"How can white people assimilate into black communities with respect & honor?"
A daughter of Detroit and the Chief Operating Officer of NEW, Mesfin Johnson is a passionate advocate for equity and access for people of color.
But stepping back for a second, in case you're unfamiliar with the city:
Detroit is a majority black city. Not just by a hair, by a wide margin—82%. And not just for a minute, for nearly a half century.
If you're new & white in Detroit, one of the first things you will learn—if you listen—is that you need to start right here: Understanding the city's demographics & its history. The decades of white flight & investment, the patterns of housing segregation in the city & suburbs, and the very real and current economic data—dollars & cents—of racial inequity, both locally & nationally.
Why does this matter? Because if you are entering a new community—any community, really—it is your responsibility to know the story of the place.
Many newcomers understand this; still many are learning.
If you are a white American, it's quite possible you have never experienced being a minority before. This may be new for you?
So this is where we begin.
The question for Mesfin Johnson's talk, she said, was inspired by Ms. Davis, a longtime resident of Detroit's North End, a neighborhood now seeing a new wave of interest due to its proximity to the greater downtown area which has seen dramatic investment & development in recent years.
In her conversation with Ms. Davis, Mesfin Johnson heard something that moved her:
"Baby, we've always welcomed folk in our neighborhoods. It's not THAT they're coming, but HOW they're coming."
"In her statement I heard something different," said Mesfin Johnson. "Not analysis, research or academic views of gentrification. I heard a different perspective on the prevailing 'us and them' discourse and I latched on. I heard wisdom and history and courage and power. Resilience and love. A challenge to our generation to grab hold and do better. To challenge change and call it what it is. Not big systems change, but everyday just do a little effing better change."
So she posed this question on Facebook, and this turned into a parlor talk. The response was overwhelming, with nearly 600 responses for a space that can hold 60.
"How can we resist oppression while simultaneously extending grace?"
Extending grace is exactly what Mesfin Johnson did, generously sharing her time & perspective on her changing hometown, weaving in anecdotes from elders, statistics from recent studies, input from the audience, and some recommendations for newcomers, too—read on below.
"Gentrification, the things we are doing to solve for it—the kinds of things we talk about at Mackinac—those are TACTICS. I want to talk about root causes."
Early in the conversation, Mesfin Johnson invited the room to turn to their neighbors. After huddling for a few minutes, guests shared out:
"What does respect mean to you?"
"Listening before talking."
"Looking people in the eyes and saying hello."
"Appreciating difference, even when you don’t agree."
Mesfin Johnson also shared concerns, including one that has been echoed many times in our Consulate talks:
"I worry we use community engagement as an insurance policy, not as a central tenet of design."
Designers & planners have definitely woken to the need for greater stakeholder engagement & participation to make places successful—but are their projects *really* driven by the communities they serve? As R. Steven Lewis, Kimberly Dowdell & Tya Winn have asked in their parlor talks in Detroit & Philadelphia:"Who is it built by? Who is it built for?"
How to Enter Black Space
So what does it mean to enter black space with respect & honor? Mesfin Johnson shared four thoughts:
1. You have to be willing to share power & resources
2. You have to acknowledge oppression—and not just name it, but act upon dismantling it
3. You have to check your entitlement ("to whom much is given, much is required")
4. You have to be intentional about being in relationship with one another.*
*Not just 8-5 at work, but in life.
Where do you spend your money, your time? Who is in your vendor pool, your hiring?
Mesfin Johnson concluded the evening by opening the floor to questions & answers—including an exchange about the call for "inclusion" and why it's not as simple as it may seem. (Again, who's including who?)
To watch the live video feed, click here.
For more pre & post-event dialogue, check the Facebook page here.