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Kresge president: Support for community organizations one key to moving Detroit forward

Detroit, From the President

Supporting a new breed of community organizations is one of the keys for moving Detroit forward in its post-bankruptcy era, Kresge Foundation President and CEO Rip Rapson told more than 1,000 urban planners, government officials, activists and others at a national conference.

“There is a palpable hunger and capacity among community-based nonprofits and individual residents to take on neighborhood-level transformation,” Rapson told the Reclaiming Vacant Properties conference of the Center for Community Progress during his plenary address Wednesday at the Detroit Marriott Renaissance Center.

Rapson traced the turbulent recent years of the city, which defied predictions of doom and last November ended its 18-month bankruptcy with a plan of adjustment, clearing its debts with, as Rapson described it, “a timely and consensual resolution.”

Key to exiting bankruptcy was the “Grand Bargain” to prevent significant impairment of city-worker pensions and safeguard the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Foundations contributed $370 million to that effort, led by $125 million from the Ford Foundation and $100 million from Kresge.

Rapson told his audience that other factors are as or more important than the fiscal terms of the city’s emergence from bankruptcy. The city’s municipal services are being reinvented – through the “tenaciously focused work” of Mayor Mike Duggan – while “the social, physical, cultural, economic and environmental building blocks of Detroit’s return to health and vitality” are being assembled.

As in the Grand Bargain, private philanthropies, which conservatively pumped more than $1 billion into the city in the six years leading to the bankruptcy, must continue to move beyond their conservative thinking of the past, Rapson said. They also will have to join with the private sector and all levels of government to realize the potential of the moment.

The work ahead includes investing in community groups addressing the subject of the conference – widespread blight and abandonment. “There is perhaps no other city in America that is more emblematic of the herculean struggle to address rampant blight and vacancy,” Rapson said of Detroit.

“The front-line community workers in Detroit have had to be innovative and flexible, cross-braiding skills, experiences and tools extracted from multiple disciplines: environmental advocacy, community organizing, social justice, health care, food systems, arts and culture, transit, architecture and planning and much more,” Rapson said.

“Philanthropy needs to stop insisting that organizations like these fit into neat and tidy funding buckets,” he added. “We need instead to give them general operating support to let them work the way they need to. … We need to have their back when they try something unusual, and even when that is disruptive and provocative.”

Among examples of investing in community groups, Rapson cited the recent grants in the Kresge Innovative Projects: Detroit initiative. The first grants in that three-year, $5 million effort included the revitalization of an iconic neighborhood park, the transformation of a transit corridor into a greenway with solar lighting and the renovation of a building for a boxing gym to expand a youth-mentoring program.