From Genocide Refugee to Inspiring Advocate: Her Story Should Be Read ... and Heard
When Rwandan refugee-turn critically acclaimed memoirist, Clemantine (pronounced Clem-en-teen) Wamariya arrived at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California. one sun soaked, lazy Wednesday evening, the energy level throughout the store took a noticeable upward surge. Firstly, she didn’t just walk in. With a beaming smile and a prance in her step, she unabashedly and eagerly began taking photos with the display of her books and sign, making it obvious she was excited and proud. Secondly, she was dressed casually, but undeniably fashion-forward, showcasing a pair of shoes and a purse that had a story all to themselves. The 30-year-old writer and activist was not content to just exchange handshakes and pleasantries with the staff and customers, she embraced each one she met and listened intently to their feedback regarding her recently released book, “The Girl Who Smiled Beads.” One gets the sense that sort of cosmic shift is probably the norm wherever this vivacious, yet humble young woman goes. Maybe given her personal history of surviving war, separation and dislocation, one expects her to be serious, sullen and beat down. Instead she defies expectations and is a friendly beacon of strength and gratitude, a breath of fresh air in the book tour circuit.
In 1994, the Hutu majority government began a 100 day long bloody and senseless campaign against the minorityTutsis community. An estimated 500,000 to one million people were slaughtered and some two million people displaced. Among the displaced was Clemantine, then six years old, and her fifteen year old sister, Claire. It was at the start of the uprising when their parents scurried them away from their village to safer territory with their grandparents village in an attempt to flee the encroaching massacre. The siblings initially assumed their parents would soon join them at their grandmother’s home, but after some time, unavoidable circumstances put them on the road again. Despite long treks among thousands of others as they went from village to village, and seeking refuge in one country after another, they managed to maintain a united front, but never connecting with their parents and brother along the way. As a result, they assumed the worst had taken place. In total, they spent several years in six countries before landing in Chicago, by the time she was 12, her sister 21 and married, with children.
Beginning our “In Conversation” style presentation I had little, if any, preconceptions of the direction things would go, but I definitely did not expect it to commence with the docile tones of Nina Simone. Admitting to being a bit tense, Clemantine pulled out her portable speakers and selected a favorite from her musical collection. Clemantine felt confident that starting off musically would be a therapeutic way to allow herself as well as the audience to regroup, focus and relax as we all entered a tough topic. After we go from a few minutes of music and then silence, Clemantine indulges my questions pertaining of what life was like as a young refugee, going from country to country before landing in the U.S. “It’s a strange feeling to go from having a home, being part of a family, having that security, to not only being without your family and home, but being without a country.” In her book she gives a heartbreaking account of how life on the run for several years took its toll on her. “I lost track of who I was. I’d become a negative, a receptacle of need. I was hungry, I was thirsty, I needed a bathroom, I needed a place to sleep ... You had to try to hang on to your name, though nobody cared about your name. You had to try to stay a person. You had to try not to become invisible.”
Throughout the book, Clemantine goes from flashbacks of the different phases in her young life, commenting as much on the vulnerability of memory as any social or political issues. This includes her life before the genocide, fleeing her war-torn homeland and the first several years in America. Each aspect is vivid and achingly personal, and although her life was full of challenges that most of us will never come close to experiencing, her story never comes across as depressing. It is raw, real, and yes, sometimes harsh, but it is humane and courageous, a truth worth telling and reading. Her ability to rely on her inner strength and ambitions, as well as the kindness of others, permeates the pages and inspires the reader. A great example of this is when Mrs. Kline, the friend of her American mother, takes her shopping for school clothes. “I did not know how much I was broadcasting my pain, how obvious it was to Mrs. Kline that I needed help loving myself. I tried on the clothes thinking, uncharitably, ‘this is nice, but why should I care?’ But the truth is I needed Mrs. Kline. I needed the confidence and positivity she wanted to instill in me.”
While in Chicago with her American family, she and her sister were eventually reunited with her parents and brother as it was famously broadcast on The Oprah Winfrey Show, for better or worse. Although Clementine was beyond grateful for the reunion, their time together, post broadcast, was a whirlwind weekend filled with awkward moments and understandably conflicting emotions before her family returned to Rwanda. Since then, Clemantine has maintained contact with her family, having a couple of occasions to travel back to her homeland. As she grew in American and grew in confidence, she soared academically, ultimately getting accepted into and attending Yale University. It was while there, that she was invited to participate in an outreach project in Rwanda. To return to her past was difficult, she faced the challenge and prevailed. Later, she would be appointed to the Board of the Holocaust Museum by President Obama, and even join a delegation from the museum to go to Rwanda for a memorial in honor of the genocide’s twentieth anniversary.
Since graduating, Clemantine fell in love with the San Francisco Bay Area and its resemblance to her native land, with it’s bucolic setting of rolling hills. She lives in the area full time where she continues to write, fulfill public speaking engagements, participates on boards and delegations as a refugee/immigrant advocate. She unabashedly enjoys downtime when she isn’t traveling and promoting the book. Speaking of books, she referenced Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” of which she’s read numerous times while presenting at Book Passage. She has not only met Wiesel on several occasions, but has had the honor of introducing him for a special event at the Holocaust Museum in Washington. She described her connection to Wiesel and his widely influential book while at Book Passage and for Medium.com.
“My copy of Night is dog-eared. The pages are filled with plastic colored “flags” that are blue, green, purple, and yellow. Vocabulary is in the margins; phrases and sentences are underlined, some with pencil, and some with pen. Many words are circled. At the end of every chapter, I asked Mr. Wiesel questions, never suspecting that someday I would get to ask them of him in person. My English teacher’s email address and home telephone number are on a post-it note inside the back cover for when I needed help. A recent addition is a note from Professor Elie Wiesel himself.
I still remember where I was sitting when I first opened Night. I hung on to every word in the text. I also remember shutting the door to my bedroom. It was past midnight (way past my bedtime) and I wanted to keep on reading. I stayed up all night reading, crying, and not believing that I had found a language that expressed what I had been feeling for many years, telling of experiences that my sister and I tragically knew so well, but had not shared with each other or anyone for ten years. “The days were like nights, and the nights left the dregs of their darkness in our souls….”
The book’s title, “The Girl Who Smiled Beads” refers to stringing the pieces of Clemantine’s memory in the right light, the right order. If done correctly she believes she can create a “narrative that is beautiful and makes sense.” For those of us, fortunate to experience this story through reading it, we are changed and enlightened. And even more so if we witness her energy and light through meeting Clemantine and hearing her present her story and her life in progress. She had successfully infected us all with the vital realization of how memory shapes our present and future. No matter how difficult to face, the results of embracing the past are rewarding. By night’s end, we were all smiling beads.
Photos of Clemantine courtesy of Julia Zave- juliazavephotography.com
Clemantine Wamariya- clemantine.org
Mixing It Up & Mesmerizing with Robert Rauschenberg at SFMoMA
Since the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) reopened its doors a year and a half ago, showcasing a substantial transformation, it has rivaled all of its museum counterparts throughout the country, including the New York Museum of Modern Art. Beyond the physicality of the space, which covers several floors, is large, looming and light-filled, both the permanent and rotating exhibits have been impressive and captivating, without being overwhelming. Keeping with that pattern and taking full advantage of space, the museum is launching the winter 2017 exhibit season with an extensive and special retrospective of Robert Rauschenberg’s work. This West Coast exclusive presentation, titled “Robert Rauschenberg: Erasing the Rules,” includes an eclectic and voluminous array of work amassed from the artists 60-year career.
When Rauschenberg came on the scene, he redefined what art could be, refusing to be confined to a single medium or style. He relocated from Texas to New York early in his career in 1949. At that time in New York, Abstract Expressionism was prevalent. It was a movement that reflected boldness, broad strokes and the emotion of the artist. While Rauschenberg appreciated the style and was clearly influenced by it, he was determined not to be limited to it or defined by it. He wanted to reflect the new world he inhabited. All the elements in his environment, social circles and dealings with fellow artists, played a great part in who he became as an artist and what he produced. He cherished the sights and sounds of the big city, and unabashedly presented it in his work. Paper, metals, mirrors, liquids, wood; painting, photography, video and sound were elements that excited Rauschenberg and fed into his work. He may not have been the pioneer of such mixed art, but he quite possibly was the first to elevate to such a level of extravagance and capacity.
He had an outgoing personality, a zest for life and a love for other artists, beyond painters. Never playing the part of the typical “isolated artist,” he worked out in the streets as much as the studio, if not more so. He thrived in collaborative settings and appreciated his contemporaries including Willem de Kooning and Jasper Johns. It wasn’t enough to put paint to canvas, he incorporated dance, sounds and found objects to his art. Politics and social issues found their way into much of his work, and he proved to be ahead of his time, with an unrivaled talent to fuse art and technology as early as 1967. Subtlety and restraint were not in his wheelhouse, and a fear of criticism did not determine his artistic endeavors.
This mixing and meshing, and wild, yet carefully executed presentation saturated Rauschenberg’s mindset and became the demarkation of his style. All of this is on full display at SFMoMA current exhibit. Large in scope, the exhibit unfolds throughout 10-12 rooms, with each featuring certain types of his art. Individually and collectively the art and overall exhibit are imbued with all the energy, whimsy, color and life that is Rauschenberg.
The exhibition continues by presenting key periods of the artist’s career in depth, including a gallery devoted to transfer drawings and silkscreen paintings. For the Thirty-Four Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno (1958–60), Rauschenberg clipped pictures from magazines and newspapers, illustrating Dante’s epic poem with images from contemporary American life. Rauschenberg’s merging of classical themes, art history references, contemporary politics and pop culture culminate in the silkscreen paintings, such as the vibrant Scanning (1963) and Persimmon (1964). Rauschenberg also actively explored technological innovations for his performances and artworks in the early 1960s. Collaborations with Billy Klüver and a team of engineers lead to the inclusion of embedded radios in Oracle (1962–65). For the sound-activated work Mud Muse (1968–71) the artist constructed an enormous vat of vigorously spurting and bubbling mud. Originally conceived for an exhibition in Los Angeles and inspired by a hydrothermal basin in Yellowstone National Park, this presentation marks Mud Muse’s first return to California since 1971.
As a prolific artist, with a six decade long career, there’s an abundance to take in, so visitors should plan to set aside enough viewing time, especially if other exhibits will be included. Formerly presented at Tate Modern, London, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, organizers at SFMoMA say this iteration of the exhibit “pays special tribute to SFMOMA’s close and longstanding relationship with Rauschenberg.” ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG: ERASING THE RULES is on view now through March 25, 2018. Check the museum’s website for times and cost. https://www.sfmoma.org/tickets/
Detroit’s RenaissanceAn economic rebirth spawned by a new administration is bringing both people and business back into the city by Paula Farmer
Leaving the sun and mountains of the picturesque Southwest behind him two and a half years ago, 27-year-old Derrick Martin headed to the cold and not-so-scenic northern city of Detroit. Aesthetically, many might find Martin’s move perplexing. But to the young Arizona native with a degree in communications, Detroit was the land of opportunity. It was General Motors’ former subsidiary, EDS, and the promise of engineering training that drew Martin to the Motor City. “The southwestern area of the country didn’t give me the opportunity that I needed to make the money I wanted to make,” claims Martin. “But in Detroit, with the ‘Big Three’ automakers, the doors were wide open to get into engineering.” Even with the chance to develop new skills and increase his salary, Martin was initially hesitant to make the move to Detroit because of all the negative things he’d heard about it. Now, with two and a half years under his belt as a Detroiter, Martin is pleased with his decision and would encourage others to consider making the same move. “You see more professional blacks here,” he adds, “and that gives a strong support base, broad networking avenues and refreshing social opportunities.” During the ’70s and ’80s, success stories like Martin’s would not have been told; it was a different time for Detroit, one of overwhelming challenges.
Heavily dependent on the auto industry for its bread and butter, the city was hit hard when domestic auto manufacturing took a turn for the worse. Crime rose, and businesses and residents were fleeing the city for safer ground in the suburbs. Besides that, the city once known as the home of the soulful, sentimental sounds of Motown was now better known for its infamous “devil’s night” fires. Fast-forward to the late ’90s–a new era with new ideas for a new Detroit has many referring to it as the “comeback city.” For the last several years, the auto industry has been strong and healthy, churning out hefty profits-which translate into more jobs and business opportunities. The combination of generous federal grants and large urban development projects is drawing businesses and residents back inside the city’s borders. And, the isolation between Detroit and its suburbs is slowly giving way to shared interests and oneness among communities. There’s no greater demonstration of this new spirit of camaraderie than the community’s united effort to take the devil out of the pre-Halloween fires that had plagued Detroit for decades. Thousands of residents from the metro area joined forces with city residents to patrol the streets, making the arsonous eve a thing of the past. Besides making the streets safer and turning around the city’s negative image, area residents frequent the sports and ever-expanding entertainment venues downtown, while city dwellers take advantage of some of the finest retail shopping at upscale suburban shopping malls in Oakland County, one of the richest counties in the nation. Detroit is fast becoming a city to be reckoned with. And, while much of its plan still remains on paper, its mayor, Dennis Archer, has set his sights on creating a renaissance that will restore Detroit to its former glory moving into the 21 st century.
BUILDING A NEW LANDSCAPE
Since 1994, the city’s development successes have captured local and national attention. Detroit ranked No. 1 in a 1997 Industry Week magazine listing of world-class communities, based on its manufacturing vitality. And, Mayor Archer, a two-time president of the National Conference of Democratic Mayors, was sited by Newsweek as one of 25 U.S. mayors to watch.
Archer can’t help but be proud of what his administration and a dedicated business community have accomplished. “It’s easy to recognize that the vision of Detroit becoming a world- class city is quickly becoming a reality,” says Archer. “The commitment of city government, residents, businesses and corporations to building a new Detroit has created new hope and opportunities throughout the city. While there is more work to be done, the tremendous accomplishments demonstrate that we are well on our way.” Capitalizing on the new emphasis on federal domestic policies launched by the Clinton administration, Archer ignited a spirit of collaboration among Detroit’s heavy-hitting business sector, snagging a coveted $100 million Empowerment Zone grant. In fact, the city’s success in attracting industrial development to the Empowerment Zone leads the nation, with more than $3.9 billion committed in private dollars for investment. Even small businesses such as private retail, restaurant franchises and drugstore chains, along- side corporate giants like the auto industry, have added another $2.9 billion to the coffers since 1994.
Detroit-based political analyst Mario Morrow says the winds of change are blowing through the city. “The doors have opened, the money is beginning to flow in and progress is beginning to be made, thanks to city officials, the business community and many people behind the scenes.”
Building a new city for the new century is no small task. But garnering support from businesses, residents and federal funding has proven easier than streamlining the city’s bureaucracy. Archer’s administration has been successful in revamping government to overcome its bureaucratic red tape. Now business permits get processed in about half the time taken previously. And Archer continues to investigate ways to reduce the income and corporate tax rate. The goal is to make living in and doing business in Detroit easier. BE 100s auto dealer Nathan Conyers, of Conyers Riverside Ford, is familiar with doing business in Detroit. Since 1970, Conyers and his family have stuck with the city through good and bad times, refusing to flee the inner city as others have done. “In the late ’60s [after the riots], there were businesses leaving Detroit in droves. We said to ourselves, ‘If we go into business, we want to be in business in Detroit,’ “recalls Conyers. “The city was experiencing some pretty tough times then, and there were fewer and fewer dealerships in central city. We came into business to provide economic opportunity for ourselves and others here in the city.”
After experiencing financial rough spots through 28 years of business, Conyers’ dedication to
his family business and Detroit is paying off. The oldest African American car dealership in the country is consistently turning a profit and serves as a training center for young would-be dealership owners.
With his network of eight dealerships throughout metro Detroit grossing more than $500 million annually, BE 100s CEO Mei Farr, of the Mel Farr Automotive Group, knows the unique challenges for African Americans looking to do business in Detroit. He believes that with certain elements in place, it can be a great place to see business ideas take off. “To succeed on any level will take the realization and education that a good living can be made through entrepreneurship,” says Farr. But he cautions that having a reasonable business idea is often not enough. “Following desire and expertise is locating funding.”
BREAKING THROUGH BARRIERS
Breaking into the white male-dominated auto industry was a challenge and triumph for persistent African American men like Conyers and Farr. But how much more so for an African American woman like Geralda Dodd, CEO of the Thomas Madison Co. This BE 100s firm has steel service centers and stamping plants in Detroit andMansfield, Ohio, and is a successful–and profitable-supplier to auto manufacturers. Dodd acquired the stamping company in 1990 when it was floundering and on the brink of failure. In just seven short years, its assets have tripled and Dodd modestly claims sales of $100 million for 1997.
Dodd loves the industry, which she has been in for some 20 years. And, she loves doing business in Detroit. “The economics of the city may be dominated by whites, but the politics of the city are black, and that can offer a unique sense of support,” she says. “I feel there’s room for improvement. People tend to lose focus on the need to share economic wealth, but there are great opportunities here and I couldn’t imagine being any place else.” Small business development is critical to Detroit’s economic growth. The Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. (DEGC) offer assistance to start-up firms. The chamber is responsible for attracting business to the region. “As we uncover individuals and prospects that either have an interest in the city or in matching up well with property that may be available, we bring them into the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. and work to make that dream a reality,” says Dick Blouse Jr., president and CEO of the chamber. Ginwil Inc., a wholesale distributor of medical and surgical supplies, is one such example of a company benefiting from DEGC’s assistance. In 1996, DEGC extended a $25,000 loan to the growing supply company for equipment, furniture and working capital. Originally scheduled to be paid off in six years, the loan was paid in full within a year thanks to the improving economic climate in the area. “None of that would have been possible without the fiscal trust and financial investment the DEGC and its affiliates had made in the company’s business vision,” says Ginwil President and COO William
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David L. Littman, senior vice president and chief economist for Comerica Bank, says, “In terms of business activity, things seem to have stabilized over the last three years and have begun a slow comeback, especially when you look at the valuation of property and tax returns.” To make this determination, Comerica uses a “comeback index” that consists of 23 variables including neighborhood property values, income tax and the number of permits issued for business and residential development. According to Littman, all signs point to an economic upswing: “We’ve turned the corner; the numbers are now moving higher.” The dependency index is another indicator of a city’s well-being. This index reveals the percentage of the employed population that is on welfare and the total percentage of unemployment in the city. And that ratio is down. In fact, from 1993 to 1997, the unemployment rate has dropped by half, going from 13.6% to 7.8%. The average household income for Detroit has grown by 3%, from $34,710 in 1995 to $35,748 in 1996. The city ranks 11th in income for the nation.
Tyrone Miller, director of Detroit’s Board of Zoning Appeals, offers the recent surge in business and home building requests as evidence of the improved development climate in the city. “We’re really getting a lot of activity in the area of new single-family housing in existing neighborhoods,” says Miller. “The combination of community organization and a private developer will bring 60 new homes, while the overall housing values in Detroit have increased by 30%.” Market indicators suggest that Detroit is entering a period of potentially explosive growth. Within the greater downtown area, there are several million sq. ft. of office space, 15,000 housing units and an array of new retail and tourist facilities. A large part of the transformation is due to the highly anticipated creation of two new sports stadiums, three casinos and new hotels and entertainment centers.
Ground has been broken for the building of a new home for the Detroit Tigers baseball team and a new dome stadium for the return of the Lions football team, who’ve spent the past 28 years at the Silverdome in suburbanPontiac. The stadium projects represent a $505 million investment; the city will contribute $85 million, with the rest of the financing coming from private investors.
Not too far from the stadium area is the riverfront site for three gambling casinos and hotels to be undertaken by two gaming heavyweights, MGM Grand Hotel and Atwater Circus Circus. The third casino bid was awarded to the local partnership of Greektown and the Chippewa Indian tribe. The development and operation of the casinos and the stadiums are expected to bring millions-if not billions–to the city in taxes, create thousands of jobs and ignite tourism. Despite the seemingly bright picture, the projects and Mayor Archer have drawn criticism from some who worry whether the black community–which makes up 76% of the city’s population-will reap any benefits. One outspoken critic has been Detroit businessman and BE 100s CEO Don H. Barden of the Barden Companies Inc., whose bid to build one of the casinos was rejected by the Archer administration. Barden firmly believes that for at least one of the casinos not to be black-owned sets the community back. “Rarely in our history have we as a race been given the opportunity to determine significant participation in an industry,” he asserts. “For us not to take advantage of that is outrageous.”
With most of the white community’s support and the necessary backing of the Detroit Metro AFL/CIO unions, the Archer administration defends its choices for casino contracts. Citing Barden’s financial commitments as falling short of the contract criteria, officials believe the trickle-down effect would have ended up translating into few jobs for minorities. “The important thing is that we ensure as many African Americans benefit from this venture as possible,” says the mayor’s press secretary, Greg Bowens. “Those assurances are in the development agreements because they spell out how much we want, in terms of African Americanowned businesses, to get from the casinos and stadiums.”
The supplier base has to have at least 30% African American participation. Additionally, the unions have pledged training and apprenticeships to fill the demand for skilled labor throughout development. The administration believes these assurances will allow the money to be spread around rather than creating a black ownership symbol in one person. BE 100s CEO Bill Pickard, Ph.D., owner of Regal Plastics in Roseville, Michigan, is one of two general partners in the MGM Grand Hotel’s casino development project. He supports the mayor’s selection and will help to make sure that there is black participation. “I will advise and assist MGM in fulfilling the mayor’s and city council’s mandate on Detroit jobs, black contracting as well as participation in all facets of the management and ownership of the casino development project,” he says. The casinos notwithstanding, Detroit resident and radio news anchor Michael Barr, wife Candace and their seven-year-old son, Mike Jr., believe Detroit is the place to be. “The casinos’ coming to Detroit is important, but that’s just one cog in the machinery,” Barr notes. “If there was never any talk of casinos, Detroit would still thrive–you’ve got the new stadiums coming, a thriving entertainment and cultural district, and city services have improved.”
Financially, the two-income Barr family has no complaints, noting that the cost of living in Detroit is very affordable in comparison to other major urban areas they once considered moving to. The Barrs say their three-bedroom bi-level house, located in a middle-income neighborhood on the city’s east side, has doubled in value since it was purchased eight years ago.
Likewise, native Detroiter Irving Weaver, his wife Griselle and their daughters Melissa, nine, and Nicole, four, benefited from the city’s rising property values when they were forced to relocate to Clarkston, Michigan. When GM moved a portion of its operations north, Weaver and family followed. Not only did the couple cash in on the sale of their Detroit home, which had nearly doubled in value, but Griselle, who had previously worked for Ford Motor Co., got hired on with GM as a joint and fastener test coordinator contracted through its Modern Engineering division. As a transplanted New Yorker, Griselle views Detroit as “the smallest big city” in the world because everyone seems to be able to quickly identify people through family names and high school affiliations. She also continues to be amazed at how affordable it is to live in Detroit and the surrounding areas. “Our home is huge, with some land, which we bought for $250,000. In New York a home like this would be so expensive and unattainable for most.”
The jobs and money created by the Big Three automakers is unparalleled. GM’s recent purchase of theRenaissance Center, located along the Detroit River, is expected to increase the number of employees downtown, raise tax revenues and stimulate the addition of more retail shops and restaurants. Chrysler has invested about $5 billion in Detroit since 1992, with $900 million of that in a state-of-the-art engine plant it built last year. Chrysler, the third-largest domestic automobile company, has also chosen to build its latest hot new car, the Prowler, in the Motor City. In all, Chrysler has 11,000 employees in the city, including some of the highest-paid production workers in the country. Chrysler Vice President of Government Affairs Frank Fountain says the company is committed to the economic growth of Detroit and the inclusion of African Americans in its workforce. “We believe we’re helping the mayor and others who are working hard to revitalize the city,” he says. “As a company of 125,000 employees, about 27% of our total are minorities, and a significant amount make up management personnel.” Beyond jobs, the automaker gives generous support to the Detroit community through donations to the school district and flourishing cultural center. “The philanthropic arm of the company contributes substantially to the arts, including hefty ongoing donations to the newly built Museum of African American History, the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Not to be outdone, Ford has contracts with approximately 20 African American suppliers in the Detroit area and recently opened up the Detroit-based UAW/Ford Training Center.
DETROIT POPULATION BY RACE
Source: Michigan Employment Security Commission
DETROIT EMPLOYMENT BY INDUSTRY
Source: Michigan Employment Security Commission
BRIDGING THE GAP
Beyond city development and job opportunities lies the center of concern for most residents–quality of life. Without question, two areas that impact the quality of life in any city are crime and education. Over the years, Detroit has been brutalized in both local and national press for falling short. Now there’s evidence to suggest Detroit is taking control of its situation, cleaning house and reversing its tarnished image. New Detroit Inc. is a 30-year-old agency devoted to positive race relations through academic achievement and economic equity. The agency monitors the progress of the nation’s seventh-largest public school district. After the results are tallied, it publishes an
annual report card. Project Director Robert Brown explains the results of the agency’s latest Detroit Public Schools report: “In reviewing the last 15 report cards, it’s obvious things are improving in terms of test scores. The district is still behind state averages, in some cases nationally, but the gap is closing somewhat.” Brown admits that the task before the school board is daunting considering that the district has 180,000 students and an average classroom size of 32 students. The neediness of the students is a concern as well–two-thirds come from families that live at or below poverty level.
Located in the heart of the medical district near downtown, the Detroit Children’s Center is a private, nonprofit organization that has been in existence since 1929 to meet the expanding and rapidly changing needs of Detroit children and their families. Grenae Dudley, deputy director of programs, says the center’s commitment to the community is strong. “We’ve had a lot of opportunities to move outside of the city, but this is our home. We have recently strengthened our commitment to the community by building a $7 million building, and we are continuing to do capital renovations in the area to establish our programs.”
The center provides over 20 programs ranging from an incarcerated pregnant women’s group to general foster care. “We have mental health services in two schools,” says Dudley, “and our Detroit Abstinence Partnership is in 20 schools promoting the importance of sexual, tobacco and drug abstinence for students nine- to 14-years-old. Agencies like the Children’s Center and New Detroit contribute to the improvement of school districts. The 4,100 officer Detroit Police Department also boasts great strides in crime reduction. In the last four years, there has been a significant decrease in all major crime areas including the number of youth homicides, which dropped by half. Through a newly organized carjacking task force, carjackings have decreased by half in the last four years as well.
Part of the credit for crime reduction is due to the leadership of the department’s chief, Isaiah McKinnon, Ph.D., one of the few African American top cops in the nation. During McKinnon’s tenure several task forces have been developed and 380 additional police have been put back on the streets to combat crime. McKinnon believes the Detroit Police Department ranks with the best in the nation. “The higher echelon of the DPD are the most integrated, educated and trained in the country,” McKinnon declares. The department has put heavy emphasis on community policing, and officers can frequently be seen patrolling on foot, bike or horseback and maintaining a presence in and around schools.
After decades of economic decline and urban flight, the city of Detroit is being renewed with a contagious spirit of enthusiasm. With political leadership and aggressive development under way, it’s in a unique position to offer business opportunities to its residents and those considering a change. As a result, metro Detroit is on its way to earning world-class status and serving as a hotbed of opportunities for African Americans.