Experience has taught me that when making decisions about the neighborhood, its imperative to have people who are from or livein the “hood” at the table. Many people are deeming the City of Detroit the “Comeback City.” While I’m truly excited about some of the movement in Detroit, I don’t call it a comeback as we never went away. There are people who have been here, chose to stay, and essentially held the city down. Many urban cities are finding themselves in a similar situation as they are also in the midst of revitalization efforts.
There is not a shortage of opinions about the future of Detroit but often times the people from the neighborhoods are glaringly absent from the conversation. The neighborhood issues are often seen as the problem, however the people who live there are not asked to contribute to the solution.
Years ago I found myself with a seat at the table after questioning Detroit’s property tax payment process. In 1999, the Governor of Michigan signed Public Act 123 which shortens the time property owners have to pay their delinquent taxes before foreclosing on their property. According to a report there had been more than 150,000 tax foreclosures within eight years of the law being signed. Even more alarming is that many of the homes were occupied which would leave families on the streets. There was a story of a Senior Citizen who experienced a water leak in her home, which resulted in a $4,000 water bill. The bill was transferred to her property taxes and at an 18% interest rate she ultimately ended up owing $12,000 in taxes and lost her home due to non-payment.
Interestingly, I noticed that my friends who lived in the suburbs were allowed to pay their property taxes online with a credit card. I began to explore the possibility of Detroiters having an option to engage government online to pay their taxes. Although I expected some push back, I was extremely amazed that the idea was met with intense opposition from some of the people with “a seat at the table.” Although the majority of the people looked like me, the conversation took on a life of stereotypes and some unconscious bias about why “they” did not need or “they” wouldn’t use, or “they” wouldn’t know how to use an online payment system. I remember the thought entering my head shouting “Hold Up!” – I was born and raised in Detroit – I’m the “THEY” the group was talking about! If I was asleep, the comments had awaken me.
Full transparency: I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced thinking you have arrived in life due to financial status, job title, education or all of the “stuff” you’ve accumulated. Well, I realized in that moment that although I thought I was pretty accomplished, my college degrees didn’t matter as there would always be a moment when my family, my community, my child and I, would be considered a “they” and there would potentially be people making decisions about what our options should be. Trust me, I got over myself quickly!
While I’m excited that my voice was finally heard and my team and I successfully implemented the first property tax e-government system in Detroit, it was evident that the non-technical real work had just begun. It was evident that diversity went way beyond race and gender and it was then that I further realized that diversity of thought, experiences and socio-economic status were imperative and often overlooked. More importantly I understood the responsibility of those who have a seat at the table.
I’m not claiming that our e-system decreased the rates of foreclosures, but it afforded Detroiters with an option they deserved and pushed a thoughtful conversation around stereotypes and norms. Without diversity at the table, issues are overlooked, stories are not shared, real circumstances are not considered and the complexities of seemingly good ideas are not questioned. Also, it goes both ways as I gained invaluable knowledge from the people who disagreed with the idea, thought differently, and challenged my views.
Hey, this is not to say that the people making the decisions aren’t coming from a good place as many of them are. This is not a to belittle the efforts of those who want to help the people living in the neighborhood, as that’s also appreciated. I’m just provoking a conversation around…what if? What if, the people who grew up in the neighborhood, live in the neighborhood, have not only seen but experienced the very issues people are trying to solve, were included to foster a deeper conversation, potentially disrupt the plan (which could open the path to a better plan) and help develop a solution?
There is no room for the Ego in Diversity and Inclusion efforts. If the decision makers truly are seeking equality, progress, enhancing the quality of life in the neighborhoods – the glaring absence of people from the people you are attempting to serve should always be questioned and seats made available.
Let me be clear, if you are fortunate enough to be invited to a decision making table and there is a lack of diversity of thought, experiences, and socio-economic status it’s your reasonable service to speak-up, ask the hard questions, kick fear to the curb, and ensure that “diversity and inclusion” are no longer buzz words that equate to making decisions for the perceived “underserved” who can’t possibly contribute to outcomes for their own neighborhoods.
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