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Build the New: Detroit’s Next Path


Detroit & The American City Symposium
Remarks by Rip Rapson
President, The Kresge Foundation

Good morning, everyone. Welcome . . . and deepest thanks for being an integral part of our year-long centennial reflection and celebration.

The Kresge Centennial

A centennial is typically defined by retrospection. And to be sure, I hope ours will summon a full appreciation of the Kresge Foundation’s history – its accomplishments, its developmental milestones, and even some of our unrealized aspirations. Inevitably, that involves honoring the history of Detroit, with which Kresge is inextricably intertwined. Indeed, in a few moments, Wendy Jackson and Garlin Gilchrist will help us start the day by excavating Detroit’s deep and layered history, in all of its attendant political, economic, racial, and cultural richness.

But we draw on the past so that we can look to the future. 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.

When I arrived at Kresge in 2006, the Foundation had contributed significantly to creating brick-and-mortar institutions in Detroit through the single tool on which it relied – the capital challenge grant. But over the next several years, a titanic convergence of challenges threatened to bring our community to its knees – the great recession, the housing foreclosure crisis, bankruptcies up and down the automotive supply chain, political corruption. It made clear to us at Kresge that the passive deployment of a single tool in a uniform way was entirely inadequate to stay abreast of the velocity and magnitude of hardship and dislocation washing over our city.

We had no choice but to cut free from our familiar and safe moorings and move directly into the turbulence that threatened to engulf us:

  • We moved with a sense of urgency to view challenges as fractals, comprising multiple parts and requiring multiple responses.
  • We realized that our toolbox was not singular, but powerfully multifaceted.
  • We acknowledged that our appetite for risk had to be commensurate with the magnitude of the challenge.
  • We focused with greater intentionality on people, places, and ideas that had been cast to the margins of our economy and politic

Although it wasn’t clear in the moment, beginning in the cataclysmic 2008-’09 period, we began to crystalize our method into a reliance on six roles.

Six Philanthropic Roles

First, we could use our perceived fairness to convene community members around the kind of gnarly issues that the other sectors wouldn’t, or couldn’t, address.

Think, for example, of the table setting that led to the formation of the Detroit Future City landuse and investment plan . . . or to the Hope Starts Here coalition that seeks to create a comprehensive early childhood system in Detroit.

Second, we could invest in the augmentation and fortification of local capacities to participate meaningfully in decision-making and investment.

Think, for example, of the way that investments in  Detroit’s community development finance institutions have transformed how capital flows to community-based projects . . . or how investments in small businesses owned by people of color have reshaped Detroit’s entrepreneurial environment.

Third, we could peel away the first layer of risk in critical transactions that stood outside the comfort level of public and private sector actors, either by serving as a “first-mover” or by assuming the top level of financial risk.

Think, for example, of philanthropy guaranteeing repayment for home repair loans in which the amount of the loan exceeds the estimated fair market value of the home . . .  or philanthropy’s first dollars into a commercial revolving loan fund on Woodward Avenue, or a RiverWalk along the Detroit River, or a light rail line that serves as a downpayment on a regional transit system.

Fourth, we could invest in public spaces that signal to private markets that these are places that will anchor a community’s sustained long-term health and stability.

Think, for example, of the investments in the Marygrove campus in Northwest Detroit that both provides ballast for the neighborhood and pioneers a new model of pre-school through postsecondary education . . . or the infusion of capital into the derelict sheds of Eastern Market that helped rejuvenate and reimagine one of the nation’s great public markets.

Fifth, we could help guide federal dollars or philanthropic resources flowing from outside the city.

Think, for example, of the role philanthropy played in providing ground-truth for the Obama Administration’s investments in housing, economic development, technology, safety, and transportation to help Detroit reset its trajectory following the bankruptcy . . .  or in helping the federal Department of Transportation navigate the nuances of the I-375 reconstruction project to ensure that it stands as a model of reparative infrastructure investment.

And sixth, we could contribute to the stewardship of the fragile civic and cultural ties that help bind a city together.

Think, for example, of the investments in artists, small arts organizations, and activities exploring cultural identity that are chronically ignored in public or private fiscal priorities . . .  or support for the networks of front-line human development organizations helping residents navigate opaque public systems and strive for greater economic stability.

The Roles in Combination

As we applied these roles in very different circumstances over the last fifteen years, they became more than theory. We called on them not only during economic downturns and the bankruptcy, but also during the intensification of our investments in neighborhood revitalization after the bankruptcy’s conclusion . . . during the dizzying dislocations in public health, small business viability, and daily life occasioned by COVID . . . during the formation of ways to embrace the imperative of racial justice and reconciliation following George Floyd’s murder . . .. and many more.

The reason I mention all of this is that it suggests a constancy of approach for a philanthropic sector that is continually buffeted by external events.

  • These roles cut a channel for philanthropy to help overcome the inertias of the public and private sectors . . .
  • They impel us to elevate the primacy of communities well organized where they live . . .
  • They demand that we insert values of equity, opportunity, and justice into decision-making that is often hard-wired to marginalize them . . .
  • And, they illuminate a way for us to balance the need forresponsive and transactional support with the desirability of addressing the long-term systemic drivers of unjust social and economic systems.

I want to suggest as well that these roles activate with greatest potency when they are deployed in combination.

For example, by setting the table for the reimagination of an early childhood development system , and then investing in community capacity to deliver key elements of that system, you create the ability to pursue projects that build long-term health and social cohesion.

By absorbing the first layer of risk in an otherwise elusive housing strategy, you both invite private and public sector capital into undertakings they would otherwise cordon off , and start in motion a fly-wheel of more balanced, equitable investment.

Stated somewhat differently, the six roles enable us to reverse engineer our challenges: clarifying what we want to accomplish, then working backward to assemble the right players equipped with the right tools . . . applied in the right proportions  . . . in the right sequence . . .  at the right pace.

Only then do we forge a truly effective, equitable, and accountable civic problem-smashing machinery. Not just City Hall or State government. Not just corporations, no matter how enlightened. Not just philanthropy. And not even just community residents. Instead, all parts of civil society working in a mutually reinforcing way to advance the common good.

We’ve structured today’s symposium to understand just what this might look like when applied to the bedrock imperatives of repair, economic equity and abundance, and climate and health.

The speakers and panels that follow will unpack and re-assemble these themes in the most remarkable way. But let me offer just a quick word about each.

Repair + Economic Equity & Abundance + Climate & Health

First, repair.

In many ways, our collective challenge is to create a “culture of repair” – a concept articulated by Aria Florant. Aria underscores that repair is not one thing – not a commodity – but instead four interrelated processes: reckoning . . . acknowledgement . . . accountability . . . and redress.

And it is also clear that we have a great deal to learn from other instances in which grave injustice has deprived entire populations of their economic livelihood, their sense of identity, their dignity, their lives: Native Americans and Japanese Americans readily come to mind. Even if those lessons are limited, they shouldn’t be ignored. If we are to ensure justice and inclusion, we must not only seek to rectify past harms and dismantle exclusionary policies and practices, but also change the rules of the game going forward.

There are outlets for this conversation in virtually every community in America. But here in Detroit, we have an enormous opportunity to create a culture of repair around the I-375 project I mentioned earlier. It is a generational opportunity for Detroit to undo through a lens of equity an egregious mistake of 1950’s urban renewal in which the city, and feds, plowed a freeway right through Detroit’s thriving Black Bottom and Paradise Valley neighborhoods – hubs of Black businesses, arts, culture, and heritage. We need to call on federal, state, local, and philanthropic dollars to imbue the project with reckoning,acknowledgement, accountability, and redress.

Second economic equity and abundance.

There is no more thoughtful, incisive, elegant, and constructively provocative observer of equity and abundance than Angela Glover Blackwell. So, I will stay out of her lane and listen to her reflections with great care.

I would only add that we stand at a critical inflection point as we seek to take full advantage of the federal dollars flowing into communities from ARPA, the Inflation Reduction Act, the Infrastructure bill, and the CHIPS Act.

It is all too tempting for cities contemplating the draw-down of those dollars to default to civic auto-pilot, ensuring that the dollars move in channels of least resistance – channels that meet the needs of rapid deployment or political expediency, but not the imperatives of advancing equity and facing down climate change.

And yet, scores of examples are emerging in which cities are reimagining those channels in bold and innovative ways – braiding together multiple forms of capital from various sources to carry federal dollars the critical last-mile to projects that deliver for low-income communities. We need to keep those examples in clear view and seek to translate from one place to another some of the most tangible successes.

Just a brief note of caution, though, about the malevolent application of State preemption authority.

Two weeks ago, a media outlet led with a headline blaring that almost a dozen states have moved to ban guaranteed income programs.

This backlash against the more than one hundred cities testingthese approaches is fueled by the same insidious canards that have become all-too familiar, but that have been unequivocally debunked: that cash payments are simply wasted on non-essential expenditures and encourage people not to work.

Just the opposite is true, of course. The evidence unambiguouslyunderscores that these programs set families on the path to economic stability – paying for childcare, car repairs, clothing, and other items that provide small, but essential, support for families to weather the countless daily impediments to holding a job, protecting one’s health, or attending to basic family needs.

Indeed, I suspect you’ll hear from Kresge’s Director of Human Services, Raquel Hatter, that these programs cut through the normal red tape of government programs and demonstrate – much as did direct income supports to families during COVID – that fundamental policy change in safety net programs is not only possible, but also pays enormous short- and long-term dividends.

And third, the interweaving of climate and health.

The climate crisis has set in motion forces that will forever change the nature of life in America’s cities. In exactly what form, in what magnitude of disruptive severity, and over what period of time is not entirely clear. But what is clear is that a foundation, or any organization, seeking to promote urban opportunity cannot ignore that dynamic.

  • Because climate change is a civil rights issue, falling with unforgiving and disproportionate burden on the backs of people with low-incomes, people of color, and otherwise marginalized populations . . .
  • Because climate change is a social justice issue, screaming out for those of us in the privileged perch of philanthropy to support organizations that serve as our society’s moral thermostats – organizations that flip into the “on” positionin the presence of suffering, injustice, or callous behavior.
  • Because climate change is a public health issue, determining whether our communities remain fit for habitation;
  • And because climate change is an economic justice issue, destabilizing virtually every dimension of how our economy works and determining whether we either genuinely advance inclusive growth or whether we are content to simply perpetuate, and therefore exacerbate, existing disparities in employment, wealth creation, and economic mobility.

Local strategies to address climate, health, and economic opportunity will accordingly be limited in their efficacy unless and until they move beyond investing in one dimension – say housing or education or health – and toward investing in cross-disciplinary approaches. The truism that people don’t live their lives in one dimension, but in a web of complex interlocking systems, is, in fact, true . . . and shapes how effectively we can improve the day-to-day realities of community life. We need to integrate multiple civic systems – to grab the web whole.

The scale of the challenge can easily overwhelm one’s sense of agency – what can we possibility do when the hills of Southern California burn with terrifying ferocity and regularity . . . when the streets of Miami are under water on even the sunniest of days . . . when heat waves kill hundreds of vulnerable people every summer in Chicago and Phoenix?

The only viable response, it seems to me, is to construct an environmental . . SLASH-health , , , SLASH-community development ground game that reaches into every city and town of America to deconstruct stale . . . and . . . unproductive . . . and harmful norms and behaviors in favor of proof points demonstrating that we can strengthen the health and environmental integrity of communities through practices and policies that are people-centered, data-driven, and grounded in racial equity.

That kind of localism is critical . . .

  • Because it is at the local level that we can hold and own the implications of our actions . . . feel the benefits of investing for the future . . .  and forge a civic agenda that defines what the community is trying to achieve and how best to achieve it;
  • Because it is at the local level that we can construct, over time, enduring networks of trust and mutual support, building the kind of shared history, accomplishments, values, and aspirations that crystallize into an inclusive civic culture.
  • And because it is at the local level that we can witness clearly and directly how our health, community development, and environmental systems interweave in ways that reflect the life patterns of real people – their social networks, their opportunities for economic mobility, their political alliances.

And the “we” in all of this is us – everyone in this room.


Each of the issues we’ll discuss over the course of the day is not like an infection cured with an injection. Each is instead like a chronic disease requiring corrective treatment by a team of skilled healers working tirelessly over time. Again, that would be you/we/us.

So, you’ve now heard every idea I’ve ever had – and even a couple I haven’t. You were kind to listen.

Let me turn the stage over to the wondrous Wendy Jackson, the Director of our Detroit program, who will talk with the equally wondrous Lieutenant Governor of the State of Michigan, Garlan Gilchrist.

Thank you. Wendy and Garland, welcome.