Citizen Detroit: Helping residents set the agenda for change

Sheila Cockrel is co-founder and executive director for CitizenDetroit, an independent nonprofit that organizes and activates engaged citizens in the democratic process. Citizen Detroit is receiving $1.5 million in new support from Knight Foundation. 

On Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018, several hundred Detroiters of all ages, races and life experiences convened in a union hall near downtown Detroit for CitizenDetroit’s first Citizen Assembly. The Assembly’s mission: to understand how Detroit’s history has shaped its present, and together, agree on the priorities we’ll use to hold our elected officials accountable. After four hours of speakers, thought-provoking exercises and deliberation, 10 priorities were identified. These will be used as progress indicators to assess the actions of elected officials – those in office and those running for office – over the next three years. The priorities include:

  1. All Detroiters will have access to quality education.
  2. We won’t support a development if Detroiters are moved so others can move into their homes.
  3. Our transit system will transport Detroiters to their jobs and appointments.
  4. All neighborhoods will be safe.
  5. We’ll fight economic segregation: every area of Detroit will have a place for people of all incomes.
  6. Those who stayed will have an active voice in shaping their neighborhood redevelopment.
  7. Government actions will be transparent and accountable to residents.
  8. The City will promote and protect residents’ health, well-being and safety.
  9. Jobs and opportunities will be brought close to the neighborhoods whenever possible – and made available first to Detroiters.
  10. Blight removal is critical but we must save every house we can.

Building on this work, CitizenDetroit will produce a scoreboard that tracks how the city is doing across a multitude of measures. At the assembly, many attendees also signed up to be part of a group that will help track progress through CitizenDetroit’s action arm, EngageD. With the support of a three-year grant from Knight Foundation, we will engage in deep civic education that equips Detroit residents to be the most informed and engaged citizens in our country.

CitizenDetroit’s participants include those who have long histories of championing for breakthroughs in civil rights, as well as young adults who are coming of voting age and want to participate more fully in the democratic process. While there is a sense of great hope among them for the future of Detroit, there is also a fear that their voices won’t be heard. CitizenDetroit is committed to creating a space for Detroiters from all walks of life to come together to break bread and discuss the most important issues facing our city.

Detroit is facing a period of great transition since exiting bankruptcy and emergency financial management. A recent Knight Foundation-commissioned report for Detroit Future City, 139 Square Miles, noted: “For the first time in 60 years, the city is moving toward population growth, [and yet] today, 53 percent of Detroit residents live in ‘areas of concentrated poverty.’”

Enhancing the decision-making skills of local residents about their rights as citizens has been and remains necessary to set the agenda for change in the city. When laying out city planning goals at the 2017 Mackinac Policy Conference, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said: “Our principle is this: one city for all of us.” This mandate has set in motion a call for increased attention and dialogue among residents about how decisions are made in the city and who decides. CitizenDetroit serves as a platform for Detroiters to become informed about issues that are important to them and what’s at stake.

President Obama, paraphrasing Louis Brandeis in his farewell address, stated that the most important office in our democracy is that of “citizen.” We believe citizens can and will change the course of policy and the course of the country for the better. We’re bringing the notion of citizen power forward in 2018. We will work with our fellow Detroiters to promote a multilayered and critical understanding of policy issues and candidate platforms. In this way, citizens can make decisions rooted in shared values as our city undergoes an incredible period of transformation.