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Detroit & the American City Symposium looked to past and future of city and foundation


Emily Ardell

Emily Ardell

To mark Kresge’s centennial last week, our foundation held two events. A Kresge at 100 Centennial Celebration at the Detroit Institute of Arts that featured former President Barack Obama, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Kresge Board Chair Cecilia Muñoz and a host of performances by Thornetta Davis, Detroit Youth Choir and other local artists. Earlier in the day, Kresge hosted the Detroit and the American City Symposium at Detroit’s Garden Theater to discuss the regeneration, abundance and resilience of Detroit and how we look to the past to inform a reimagined future. Emily Ardell, co-founder of Four Corners Global Consulting Group, recaps the event. 

In honor of its centennial, The Kresge Foundation is hosting a series of symposia and convenings – organized around the foundation’s priorities and focus areas – to gather thought leaders in reflection, celebration, learning and visioning. Earlier this year, Kresge hosted a convening around climate resilience, well-being and community development, a Michigan Policy Conference conversation with Obama Foundation CEO Valerie Jarrett, and a Kresge-U.S. Department of Transportation convening.

The Detroit & the American City Symposium, held June 11 in Detroit’s Midtown, grappled with the city’s historic and present challenges and inequities while also uplifting the city’s strength, ingenuity and promise, pointing to the opportunities that lie ahead. As the morning kicked off, colleagues and friends from Detroit and across the country had an opportunity to reconnect and network.

The theater was buzzing with excitement as attendees were treated to a performance by Detroit’s own Cass Technical High School Marching Band, followed by an inspirational film by Stephen McGee. The film featured narration by Detroit Poet Laureate jessica Care moore and an original score by Cyrus Reynolds.

The Cass Technical High School Marching Band opened the show with a rousing performance. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

Kresge President and CEO Rip Rapson delivered opening remarks and highlighted how “the centennial affords a vantage point from which we can interrogate and illuminate the ambiguities of the paths we’ve traveled so as to refine, recalibrate, and perhaps reimagine those we will take going forward … a vantage point from which we can weigh the benefits of consistency against the imperative of embracing the uncertainties of adaptive adjustment.”

Kresge President & CEO Rip Rapson at a podium with the sign: Detroit & The American City A Kresge Centennial Symposium
Kresge President & CEO Rip Rapson

Rapson eloquently laid out the important steps the foundation has taken over the last 15 years to transform how it supports the city of Detroit, stepping into new roles as a convener, a capacity builder, an investor and an innovator.

By taking risks, centering equity, advancing a “culture of repair,” and mobilizing and distributing resources, Kresge continues to position itself to respond to entrenched and emerging problems that threaten Detroit’s diverse communities, from climate change to economic inequality.

Kresge's Wendy Lewis Jackson and Michigan Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist II with a microphone in hand sit on chairs on a stage.
Kresge Detroit Program Managing Director ‘s Wendy Lewis Jackson and Michigan Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist II.

Following the president’s remarks, Wendy Lewis Jackson, managing director of Kresge’s Detroit Program, and Michigan Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist II held a fireside chat, striking a hopeful tone as they discussed the deep and rich history of Detroit and the immense possibilities for the city.

Gilchrist reminded those in attendance that Detroit has always been a place for people to pursue their dreams, but there remains an imperative to foster an enabling environment in which people can in fact stay and thrive; where they can realize their visions of launching businesses, buying homes and raising families.

While the two reflected on the fact that “there is nothing a Detroiter can’t fix, build, imagine,” they simultaneously acknowledged that investments in economic opportunities, in women and childcare, and in tech equity are necessary preconditions.

Regeneration: Repair & Restoration

The theme of perseverance was echoed by Dominique Morisseau, a renowned playwright and actress, born and raised in Detroit, who offered a brief but passionate interlude between onstage discussions.

Playwright & actress Dominique Morriseau at a podium with the sign: Detroit & The American City A Kresge Centennial Symposium
Playwright Dominique Morriseau is the author of the Detroit Project, a 3-play cycle examining the sociopolitical history of Detroit.

Challenging the stereotypes and caricatures of Detroit and its residents, she vociferously championed Detroit’s unparalleled ability to regenerate and rewrite the story that is told.

Later in the morning, Jackson returned to join a panel moderated by Raquel Hatter, Kresge’s managing director for Human Services. The discussion centered on acknowledging past harms that hinder communities’ path towards greater equity. Joining Jackson and Hatter were Detroit Future City CEO Anika Goss, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Andre Perry, Detroit Public Schools Community District Deputy Superintendent Alycia Meriweather, and Urban Strategies Executive Vice President Donovan Duncan.

Panelists called attention to the perpetuation of economic inequality through wealth concentration, noting that to disrupt the widening racial wealth gap, it will be critical to address root causes. As Meriweather explained, “Past harms play into a multigenerational negative impact.” The panelists elevated how lending practices, access to capital, education funding and the valuation of homes and neighborhoods can be used as levers for either the status quo or transformational change. They made clear that understanding past harms and the ways in which these tools have been wielded to devastate Black and Brown communities is essential to developing new policies and place-based initiatives that will close the gap and advance equitable economic growth.

Abundance: Economic Equity

Angela Glover Blackwell, founder in residence at PolicyLink, then transitioned to the next panel with a sharp and poignant introduction that called for a radically inclusive future within a multiracial democracy. As she put it, “we’re governing for human flourishing,” which will require strong and steady leadership, access to power and a vision rooted in a just economy.

A panel of five people sitting on couches on a stage with the Kresge 100 logo behind them.
Envisioning a Detroit Where All Detroiters Have Access to Opportunity panel: New Economy Initiative Executive Director Wafa Dinaro, JP Morgan Chase Head of Advancing Black Pathways Byna Elliott, PolicyLink Founder Angela Glover Blackwell, Mothering Justice Executive Director Danielle Atkinson, Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation Executive Director Angie Reyes.

On the panel, she was joined by Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation Executive Director Angie Reyes, Mothering Justice Founding Director Danielle Atkinson, JP Morgan Chase Head of Advancing Black Pathways Byna Elliot and New Economy Initiative Executive Director Wafa Dinaro. The speakers built on Blackwell’s message as they collectively envisioned a Detroit where everyone has shared access to opportunities.

Central to the panel’s vision was a recognition that the greatest power comes from building broad coalitions. While our current systems and structures often pit disinvested and marginalized communities against one another, Reyes observed that “as organizers, [we need to] come together to say we’re not going to fight over crumbs, we’re going to advocate for a bigger pie.” The panel also acknowledged the disproportionate harm committed against and burden placed on Black and Brown women and the need to target investments and support accordingly. Glover held both these positions when declaring, “The fate of the nation depends on the very people that have been left behind.”

Resilience: Climate & Health

An afternoon panel moderated by Kresge Detroit Program Officer Alexa Bush spotlighted the links between climate change and health.

A panel of five people sitting on couches on a stage with the Kresge 100 logo behind them.
Reimagining a Resilient and Healthy Detroit panel: City of Detroit Office of Sustainability Director Tepfirah Rushdan, Green Door Initiative Founder & CEO Donele Wilkins, The Kresge Foundation Detroit Program Officer Alexa Bush, Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice Founder Catherine Flowers, University of Michigan Climatologist Omar Gates.

Joining Bush were the founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, Catherine Flowers; founder and CEO of Green Door Initiative, Donele Wilkins; a climatologist with GLISA (formerly Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments GLISA), Omar Gates; and director of the City of Detroit’s Office of Sustainability, Tepfirah Rushdan.

The panel illuminated the connections between climate change impacts (flooding, variable temperatures) and individuals’ bodies, health and wellbeing. Speakers were quick to point out that, despite the global nature of climate change, its effects — and the opportunities to take action — are in fact very local. They described the promising openings that exist as the country continues to transition its sources of energy and likewise noted the urgency of securing buy-in at the state and local levels to make meaningful progress.

Panelists also commented on the significant role of public outreach and education, underscoring how essential it is to ensure that community members — those who experience the deleterious effects of climate change most acutely — are aware of how these discussions and policies have a material impact on them and their families, and the role they too can play in advocating for change.

Painting the Picture of Joy and Healing in Detroit

The day concluded with a fireside chat centered around joy and healing. Outlier Media Executive Director Orlando Bailey moderated a conversation between dream hampton, Peabody Award-winning filmmaker and producer, and Hannah Beachler, Academy Award-winning production designer.

Three people sit on white or yellow chairs on a stage with the Kresge 100 logo behind them. The woman on the right is speaking as she holds a microphone.
The fireside chat on Painting the Picture of Joy and Healing in Detroit featured: Academy Award-winning film production designer Hannah Beachler, Outlier Media Executive Director Orlando Bailey, filmmaker and producer dream hampton.

Both hampton and Beachler vulnerably shared the complex emotions they experience as humans and artists. They reflected on the joy and pain Black people experience and the importance of seeing one another as symbols of a shared and liberatory future. They also counseled attendees not to “over-index on trauma” but to “access other realities,” and engage in the natural world. This discussion echoed a remark from earlier in the day by Mothering Justice’s Atkinson who stated that because the arc towards justice is long, it becomes one’s privilege, responsibility and cultural practice to invoke joy along the way.

This fireside chat, followed by Jackson’s closing remarks, served as a fitting end to a day of robust conversations. Jackson expressed a deep sense of gratitude to the foundation’s grantees and partners for all that they do and make possible, both for each other and for the city.

The symposium created space for participants to assess where the city has been, where it is, and where it can go, and the foundation is looking forward to its future convenings that will similarly spark necessary dialogues, promote exchanges, and incubate new ideas.

Emily Ardell is co-founder and principal of Four Corners Global Consulting Group, which provides specialized consulting services to overseas and U.S.-based non-profits, philanthropies and academic organizations.