jobs, welfare, and food donations. He found solace, and trouble, in the streets as a teenager — drinking, smoking pot, and resolving conflicts with his fists. But mom’s work ethic rubbed off, as he secured a factory job after school and ultimately earned a scholarship to attend Bowdoin College, where he majored in psychology and sociology. He then went on to earn a master’s in education from Harvard.

Canada speaks with conviction about the need to “father the fatherless” in part due to his own experience, but also because of the degree to which the absence of fathers has ravaged his community. “It is so much more dangerous for boys today because there aren’t any role models around for them. There’s some 15-year-old telling a 12-year-old what it means to be a man, and these children are really growing up under so much stress.”

Compounding matters is a cultural environment that “preaches anarchy.” Despite a rich tradition within the African American community of music that “always tried to lead us to the light … [and] get us through the tough times,” the current generation of hip-hop stars espouse “a message that is leading us to destruction. The message is, ‘Go out and do things that will destroy you, that will get you locked up in jail, that will ruin your life, that will ruin your relationships, that will estrange you from your kids.’ That’s what this music is preaching. And we’ve never had any music like that in our history before. … The street isn’t driving the music anymore. The music is driving the street.”

The two-fold solution, Canada contends, begins by reconnecting young boys to men in meaningful, long-term relationships that he calls, “loving men and not just mentors.” Mentors are needed, “but mentors do not replace a responsible adult who loves you, who disciplines you, who’s there when you’re afraid at night, who’s there to really talk to you about school and work. That’s what young boys need, and we have to figure out a way to get uncles and cousins and other folks re-involved with these young people for long periods of time so these boys have role models on what it means to be a man.”

For kids who lack a father’s love, these “re-involved” adults must “not only give them the good, solid, love, and support they need, but the tough love that says to them that you’re going to be held responsible, but I’m going to help you, I’m going to hold your hand; I’m going to make sure that when you are crying, there’s someone wiping those tears out of your eyes, picking you up and saying you can do it, try again.”

Only then will boys get messages contradicting pop and street culture values about sex, alcohol, tobacco, clothing, sneakers, and other “stuff that means absolutely nothing when we really look at what it means to be a caring, responsible father, a real responsible adult in today’s society.” What really matters are values like working hard, saving money, and investing in education. There are no “quick and easy” shortcuts, just hard work over a long time modeled for boys by grown men who are willing to take them by the hand and live life together.

The second piece of the strategy is teaching boys necessary skills to care and nurture children as fathers. Canada argues that if a dad is uninvolved in a child’s first three months, meaning not directly supporting, interacting, and bonding with the child, then that father is able to leave without feeling like his abandonment of the child is a big deal. But a boy who hasn’t had a fathering role model lacks basic skills for bonding with children. Worse, they have to overcome street culture biases by insisting that poor boys and girls refrain from exploitative sexual relationships, and redefining manhood to include nurturing as well as providing. To this end, HCZ’s Baby College intentionally works with both pregnant mothers and fathers.

Challenges to Replication

VISION CASTING: Canada during his interview at the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit in August.

Over the years, many groups and individuals have studied Geoffrey Canada’s work with the intention of duplicating it in their own cities. But Canada identifies three main challenges to replicating the Harlem Children’s Zone model in other communities. The first, and most fundamental, is finding the right leadership. An appropriate leader is someone whom the community and donors are going to hold accountable while giving that person the authority to hold others accountable. “This won’t work with a collaborative of equal partners.”

Second, groups and individuals must have the discipline and resolve to stay true to the four pillars, including: empowering indigenous leadership to own the transformation process; embracing large and scalable strategies; adopting a long-term, comprehensive, birth through college service commitment; and evaluating and improving performance constantly.

Finally, group leaders must mobilize and sustain the commitment of staff, volunteers, community stakeholders, funders, and residents.

Staying the Course

Back at Willow Creek, Nancy Beach engaged Canada in a wide-ranging conversation on faith and leadership that offers additional insight into his way of thinking and the things that have made him successful.

“I grew up in the ’60s and lost faith in the church because the church wasn’t making a difference in the world around me,” he said. But his grandmother taught him a profound lesson. “She told me, ‘It’s easy to have faith when everything is going great, but the real test of faith is when you’re faced with something where only your faith will keep you believing in God.’”

It’s evident that Canada has taken his grandmother’s words to heart as he goes about the work of transforming education in America. “I’ve never lost this sense that we can test it, but in the end if you have faith, it will pull you through anything.”

Sources

+ Harlem Children’s Zone website: www.hcz.org
+ Sam Fulwood III, Bob Paynter and Sandra Livingston, “Central Harlem program combines leadership, commitment to rebuild a community,” Cleveland Plain Dealer (Dec. 13, 2007)
+ Chester Higgins, Jr., “Vision,” New York Times (June 7, 2006)
+ Anderson Cooper, “Stop Snitching,” 60 Minutes (April 22, 2007)
+ Deborah A. Pines, “America’s Best Leaders: Thriving in the Zone,” US News & World Report (Oct. 31, 2005)
+ Paul Tough, “The Harlem Project,” New York Times Magazine (June 20, 2004)
+ Transcript, “Moving Toward Manhood,” The News Hour with Jim Lehrer (Jan. 20, 1998)
+ Felicia Lee, “Being a Man and a Father Is Being There,” New York Times (June 18, 1995)

Motor City Mission

Motor City Mission

COMMUNITY SERVICE: Elevate Detroit staff members and volunteers serve area residents during one its CommuniD Barbecues last year at Detroit’s Robert Redmond Memorial Park.

Is Detroit coming or going?

The conventional wisdom is that the once-bustling Motor City is the epitome of a metropolis in decline, a remnant of a bygone industrial era. But for many of us who have decided to intentionally make Detroit our home, we choose to believe that the city has a future.

It’s in our nature, I guess. We love to root for the underdog, and Detroit is definitely that. As politicians, businesspeople, and sociologists ponder the city’s chances, it takes faith to see a bright future for a city that has lost so much of its luster. But over the last few years, the city’s been gaining notoriety as a business incubator (see Detroit’s Future: From Blight to Bright), a destination for good eats, and the slow (but steady) revival of America’s number one auto manufacturing center. It’s home to four professional sports teams, including the Lions who went from serving as the laughingstock of the National Football league to finishing with a 10-6 season and making their first playoff appearance since 1999. Most recently, Detroit was even rated as having one of America’s top ten best downtowns. Detroit’s full of previously unrecognized promise. It’s resilient, tenacious, and on the verge of exciting change.

VITAL SIGNS: An attractive waterfront, competitive sports teams, and fine restaurants give Detroiters reason for hope.

However, a lot is still broken. Detroit’s also been synonymous with present-day notions of urban crime, decay, and impoverishment. At the height of its powers in 1950, Detroit had 1.8 million residents and a thriving economy that helped drive the fortunes of the rest of the nation. Now, 60 years later, the population has dropped to just 700,000 and is in a desperate struggle to recapture its cultural and economical relevance.

Over the past few years, Detroit has become a case study in what ails American cities. In 2010, Time magazine set up a special outpost in the city for a year to chronicle the city’s challenges. And a new book, Detroit: A Biography, finds former Detroit News reporter Scott Martelle analyzing what led to the city’s current misfortunes. Though a sobering read, a strength of the book is that it doesn’t live in the past by romanticizing the bygone glories of the auto industry or the Motown era. Instead, Martelle drills deep into the troubling factors that contributed to Detroit’s decline. Endeavors like Time’s reporting project and Martelle’s book are important reminders of Detroit’s challenges and possibilities.

Detroit is a city begging for educational reform and financial restructuring. And though Michigan’s unemployment rate has steadily decreased over the past year, Metro Detroit’s rate remains higher than state and national averages at 9.2% as of April.

Still, we hope.

Let the Sonshine

With unemployment rounding out at over 50,000, Detroiters have begun exploring other employment options. Detroit residents have begun to reimagine how to create a more sustainable economy — one that isn’t dependent upon a single industry. Through the diversification of business endeavors, some see slow progress.

Historically, a bottom-up, micro-level approach to local economic development has proven to be the most effective. According to the World Bank in a recent report, “Local economic development is about local people working together to achieve sustainable economic growth that brings economic benefits and quality of life improvements for all in the community.”

THE ROAD AHEAD: Downtown Detroit as seen along Woodward Avenue. Strapped with the fallout of crime, poverty, and political corruption, city leaders are in a desperate search for answers. Meanwhile, a cadre of Christian visionaries hope to become part of the solution. (Photo: Rebecca Cook/Newscom)

Some Detroit entrepreneurs have even begun to use their business ventures in order to combat joblessness in their individual communities. Take, for example, Café Sonshine, a local eatery in the New Center neighborhood which employs local residents and provides a community gathering space. Or examine Wayne State University’s Tech Town, an organization that trains and equips fledgling local entrepreneurs with the tools they need to foster a successful business.

Following are the stories of three entrepreneurs who are working to address poverty and stimulate the metropolitan Detroit area through local business. Though all significantly different from each other, these individuals share the same passion and enthusiasm to eradicate poverty, share the love of Christ through community, and see Detroit become healthy and whole.

Community Elevation

GO-GETTER: Elevate Detroit’s Mike Schmitt

Mike Schmitt, director and community architect at Elevate Detroit, has a very intentional vision for his corner of Detroit. He’s firmly planted himself in the geographical area called Cass Corridor. The neighborhood — a small grid of streets located in the Midtown district — has been coined by some as “the Jungle.” It’s a high crime area rife with prostitution, drug dealing, and a strong gang presence that dates back to the early twentieth century. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was even partially plotted in Cass Corridor by Detroit’s Purple Gang, associates of Al Capone.

“It’s entirely likely that the same people who may have smiled at you earlier in the day have been up all night making drug runs, selling crack and heroin,” said Schmitt. “Though there are more churches per capita in Detroit than in any other city, there’s an unfed hunger here for community and love.”

Four years ago, Schmitt started Elevate Detroit and a related outreach event called CommuniD BBQs. To date, Elevate Detroit now organizes five BBQs in four different cities — Detroit, Flint, Pontiac, and Mount Clemens. Each week, people come from across the metro Detroit area to join in fellowship with people of different ethnicities and socio-economic positions. On these Saturdays, it’s a piece of God’s kingdom here on earth.

“I’ve tried to move away a couple of times now, but Detroit is my home. Once you see God moving in so many different ways, it’s impossible to leave,” he said.

SERVING THE WHOLE PERSON: Community residents wait in line for food and other resources during Elevate Detroit’s CommuniD Barbecue and mobile health clinic events.

Schmitt also is the primary visionary behind Dandelion’s Café, a new business and community outreach model in the heart of Cass Corridor. Though not officially off the ground yet, Schmitt and his team are in the process of raising capital and hope to get started soon. The hope is for Dandelion’s Café to serve the dual purpose of a coffee shop and concert venue in the building directly adjacent to the park at 2nd and Seldon in Detroit. Schmitt dreams of hosting open-mic nights, karaoke nights, local music nights, and even bring in national acts for concerts. Schmitt and his crew envision this venue becoming a center for community in the neighborhood and creating jobs for those who are in disadvantaged situations.

To complement this model, Schmitt hopes to purchase a nearby house or small apartment building for his previously homeless employees to live in with other residents — families, singles, and the elderly alike. He sees this partially as an antidote to the “No ID” problem. Without a permanent residence to reference on employment applications, it’s impossible for many transients to nail down a job. And without a source of income, the cycle of poverty repeats itself.

“I believe that by doing life together, we’ll create a support network for those who don’t have one,” said Schmitt. “The more that I came down to Detroit from my suburban home, the more I started to realize how much we all had in common and I wanted to do something to help cultivate a support network for those who didn’t have one.”

Harriet Tubman in Detroit

Similarly, Mark Wholihan of The Car Whisperers, LLC yearns for Detroit’s “second chance.” Wholihan began praying for a purpose from God immediately after he became a Christian. After praying for more than eight hours straight one day, he began to envision a new kind of auto repair service, an opportunity that would allow him to use his business to employ people in his community with a lack of resources.

VEHICLE FOR OUTREACH: In this ad for his auto shop, Mark Wholihan stands out in his red suit. He launched the business as a way to connect with people in his Detroit community while aiding the city’s restoration.

The Car Whisperers, LLC opened in February of last year in Livonia, Michigan. This mobile mechanic auto repair facility services western Wayne County. Because it’s largely connected to other cities through an infrastructure of highways, the city of Livonia is an ideal base of operations for any largely mobile organization. Additionally, with easy access to cities such as Farmington Hills, Detroit, Canton, and Allen Park, its socioeconomic range of customers is widely varied and diverse.

“When God put this business on my heart, I nicknamed it The Harriet Tubman Mission,” said Wholian. “Through using this business, I’m trusting God to help me bring people from slavery to freedom.”

Like Mike Schmitt, Wholihan envisions his auto repair service as a stepping stone to a larger organization designed to provide clients with total rehabilitation. In the case of The Car Whisperers, he has dreams of founding a residential long-term rehabilitation program in Detroit for people in need of holistic recovery. This projected program, called Second Chance at Life, will include a homeless shelter, drug and alcohol rehabilitation program, job placement services and an education center. As they continue to develop the micro-economy that will help to fund such an endeavor, Wholihan and The Car Whisperers are partnering with the YWCA community centers in order to expand how they meet the needs of their community.

“Reducing drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment, homelessness, crime, poverty and the return to previous lifestyles will make the program successful,” declares a blurb on the ministry’s website. “[It is our hope] to help Detroit and the surrounding communities to become a better, safer place for everyone.”

Repairer of Broken Walls

Like the Wholihan and Schmitt, Lisa Johanon and her non-profit ministry, the Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation (CDC), are targeting poverty and joblessness in Detroit through a grassroots movement. Johanon lives and works several blocks north of the burgeoning New Center district in Detroit. Located adjacent to the Midtown neighborhood and about three miles north of downtown, New Center was developed in the 1920s as a business hub that could serve as a connecting point between downtown resources and outlying factories.  Today, New Center is slowly developing into a commercial and residential success. From the summer-long event series in New Center Park to the growing headquarters of the Henry Ford Health System, New Center is making its mark on the Greater Detroit area.

FRESH VISION: Lisa Johanon (right) and her daughter Emma. (Photo: Cybelle Codish)

But blocks away in the neighborhoods north of New Center where Johanon lives, it’s another story. Though only separated by some city streets and skyscrapers, this area hasn’t been able to grasp the same commercial success that its evolving counterpart has enjoyed. Rooted in a chronic, generational poverty, these residential neighborhoods have more than just economic obstacles to overcome. The community’s struggles with drug abuse and mental illness are visibly prominent. It’s been calculated that up to 72% of the households are single-parent families. Johanon said the amount of tragedy and injustice has led residents to ask God, “Why?”

“You can’t talk about Jesus when your neighbors are hungry and don’t have a job,” said Johanon. “Long term impact happens because someone is walking beside them.”

So, that’s what Johanon made plans to do. She moved to Detroit in 1987 after helping plant a church in Chicago’s notorious Cabrini Green housing projects. During her first seven years in Detroit, Johanon established and oversaw the Urban Outreach division of Detroit Youth for Christ. From there, she went on to become the executive director of the CDC, which she co-founded more than 15 years ago. She’s been planted there ever since.

The CDC aims to be a well-rounded resource for the central Detroit area. They organize and administer educational programs, orchestrate employment training, and create opportunities to spur job growth in the area. With their outreach initiatives and organic structure, the CDC takes Isaiah 58:12 to heart — “Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.”

“The CDC is the model for economic development in our community,” said Johanon. “Walmart isn’t going to come to our neighborhood, so we have to create the job opportunities ourselves.”

Of the three Detroiters highlighted, Johanon has the most business experience to date. The CDC has launched five businesses in their community — Peaches & Greens Produce Market, Higher Ground Landscaping, Café Sonshine, CDC Property Management, and Restoration Warehouse. Each business has a twofold goal — to meet the needs of its community members and simultaneously provide them with jobs.

ON THE MOVE: Lisa Johanon (far right) and her Central Detroit Christian Development Corporation team received a May 2010 visit from First Lady Michelle Obama, who was encouraged by CDC’s Peaches & Greens venture, which provides Detroit neighborhoods with access to low-cost fruits and vegetables through a produce truck and store which are clean and safe. Mrs. Obama, whose “Let’s Move!” initiative targets the problem of childhood obesity, hailed the CDC’s efforts.

But it’s not just about providing community members with a sense of dignity that financial stability can bring. Johanon understands that there needs to be a holistic approach to the restoration of dignity – an approach that includes attention to a person’s physical, social, and spiritual needs.

“The CDC believes that education empowers our community to grow and thrive. Employment equips our community to sustain families. [And] economic development transforms our community,” said a source on their website.

It’s easiest to understand what the CDC aims to do by looking at individual stories. “When we hired people from the neighborhood to work for Higher Ground Landscaping, not a single one could pass a drug test. Now, we only have two who still fail,” said Johanon. “The minority has pressure to change their lifestyle. We want to show that we’re committed for the long term.”

And she’s right — it’s consistent commitment that’s going to change the DNA of Detroit. Each of the entrepreneurs featured in this piece have committed their time, experience, and vision to making their little corner of Detroit more sustainable. In essence, they’ve surrendered their lives to God and His mission for them. And this is something that no politician or urban developer will ever be able to replicate — God using ordinary people to bring about change and renewal. Ultimately, Detroit’s revival — and the resurgence of any ailing city — will start and end with these kind of committed efforts.

Democracy Usurped in Benton Harbor

Democracy Usurped in Benton Harbor

Democracy has been usurped in Benton Harbor, Michigan, according to MSNBC host Rachel Maddow. Last Friday, Maddow reported on attempts by a state-appointed emergency financial manager to sell the economically distressed city’s public radio station on eBay. She said the station was the last place for residents of the predominantly African American city to hear from elected officials who currently have no power to act.

The Facts and the Players

The story is not new. The New York Times Magazine took it up in December, offering an in-depth look at how the situation evolved. In that article, readers learn that Whirlpool has its headquarters in Benton Harbor and that an aggressive redevelopment plan was sidelined by the Great Recession in 2008.

The Times described the EMF, Joseph Harris, as “a 67-year-old African American man with a salt-and-pepper mustache,” and outlined his job and how he got it like this:

“He was first sent to the town in April 2010 under a law that provided the state with limited authority to intervene in the financial affairs of failing cities. His power grew exponentially last spring when Governor [Rick] Snyder and the state’s Republican Legislature passed Public Act 4, which allows emergency managers to renegotiate or terminate contracts, change collective-bargaining agreements, even dissolve local governments (subject to the governor’s approval). They have almost unfettered control over their respective cities. This approach to governing is still in its infancy, but if it proves successful in Benton Harbor and elsewhere, emergency managers could be dispatched to troubled municipalities across the state. Snyder has even made it clear that Detroit is a strong candidate for takeover.”

Maddow isn’t the only person with a national platform to address the situation. The Times reported that the Rev. Jesse Jackson compared Benton Harbor to Selma, circa 1965, “because of the disenfranchisement of its largely black electorate,” and that comedian Stephen Colbert “offered a mock tribute to Harris: ‘I say good for him, because the people of Benton Harbor brought this on themselves. . . . Benton Harbor’s elected officials are incompetent, therefore, by electing them, the voters are incompetent. So they should lose their democracy.'”

Harris isn’t bothered by the attention, according to The Times. “Blissfully free of the checks and balances of democratic governments, he is living the dream of every frustrated city administrator.” He has fired numerous city employees, merged the city’s police and fire departments, and prohibited elected officials from doing anything other than calling meetings to order, recording their minutes, and adjourning them.

Local Voices

The Rev. Antoine Headspeth: "I don't think it's a stretch to say it's a dictatorship."

UrbanFaith talked to three people who are deeply invested in the city. The Rev. Antoine D. Headspeth is senior pastor of Bethel Christian Restoration Center and a lifelong Benton Harbor resident. He said although times have been worse there — particularly when rioting took place in 2003 and when unemployment was at an all-time high in the 1980s — he’s never seen the kind of political instability that exists now.

“I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it’s dictatorship at its worst in terms of taking the voice away from the people,” said Headspeth.

Because years of “financial irresponsibility” and “incompetence” took a heavy toll on the city, Headspeth believed bringing in the EMF was a good idea, but he didn’t expect Harris to wield unilateral power to the degree he has.

“He can buy and sell as he chooses. He promised that at the beginning of the 2012 year, there would be a balanced budget. That has not happened. He promised that we would have a surplus. That has not happened. And so, when you do things that seem more personal that don’t benefit the city, then I have a problem with that,” said Headspeth.

In particular Headspeth sees Harris’s attempt to sell the radio station license and its equipment on eBay as “a slap in the face of the people” that is motivated by a desire to “shut people down” who were critical of him and his actions.

“To me that is unfair and just not right,” said Headspeth.

Dawn Yarbrough: "Change comes when people are informed."

Dawn Yarbrough also grew up in Benton Harbor, where her father once served as mayor and where both her parents have served as city commissioners. Although she has lived in Milan, Italy, for many years, on visits home three years ago, Yarbrough took note of various programs for youth that she thought deserved attention, like the Boys and Girls Club and glassblowing and martial arts programs. She began videotaping positive aspects of city life.

“They were stories that needed to be told, because lots of people who live here don’t realize what’s going on. They don’t the see the good things, because when you’re involved in your everyday life, you just hear the big picture,” said Yarbrough.

The local PBS affiliate, WNIT, has agreed to air her eight-part video series, Harbor Lights TV, and she is currently fundraising to make that happen.

“The objective is actually to help effect change. Change comes when people are informed about what exists, when they know there are programs that can help them or their children, and when they are encouraged to come out and participate in those programs,” said Yarbrough.

She declined to discuss the city’s problems, other than to say, “It is clear that our city needs assistance. If I am sick, then I am going to find a good doctor and I’m going to go to him and do my part in working with him to get well. … I hope that both sides: the emergency financial manager as well as the people who need to … find a spirit of collaboration so that we can all do what is best for our city and our citizens.”

The Rev. Brian Bennett: "A lot of it ties back to polarization racially and economically."

The Rev. Brian Bennett has lived in Benton Harbor since 2005. He is pastor of Overflow Church and executive director of the Overflow Christian Community Development Assocation. Bennett thinks the attention Benton Harbor is receiving is “well-deserved, given the historic nature of the transformation that’s happening.”

“There are very few places where the long-standing residents of the community have a voice any longer,” said Bennett. “I think large portions of the community that used to have a voice just no longer do, or the voice that they had has been compromised by being a part of the change. As a result, I think [the attempted radio station sale] is a striking metaphor.”

“The EMF was probably within his rights legally with the sweeping power he’s been given, but I don’t think that what he did was right. There is a difference,” he said. “Some of what is being felt here is, ‘Yes, there needs to be change, but how we’re getting there is happening with such audacity. The word that is coming to mind is velocity. It is happening so quickly.”

Bennett sees broken relationships as the heart of the problem in Benton Harbor and said the EMF’s actions are an example of that.

“When you look racially and economically at our area, a lot of it ties back to polarization racially and economically,” he said. “Our ministry is focused on unifying and being a place for all people and building bridges. That’s happening, but it takes time.”

The ministry focus at Headspeth’s church is also community building. “We believe if we build a strong community, we’ll build a stronger church and ultimately we’ll build stronger people,” Headspeth said. “I know the hearts and the passion of the constituents of the city of Benton Harbor and the people are not going to bow out easily.”

What do you think?

Is it undemocratic for states to unilaterally exercise power over “failing” cities?