Making Detroit a Movement: The Power of Narrative
Our closing session kicks off with a presentation by John Hagel III, Co-Chairman, Center for the Edge, on What Business Can Learn from Social Movements, leading into a discussion about the future of Detroit, with its legacy of innovation and diversity. How can Detroit become a movement not just of individuals, but of companies and institutions? And where could that momentum take the city?
Kirkpatrick: Now we’re going to do something kind of fun and different to wrap things up. First, I want to introduce John Hagel from Center for the Edge and one of the great thinkers about the future of business and where society is going. He’s written a ton of books about the Internet, about business strategy and other things—very influential. He wrote a piece for us about taking the idea of movements and applying it to business, and even cities like Detroit. So we thought it would be a very interesting discussion to talk about what does it mean to consciously try to cultivate Detroit more as a movement. So he’s going to start out talking about what he means by movements, and then I’m going to join him onstage with two other people, who I’ll introduce to you then. So, John, please come up and get us started, and then we’ll join you onstage.
Hagel: I’ve become more and more intrigued with the potential that this has. And I want to, at the outset, make a distinction, because I think most of us tend to use stories and narratives synonymously, either word means the same thing. I want to suggest that, actually, there may be an interesting distinction here, and the distinction that I draw is that if you focus on stories, stories, at least for me, have two key characteristics. One is they tend to be self-contained. They have a beginning, a middle, and a resolution; something happens to resolve the story. And the second element is a story typically is about me, the storyteller, or it’s about those people over there. It’s not about you. You could use your imagination, you could think about what you would do in the context of that kind of story, but it’s not about you.
And the distinction for me is, when I think about narrative, I focus on two other attributes. The first is a narrative, the way I use it, is open-ended. There is no resolution yet. It’s to be determined. There’s some kind of opportunity or thing out on the horizon that we could potentially achieve, but, again, it’s not resolved. It’s unclear whether it will be achieved. And the resolution of that narrative hinges on you. It’s a call to action. It says what choice are you going to make, what action are you going to take to determine whether this thing on the horizon gets achieved or not? So it becomes a very powerful call to action.
And I think throughout history—I mean we talk about the power of stories, and I certainly do not want to diminish the incredible emotional engagement that you get from stories. The contrast that I draw is that if you look throughout history, millions of people have actually sacrificed their lives for a narrative. You want to talk about emotional engagement, they’ve made the ultimate sacrifice for a narrative.
There are many kinds of narratives. Just as a couple of examples, you have religious narratives. There’s a Christian narrative. You know, we were all born in sin, but a savior was brought to us and we now have the opportunity, the potential for salvation. But it’s not guaranteed. You’ve got to make a choice. You’ve got to act. What’s it going to be? The resolution is not yet there.
You can think about the American narrative, the call to come to this land of opportunity; no matter what your background, no matter what your circumstances, there’s an opportunity to accomplish things that you would’ve never imagined possible. But it’s not guaranteed. You’ve got to come. Are you willing to come? It drew people from all over the world to come here.
Now, as I’ve pursued this topic of narrative, I’ve ended up differentiating, I think narratives can be addressed at multiple levels. I think as individuals, we all have a narrative that has driven our choices and actions throughout our lives. Very few of us have articulated that narrative to ourselves, much less reflected on it. I think there’s a big opportunity to reflect on “what is my narrative?” There’s the potential for institutional narratives, a narrative at the institutional level, corporate or organization of some type. And then there are broader social narratives.
I think the most interesting corporate narrative I can offer—I get lots of kind of confusion when I talk to executives about corporate narratives. They say, “Oh yeah, I’ve got a corporate narrative. You know, we started in a garage, modest circumstances. We faced incredible challenges, we overcame them, we accomplished amazing things.” And it’s open-ended, because there’s still a lot more amazing things ahead. But the response I give is, “Wait a minute, that’s about you. What’s your call to action to others? What are you asking other people to do? Is it just watch in amazement? Buy our products? What’s the call to action that is engaging and compelling to the people you’re trying to reach?”
Now, the one example I’ll give of a corporate narrative that I think is an intriguing one is Apple’s narrative, which was condensed into a slogan, which was “think different.” If you unpack that slogan, there’s a pretty interesting narrative that, you know, for decades we had digital technology that put us in these boxes and took away our names and gave us numbers and made us cogs in machines. And now for the first time, there’s a generation of technology that allows us to express our unique individuality, our full potential. But it’s not guaranteed. This isn’t going to happen automatically. It’s up to you. Are you willing to think different? Will you think different? It’s one of the reasons that I think Apple over time has become the equivalent for many of a religion. It was that narrative that spoke to people at a very deep emotional level and was a call to action, something they could do, that they needed to do to achieve this amazing opportunity.
So I think in the context of movements, from my experience—and I’ve spent a fair amount of time both participating in and studying movements of various types. I believe every high impact movement has had a very powerful narrative driving it. And when I see Detroit and the incredible amount of energy that has been gathered here and is gathering steam at many levels, at the level of individuals, at the level of institutions, I’m intrigued with the potential to amplify and align that energy more effectively through some kind of powerful narrative that could in fact become the driver for a movement, to make Detroit a movement. And I think the interesting thing is aligning, at one level, the individual narratives of all the people here, the institutional narratives of the institutions that are important to Detroit and then having a broader narrative, an urban narrative, if you will, that could be a broader call to action that, again, amplifies and builds on the narratives of the more specific institutions and individuals and takes often kind of conflicting agendas and helps to bring them together into a more powerful impact.
So one final observation is just, as I’ve studied narratives, I think, number one, the reaction is often, “Oh, I’ll give that to my PR agency or my marketing team and they’ll write me a narrative.” From my experience, the most powerful and effective narratives are not from words on a page; they emerge through action. I mean that narrative of “think different” in Apple, think about Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs—I mean two individuals who every day of their life lived “think different.” They gave it a power that just words on a page would’ve never had.
So I think it comes through action. I think at the end of the day, the powerful narratives are those that focus on an opportunity that is in fact being shaped by the forces at work in the broader economy and society. So if you’re framing an opportunity that’s somehow against those forces, good luck. That’s going to be a more challenging narrative.
But then finding that opportunity and defining it at a high enough level so that it leaves lots of room for innovation and experimentation and improvisation, by individuals and by institutions who join in, but enough specificity so that it’s tangible, so that it’s believable, there’s something really worth working together to achieve. And so I think that’s the opportunity here and I’m really excited about participating in the conversation and seeing if there’s a potential for Detroit as a movement. Thank you.
Kirkpatrick: Thanks, John. Okay, please take a seat. And let me just bring onstage now Dave Egner and Lauren Hood. You’ve seen Lauren on this stage before. Dave was involved in the diverse workforce discussion earlier this afternoon. And let me just quickly introduce them.
Dave is president of the Hudson-Webber Foundation and executive director of the New Economy Initiative, but if you look at his bio in the app, this guy is involved with more local organizations that are trying to do things in this region than I could almost believe. It’s amazing how many initiatives and projects you’ve really sunk your teeth into and really gotten—you’re a real expert in Detroit economic and social revival, and I think that’s quite exciting.
Lauren, who’s been really saying great things already on this stage earlier, has done an enormous amount both in the nonprofit world and in the for profit sector. She’s worked at Loveland Technologies. She does a lot of work with Deep Dive Detroit. And what’s the group that you just took charge of also?
Hood: Live6, stands for Livernois and 6 Mile.
Kirkpatrick: So what does that group do, just quickly?
Hood: It’s a community development corporation. We’re filing for a nonprofit status, but it’s going to be modeled after Midtown, Inc. We’re not trying to gentrify Livernois/6 Mile—trust me, that’s where I came from, wouldn’t do that. But they want to, you know, establish processes in the way that Midtown did to help do development there.
Kirkpatrick: And both of you are Detroiters, longtime Detroiters. And I guess I wanted to start out by asking—what we want to do here is have a conversation with everyone in the room, but I wanted to quickly start with these two real experts on Detroit, talking a little bit about what John was talking about. To the degree you already think Detroit perhaps is a movement, or that there is a narrative already, if there isn’t, what should it be, or how do you look at this whole question of the perception of what’s happening in Detroit, both inside Detroit and nationally and globally? And I do think, as a New Yorker, it is astonishing how there has—I think a narrative of Detroit has begun to emerge nationally, which is a very intriguing one, an exciting one—that may not even always be fully reflected by the reality on the ground, I don’t know. And I have less ability to really assess what the narrative may be locally. But, Dave, what’s your reaction to the whole concept?
Egner: So Detroiters would say there’s two narratives, I think. And that’s the challenge. So there’s the narrative of the new vibrant, creative, innovative Detroit, where greater downtown has 99% rental occupancy, we’re out of housing, there’s a boom. And there’s the narrative of the rest of Detroit, where people could be left behind. And I think where we’ve got to listen very carefully to what John’s saying is we’ve got to connect those two narratives. We have to make the creative, innovative Detroit a narrative that also stretches into the neighborhoods and stretches into those that have been disenfranchised.
Kirkpatrick: And you don’t think that’s happened up to now?
Egner: It hasn’t, and part of the challenge is—
Kirkpatrick: I’m not going to argue with you.
Egner: Well, we have thiefdoms that have been created on both sides of that argument. So we actually have people—and we don’t acknowledge this on a regular basis. We have people that have made their political careers, their activist careers, etcetera, on keeping us separate. We’re a region that’s the most segregated in the country. And you can go back historically and look at the out migration—which didn’t happen with the riots, by the way. It happened with the Eisenhower Highway Bill and around water first, like every other urban city in America. But we had county lines and municipal lines that were drawn differently. So essentially, the segregation came in across political boundaries that allowed politicians to say, “You don’t want to be like them,” which was code for an emerging black government power base, or, “Those people are trying to steal our gems,” which was code for, “The suburbs want what we’ve got in the city.” And we’ve allowed that to drive us for 40-plus years. So if we could create a narrative, a vision that united both those that have not had the opportunities that these new Detroiters have had, we can turn the corner. Unless we do both though, where both are welcome, I’m concerned that we’ll continue with two narratives and we’ll continue down very separate paths.
Kirkpatrick: That’s very interesting. Lauren, what do you think about that?
Hood: So much, so much. I feel like the people that control the narrative kind of determine what it is. So the narrative to the outside world is like, “We’re open for business. Come one, come all, there are all these opportunities.”
Kirkpatrick: Cheap housing, blah, blah, blah.
Hood: Sure, yeah, “Come get some.”
Kirkpatrick: Entrepreneurs, blah, blah, blah.
Hood: Exactly. But the people that are here or that have been here I think have a different story, but no one’s heard it because—you know, I don’t know which ‘we’ I want to put myself in because I feel like I’m new Detroit and old Detroit. But speaking as a longtime resident—
Egner: You have two narratives.
Hood: Yes, I have two—I have like 50. But I would say that I feel like the story of the native Detroiter isn’t made public to anybody except other native Detroiters, do you know what I mean? Or those new people that really take the time and like sit down with someone and ask them what it is.
Kirkpatrick: But is there a—I mean do you think that there’s a potential—I mean obviously the whole idea is to generate some new energy beyond just the political/financial investment that’s been made. And I think it has been considerable. We heard the mayor onstage earlier today—did you miss him, by the way?
Hood: I did miss him.
Kirkpatrick: Okay. That’s all right. You’ve been here a lot today. But the mayor, you know, he was pretty impressive. I was amazed—were you in the room when the mayor was here?
Egner: I’ve heard this spiel a few times.
Kirkpatrick: Okay. But what was really interesting to me was, the mayor said a lot of interesting things and then I opened it up to questions, and I just knew that somebody would challenge him on something. Every single person in the audience basically praised him.
Hood: Well, we’ve got to think about who the audience is though.
Kirkpatrick: Well, it was a pretty—
Hood: Diverse as far as tech goes—
Kirkpatrick: I mean there were a variety of different kind of people who were saying positive things. But would you criticize him? I’m just curious, I mean real quick.
Hood: That’s a tricky one, jeez.
Egner: I’m glad he asked you that question.
Hood: I don’t know that I want to criticize him. Personally, I appreciate some of the things that he’s done and I’m excited about the new energy. I just, I feel like—okay, kind of to what Dave was saying, the two need to meet. So there are people here that have been doing work that have only lacked resources really. So they’ve had energy and they’ve been working at things. They really lack resources. So if new people could just come in and say, “Hi, I’m a good conduit for resources. Let me get you some,” instead of saying, “I have an idea of what your neighborhood should look like and I’m going to disperse these resources in the way I think will make that be the reality, instead of the reality that you’ve been trying to create for yourself all these years”—like the narrative that exists is that people have just been sitting here not doing anything.
Kirkpatrick: Right. But you’re not saying the mayor’s just trying to dictate to the neighborhoods per se, are you?
Kirkpatrick: I mean if I think I understand what you’re saying, because I was interviewed by an African American Detroiter earlier today and he was reflecting back to me a very similar point of view, that—Carrie Frazier, who many of you may know—that, a lot of the African American leadership of the city have tried to get stuff done and haven’t been able to get—they just for whatever reason couldn’t get the resources that this mayor has effectively gotten. But, you know, on the other hand, it’s great that the resources have come in, right? But the narrative then is like, well, the failed black administration and the successful white administration—
Kirkpatrick: I mean, I don’t know—and, John, jump in, because this is challenging stuff, and this is—really, it’s your city. And John’s ex-Californian and I’m a New Yorker. But I think it’s interesting to discuss what is the real story that the world needs to understand and what is the story we’d like it to be? Maybe that’s the real question.
Egner: So you’ve got to look at the systemic issues that prevented those resources from flowing. I think that’s been the challenge. So let’s start with resources to entrepreneurs. So you’ve got a whole new set of startups downtown, a lot of tech-based. If you’re in a neighborhood—you know, bankers rank risk on a scale from 1 to 7. If you’re a 6 or a 7, you ain’t getting any money. If you’re got a 300 credit score in a neighborhood because you’ve never taken on debt and you’ve struggled and you’ve got a neighborhood barbershop, try getting access to capital. But now, if you’re in the banking industry and you’re being rated as a professional on loan loss ratio, try making that loan. So there are missing pieces. Furthermore, if the loan is under ten grand, it costs more to write the paper than it does to make the loan. So there are these gaps in systems that have created all kinds of issues.
And then let’s talk out migration in a minute. Many people who left this city left because of housing, schools, safety, and many others stayed because they couldn’t afford to leave. And so now you’ve got a more disenfranchised, more concentrated poverty population, and that’s intensified the systems problem. So suddenly foundations show up, businesspeople show up and say, “Let me solve your problem.” Well, how do you fix the systems—
Kirkpatrick: Is that you?
Egner: I don’t want to be accused of that. We’ve been very careful of that. But others have. Others have dropped in and said, “You need X, Y, and Z.” We had a certain former deputy mayor from your city that actually came in and said, “All that Harlem needed was a grocery store.” And he had the audacity to say that onstage last year, and Sue Mosey from Midtown, I had to walk out holding her because she was going to kill him. Like we hadn’t thought of that, right? We hadn’t done that before. We haven’t dealt with that issue.
Kirkpatrick: No, you’ve got your Whole Foods anyway.
Egner: Yes, we’ve got Whole Foods anyway.
Hood: We’re done now.
Egner: But the point is that the systemic challenges have created these issues, and thus perpetuate two narratives. So if I’m a neighborhood business and I just need ten grand to buy a new piece of equipment and I can’t get access to that because I don’t have a credit rating—because debt in neighborhood businesses in Detroit is the kiss of death. You never take on debt. It’s a cultural issue across almost every urban center as well. I see two Detroits. I see one where these people come in and downtown explodes, and I see my neighborhood, where I can’t even get $10,000 lousy dollars to do something I need to survive—and by the way, I’m employing five people.
Hood: What? [LAUGHS]
Kirkpatrick: You two agree on a lot of this stuff.
Hood: We do. I think Dave is one of the good ones, and I’m not just saying that because he’s sitting next to me. I remember the first time I met Dave was at Mackinaw—do you remember this? Like I have no affiliations, and Jeanette Pierce brought me up, and you engaged me in conversation. There were all those people standing around that you know you should really be talking to, but you were like, “Hi, nice to meet you” and looked me in the eye. I remember things like that.
Egner: Plus, you were by the bar. I didn’t want to leave you there—
Hood: Whatever the reason, you were—and he really walks the walk. So I think of programs like NEI—like I looked at where they went to promote their program. Like they had pictures of, they were in the random barbershop, they were in like the shoe repair shop, they were in the tire repair shop, like those deeply rooted small businesses, like not the ones that are getting press, but the ones that really needed to know that there was funding available for them. And they really like put in the extra work to go to those places.
Kirkpatrick: Here’s a narrative question: What is NEI, just quickly?
Egner: New Economy Initiative. Ten foundations pooled $100 million dollars. Then we raised an additional $35 million in a second capital raise, and the focus is grassroots to high growth entrepreneurship. When we started—first of all, never ask ten foundations to be in charge of anything. It’s a really bad idea.
Kirkpatrick: You’re the president of that, right?
Egner: I run that. And every foundation had their own version of economic development. You had one contingent that said it’s got to be all high growth because that’ll have the trickle down and we can create jobs, and you had another group saying if you don’t reach the neighborhoods that have the greatest need, you’ve failed. You have to start there. And we had a set of systems that didn’t do either well.
So the entire purpose was to create a system from grassroots to high growth. And then I was so moved by John’s remarks, because the work of the last three years has been about creating a narrative that touches both. So last year we launched, and this year we’ve continued a program called NEIdeas, supporting ideas for business growth, exclusively for businesses that are three years old or older in the City of Detroit’s footprint. And we coined the phrase ‘been-ups.’ There’s great things in the startups and should be, and we’ve got to keep moving them, but all of you out there have been up. You’ve anchored your neighborhood. You’ve paid your taxes. You’ve hired people. We have to reward you. So 200 words about your business, 150 words about your idea, if you’re under $750K in gross revenues, you qualify for one of 30 $10,000 dollar grants.
Kirkpatrick: So it’s grants, not even loans.
Egner: They’re grants. It’s cash. It’s cash.
Kirkpatrick: You’re better than a bank.
Egner: But to do it—that was the trick. To do it—and this is back to the narrative issue. We were told by experts no one will come to the party, because they don’t trust you, they don’t know who you are, and you’ve not reached the neighborhoods. So it cost half a million dollars to give away half a million dollars—there’s two $100,000 dollar prizes for larger companies as well. Four languages in translation, 25 investor sites, 17,000 door hangers on businesses, a street team that hit almost every business in the city, and between the two years, we have over 1,100 applicants. The whole thing is a head fake, right? We’re going to recognize these businesses, that’s been great, but I now have 1,100 neighborhood businesses mapped and in an ecosystem ready for technical assistance. If I can grow every business by one employee and we can change the narrative to, “Yes, that system works for startups and for me in the neighborhood,” now we’re starting a narrative.
Kirkpatrick: And I mean we’re not just talking about a narrative for NEI, obviously, but—
Egner: For the city.
Kirkpatrick: Because the city—one of the things that mayor talked about that I thought was pretty cool was this program they’ve built for entrepreneurs where they’re going to have a contest and then basically advise everybody who applies, whether they win or not—
Egner: Based on NEIdeas, by the way.
Kirkpatrick: Oh, okay. But, hey, why not, right?
Egner: Absolutely. Yes, absolutely. The more the merrier.
Kirkpatrick: John, what do you think? I mean what are you hearing here, and how does your point dovetail—what can you help this narrative form into, if anything?
Hagel: Well, it’s a very interesting discussion and challenge, I think, as I’m hearing two separate realities in Detroit. I think the question is, is there a narrative—could we craft a narrative that would be a call to action that would bring those two parts of Detroit together, rather than keep them separate, what’s that call to action that we would want to do, and what’s the opportunity that it would create. And I think equally, one of the important things from my experience in terms of emergent narratives is focusing on some very short-term actions: what are two or three initiatives some group could take, whether it’s a combination of companies, individuals, foundations, but what are two or three things we could take in the short term that would demonstrate real impact from that call to action to say this isn’t just hype or PR; this is something real. We could accomplish something if we came together and took action together. What would those two or three things be that would start to give credibility and reinforce the narrative?
Kirkpatrick: Lauren, what do you think?
Hood: I would say—I was talking to a friend about this the other day, trying to pinpoint like what was that ground zero when the Detroit narrative started to change, like what was the invitation that got everybody to come here. So whatever that is, if it was a “New York Times” piece, like whatever that was, you have to start there. I don’t think we can build this narrative from the ground up. I would love to believe that that could happen, but if we’re being realistic, I think it has to start in that media machine. You have to get at all those people and say, “Look, this is the new narrative.”
Kirkpatrick: Well, I remember when Time, Inc., a company I was work there at the time, sent a huge crew of journalists to live here for a year and they did like a whole special issue of “Time” magazine. We did stuff in “Fortune.” I think “People” did stuff, you know, trying to draw attention to the—at that time it was really just the need. It was like ruin porn, a lot of it, you know, these photos of the Packard plant on steroids, and it was—a lot of that stuff’s actually been cleaned up in the interim. But that was actually maybe a good thing in that it drew attention and—I don’t know. I don’t know if it drew money or what. I mean let’s get the lights up so that anybody in the room who wants to jump in on this can do so.
Egner: And I think there’s an analogy here, though, and I’d be interested in John’s response. I’ve been studying the—over the years, I’ve been fascinated with how fashion moves, how you go from this lunatic fringe to being in the market. And I’ve noticed that city turning and revitalizations follow in a similar pattern. There’s a 2% lunatic fringe, there’s an 8% of folks who are lunatics but not fringe, and there’s a 20% early adapters, and when you can hit that 20% mark, the tip happens.
And I go back to your question of what was the point. It was years of that 2% lunatic fringe—and we can probably call them out by name. There are probably about three dozen people.
Kirkpatrick: People who believed in the possibility?
Egner: Who believed in the city—
Hood: That are local—
Egner: Who believed in the possibilities, that are—some came here, some were local.
Kirkpatrick: Maybe you were two of them. Maybe you two are two of those people.
Egner: I don’t know if I was. Lauren might’ve been. But think about the movement to get the council by district strategy in place. And now we’re at the 8%, and my question is can we push far enough to the 20 to tip the narrative?
Kirkpatrick: Okay, I want to hear from anybody in the audience who has anything they want to contribute to this. Anybody have thoughts?
Dillon: My name is Scott Dillon. I actually work for Data Driven Detroit. So I agree with you that Detroit—and I’ve been here since 2001. I agree with you that Detroit is a tale of two narratives at this point. But I think every city benefits from their regional strategies, and I think there’s this third narrative that possibly needs to be resolved, especially when it comes to our situation, that kind of there’s a layer around our little, I don’t know, conflict that we have going on within the city. And how would you suggest resolving this?
Kirkpatrick: What do you mean, the third—
Hood: I know, you’re being very vague, Scott.
Dillon: I mean the third narrative is like on the other side of 8 Mile.
Kirkpatrick: Yes, Detroit versus everybody—
Egner: You mean the suburbs?
Kirkpatrick: Okay, that’s good.
Hood: Which is really a racial segregation narrative.
Kirkpatrick: Yes. But that has been muddied by the—
Hood: Well, economic because of racial barriers.
Kirkpatrick: But, Lauren, has that been muddied by the revival of downtown at all?
Egner: A little bit.
Kirkpatrick: I mean that’s the narrative of Detroit five or eight years ago, unquestionably, right? But now we’ve seen this fairly amazing Dan Gilbert and others-driven real estate revival, incredible stuff happening in a small pocket. And this neighborhood basically having stayed stable the whole time, thanks in large part to this institution, I guess. But still, that’s a counter-narrative that is very powerful, the suburb-city thing.
Egner: Yes, and I think the way—I’ve been thinking about this one for 18 years. I think time solves this one. When the suburbs realize the marketplace and the challenge for talent will require Detroit to succeed, it’ll flip the narrative. There’s no other way to offset the politics that are 50 years old, other than that process.
Kirkpatrick: But I mean obviously Dan Gilbert moving his company from the suburbs into downtown was a pretty big statement, right? I mean that sort of really deliberately aimed to undercut that narrative. I mean we’ve got to give him credit for that.
Egner: I think that’s true, but I also think that we’ve not given equal credit to the neighborhoods that Lauren’s moving into now. So, you know, 6 and 7 and Livernois is an emerging neighborhood that’s attracting people. West Village is not in the Gilbert footprint, is an important micro district that’s developing. Southwest is an important district that’s developing.
So it’s been easy to look at Gilbert because of the sheer volume that’s been put into place, and it’s been extremely important. We need about four more Dan Gilberts working across multiple neighborhoods, and then we also need to give credence to the work that’s happening at this more organic grassroots level across these emerging five or six neighborhoods.
Hood: Let me address the great and powerful Oz, Gilbert. The development that he’s trying to do I think becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like and he drives that narrative, so he’s like—
Kirkpatrick: He’s a good narrative builder.
Hood: Sure. And he’s got the money to back it up, so he can buy a bunch of buildings, or buy one building and say, “This area’s up and coming” and then go buy a bunch more buildings and suddenly it’s up and coming. Like he crafted that narrative through his actions and his wealth.
Egner: So this comes back to part of the two narrative issue, and, again, I turn to John. The Gilbert move—necessary, important, driving new tax base, will drive incredible outputs—has been a tension to the second narrative.
Egner: Is that a good thing, a bad thing? Is it—how do you drive these together?
Hagel: Well, at one level, I’m a believer that tension is good if it’s productive tension, because it’s a catalyst for creativity and new ideas. So I don’t I think tension alone is bad.
I do want to say, I think that a lot of our discussion of narrative still has fallen back into more explanations or stories, you know, what is our explanation for what Detroit is or what the two parts of Detroit are, versus, again, what’s the call to action? What are we asking people to do, and is there some common action that we could frame that would have impact?
And to your point, I think this notion of fashion is an interesting one. I run a research center called the Center for the Edge, and it’s driven in part by the belief that meaningful change always starts on the edge. It never starts in the core.
Kirkpatrick: But I’ve got to throw something out. You know, the Pope is coming to the US this week. Here’s a guy who’s really good at narrative, like amazing—amazing, at a global scale.
And, you know, his narrative is basically unity, right? And he’s talking about it in a thousand ways, and he’s—I think he’s going to say some things that are really going to shake people up I the US in the next week, in my opinion. I hope he does.
Hagel: Create some tension.
Kirkpatrick: I think we need to be shaken up. But if we were to have the real narrative we’d like to see here, it would be a narrative of some kind of unity that we can dream of, but that we don’t see maybe happening yet, right? But then the call to action is how do you move toward unity, right? Is that fair enough, John?
Hagel: Yes, and, again, what are two or three things we could do in the very short term that would be very pragmatic, doable, and demonstrate some impact so it goes beyond just words to say we actually accomplished something by coming together?
Kirkpatrick: And it takes more than good will. It takes actions. I mean and that’s the hard part.
Kirkpatrick: Anybody who wants to jump in anywhere—hopefully Detroiters. Oh, Phreddy, I’m eager to hear what you have to say—our scriptwriter.
Wischusen: Okay, I’m Phreddy, and amongst other things, I work with a makerspace called Ponyride in Detroit, where I’m the communications director. And one of the things that I’ve noticed—I think the unity narrative is a little bit of a copout.
Kirkpatrick: Okay, good. Well, I like to be wrong—
Wischusen: Because it presupposes the idea that the narratives are already equal, when we recognize that one narrative is backed by sort of an institutional disparity.
But along with that, my question for you guys is this: So we have this—Detroit becomes sort of symbolic for all the urban cores in America. In my job at Ponyride, I’ve seen people come from all over the country and all over the world, and they want to learn about Detroit because it sort of stands in for their own desire to move back or to get involved in an urban core in their area. And so my question is this: I think we generally think of the narrative of wanting to move into cities is inevitable, but why do you think people in suburbs all around the world want to move back into cities, and what does that narrative sort of cover up that is unaddressed about the places from which they want to move?
Egner: That’s a great question. Wow, you must be a scriptwriter.
In Detroit in particular—I think this is everywhere—it’s authenticity and density. So I live in the suburbs. It’s not very authentic. Why do I live in the suburbs? The schools suck in the city. So, you know, you’ve got these kind of underlying issues. I’m old enough that shouldn’t matter anymore, right? It usually starts with people who move in without children that are turning cities around to begin with, and they’re moving away from a lack of authenticity and they’re moving to a point of density. And I think what it covers up or moves away from is cookie-cutter programmed lifestyles where I have to find my own density. I can’t just walk down the street and bump into something that’s interesting to me. That’s why New York’s thrived so much over the years is you can walk three blocks and see thousands of things in that timeframe. That’s my answer.
Hood: I’ve got a response to that. I think what is interesting is what myself and other native Detroiters have been noticing, is we think Detroit’s getting more inauthentic, so it’s really interesting that people from outside want to come here because, “Oh, it’s so authentic.” And then what happens is it just dilutes the pool. It’s no longer culturally interesting.
Egner: That’s because you’re in that 2%.
Kirkpatrick: But I will say, you know, as a New Yorker coming here repeatedly, which I’ve done over the last five years—I’ve probably come here like eight or ten times, and, you know, it is shocking, the racial divisions that you feel here. You just feel it here. We do not feel that in New York the same way. I mean no New Yorker would say you feel it the same way there. And there’s a lot of reasons. There’s definitely some racial divisions. You know, if you go out to some neighborhoods in Queens, there’s some definite black pockets that are really, really different and not included. But the feeling you get in most of New York is not the same feeling. And there’s tremendous diversity, I mean everywhere. But you know what really makes a difference is the subway. Everybody rides the subway. You get on that subway and you’ve got people from 20 different countries and a lot of different races, and they’re all sort of bored, looking at each other, and hoping to get there—you know, hoping it doesn’t, you know, that the air conditioning keeps working—which at least it usually does now.
So I’m just thinking of it in light of the thing we just heard before about the transportation challenge. You know, if mass transit actually happened in Detroit—which, you know, is some ways off, clearly, at any scale. You know, bringing people together in the routines of their daily life is a step in the right direction.
Kirkpatrick: At the moment, you really don’t have the mechanism.
Hood: Other than we’re just people and could do it on our own. Do we need a mechanism?
Kirkpatrick: Well, I mean it helps.
Egner: You’re in the 2%. You don’t need anything.
Hood: [LAUGHS] I forgot. I’m the fringe.
Kirkpatrick: It helps. But I mean probably not. If there was a Pope here who was like driving—you know, you need somebody who’s really going to rise up with an incredible vision, who could lead in a way that is—if you’re not going to do it with subways.
Egner: So two reactions. Transportation is a big chunk of that solution. You know, there’s this old theory—and it’s counterintuitive; I mentioned this in the other session—if you move companies into a neighborhood with the intention of hiring neighbors, in a neighborhood that’s been disinvested, you actually increase poverty. Because you all put yourselves in the same spot, right? You’re in a bad neighborhood, suddenly you’ve got a good job. Your schools stink, you don’t feel safe. You can now buy a car. What’s the first thing you do? You move.
So what we did is, with not having mass transit, we said to people, “When you find something better, move.” Then, one step further than that, my friend Toby Barlow from Team Detroit said to me the other day, in frustration over a school closing, he said the difference here and in New York is Bloomberg lives there and when he invests, it’s personal. When we go to the corporates and the people here, it is not personal. And he said so he has a vested interest in New York’s success and his investments follow his personal interest in seeing his city succeed. We lost that in the 1950s and 1960s.
Kirkpatrick: Yes. Okay, I want to hear more from—over here, please?
Doyle: I’m one of the two-percenters. And I’ll get back to you in a moment, David, to thank you. My name is Orlando Doyle. I founded a nonprofit called Impact Seminars for Youth 25 years ago, plus two years preparation. And Mr. Egner was one of the few institutional leaders that ever met with me, and the only one that listened to me. So thank you, David.
That said, at that early time, I was not prepared to speak the narrative for this idea I’ve been given—and it didn’t come from me. It came from someplace else. I wasn’t able to speak it as loudly as I can now—I’ll catch you on the way out, David. Our new heading of our letterhead is “empower America to inspire every child.” And we can do that by the outrageous request of asking every adult to give one hour, one time to have a conversation with a classroom of kids.
To be continued, David. And thank you for that great meeting 24 and a half years ago.
Kirkpatrick: Okay, I want to hear a few more voices from the audience of Detroiters.
De Armond: My name is Graves De Armond. I’m a 20-plus-year resident of Detroit, after growing up in the suburbs, where we weren’t allowed to go south of 8 Mile and we would sneak, for the raves and things like that in the late 1980s. I’ve seen a big shift from working downtown and commuting to the suburbs, when the larger companies moved all their employees downtown, those employees then went home and complained that there was no place to eat, there was no place to shop, they were stuck at their desks for a solid eight to nine hours. Started bringing in some restaurants, and the arts kids started coming down because there were cheap places to live. You could rent an entire house for $100 dollars a month in some neighborhoods. I lived for five years in Hamtramck for $300 dollars a month.
So when you bring in—we have to remember, along with the Techonomy and the technology and all of the innovation, that that has to include the arts and the disenfranchised and all of these people that started coming down here and brought in the popup restaurants and the arts movements and the music scene that Detroit is also so well known for and stuff. So there’s a lot of people that need to come to the table and work together, and I think a lot of the migration back into the downtown area, it’s a huge bonus for people, once they realize—my entire existence during the week with work and stuff is within 5 and 6 Miles. I don’t have to drive to the suburbs to get food. You know, we have a lot of grocery stores. That’s been a naysay for a long time. And you don’t have to drive back out to the suburbs anymore, where our commute was, at the time, when I was in my twenties, starting to come down here for school and work, you were traveling 40 and 50 miles a day roundtrip. It’s ridiculous.
So a lot of that, especially a lot of the kids that didn’t have cars that were coming down here, they’re riding bikes—and that’s starting to happen again, you know, now that there’s places for them to associate and for them to work and a lot of stuff. You’re seeing that, like you said, in the West Village, where Red Hook is actually paying their employees $12 to $15 dollars an hour, a working—they’ve done away with the tipping and they’re giving these kids a living wage. And the ladies that are running Rose’s down on Jefferson are doing the very same thing.
So it all—and a lot of them are working with the popup farms. And I know you mentioned vertical farming. I have a friend who’s—he and his brother are starting vertical farming and stuff, hydroponic farming, like in Japan. So a lot of innovations.
Kirkpatrick: I love the emphasis on the arts, because the arts, like subways, can bring people together.
Dextina: Hi, my name’s Dextina and I’m originally from Brooklyn, and I’m working for a startup downtown. And I find that when I’m talking about Detroit and New York, it’s best to leave those narratives separate, because it’s easy to say that Detroit is a very segregated city when it comes to race and socioeconomic backgrounds. But I don’t think New York is far enough out of that to make that statement. Sure, people are all taking public transportation, but not everyone is taking that public transpiration into Brownsville. And as soon as people who don’t look like me do come to Brownsville, I know that it’s time that my family has to move because the prices of rent are going to go up.
And so that’s where New York and Detroit are very different in those situations. And so my main question is kind of how do I avoid doing that to other people? I’m not from here and I don’t know what it was like to be in Detroit when the bottom fell out, and so in everything I do, sure, I’m going to try to use what I’ve experienced, but it’s not exactly the same story. And so I’m wondering what advice do you give to people who are coming here to make sure that they’re not doing that to other people?
Hood: The best advice I can give to people is to do some listening, let go of all your preconceived notions and make decisions for yourself. I feel like 90% of the population doesn’t engage in any kind of critical thinking. We’re just super lazy and we’re like, “Oh, that’s the narrative, that must be the truth.” Like I challenge narratives all the time and I get called angry black woman. I’m like, “No, I’m just paying attention. I’m politically aware. I’m asking questions. I’m present.”
But I feel—I always, like when I left the stage earlier, I was like, “Oh, was I too angry?” Like I feel like if you challenge too much, you get in this headspace that you’re—you know, that it’s too much.
Kirkpatrick: Critical thinking is in short supply, not just in Detroit or New York. I mean let’s face it. It’s not just around urban issues.
Hood: But it’s important here because it shapes how things happen. It’s shaping our neighborhoods. If people just like grasp that low-hanging narrative then—you know what I mean? We need to participate and be present in order to get this right.
Egner: I think the fact that you asked the question demonstrates that you’re already doing what you should do.
Kirkpatrick: Yes, that’s a good point.
Hood: Yes. See, you’re right there, Dextina.
Kirkpatrick: Okay, I think we just need to hear a few more voices. I like the fact that so many hands are up.
Langford: Addie Langford, TechShop Detroit. My question comes back to a comment you made earlier, Dave, about time and the long term. The question really is about education and the gap that—Detroit public schools is doing phenomenal things. I’ve just had the pleasure of getting to know the head of sciences, Alycia Meriweather, and I personally am blown away and feel totally blindsided by, again, the narrative of Detroit public schools versus what is really going on that is radical and beautiful and empathetic and self-determinant.
So my question, to get to it, is what do we do in the meantime? Like where these two clear narratives are in fact separate, as we try to all consciously move them closer to one another, what about the young children in DPS right now, before things are truly abundant again—they’re not coming out 15, 10 years from now with all that they could’ve had. How does that affect the tax base, them staying here, them having great opportunities, while all of this reinvigoration is going on?
Egner: Sure. The quick response to that is the narrative and the data are currently disconnected. The data around the performance scores in Detroit public schools is long-term driven, and there’s some excellent programs that are not being recognized because we’re focusing on the data as the narrative. This is back to some of John’s wisdom in this space. That has to happen.
In the meantime we have to take every resource we can and throw it at individual kids and children and make sure they’re getting every opportunity they have. And that means mentoring and other programs, etcetera. We can’t wait for a system to change. And frankly, we don’t need a school system, we need a system of schools, and we’re not prepared to do that here or in any other urban city yet, and we’ve got to keep pushing toward that.
Ermacora: I’ll be quick. David, you invited me to speak here this morning, the session on can we hack cities. And actually, I feel like I haven’t heard enough of that today. There’s something about the brand Detroit which inspires me, as a foreigner. Of course I saw the movie “Robocop.” And of course there’s a lot of things that have happened since. But there’s something to be said for the fact that you have a problem of a very segregated city and you have an urban transportation problem, and you of course have an educational and opportunity problem. So I’m just wondering, couldn’t there be—I run a makerspace and a regeneration studio, and I can just see, there’s so many untapped opportunities in linking the makerspaces and the maker community in this town, and why can’t you hack tons of minibuses or vans and then make that into a kind of Uber of urban transportation? You make it happen, you kind of sponsor makerspaces in neighborhoods that are in the other side of the city, not in downtown, you make those buses come into the city, you make it something worth so it’s both an educational opportunity—I don’t know, I feel like there’s a whole system shift to be done. And more hacking, basically.
Kirkpatrick: That’s what this $250,000 dollar challenge that was announced is sort of trying to stimulate a little bit. But you can’t argue with that, right?
Hood: But the thing is, I feel like problems like transportation are the lesion, and until we solve the cancer that is our racial issues, it won’t matter. The reason we don’t have public buses that go to the suburbs isn’t because we can’t figure out the infrastructure, the physical infrastructure. It’s a social problem. Can you hack racism?
Kirkpatrick: I mean solving is a strong word when the leading Republican candidate is basically overtly racist in some of the things he’s saying. You know, I mean we’re not about to like get over racism, unfortunately, in Detroit or anywhere else. So that doesn’t mean that it’s not an aspiration—
Hood: In the interim, we can solve our little transportation problem.
Kirkpatrick: I mean we’ve got to take steps toward something—I mean the thing I like about John’s idea is the call to action. I don’t know what the call to action is, but there’s got—I want to still keep getting more—okay, this person. Yes?
Alison: Hi, I’m Alison. I actually—I’m a gentrifier. I grew up in the suburbs. I now live downtown, in the—I forget what—the Gilbert moat, basically, I live there. And, you know, I like it so far. But one thing that I find that I completely agree with Lauren on is it’s—I think it’s a value thing. So there are a lot of people down there, and actually, someone asked me earlier today why I cared about Detroit, or why I cared about coming back or its improving, and they said, “Was it something to do with your parents?” And I would actually say I thought about it more and it’s not my parents. My parents made no effort to make sure that I knew any black people. My parents didn’t care if I knew people who had different socioeconomic backgrounds. And I’m not trying to criticize my parents. It’s just not something that crossed their mind. And I think that one thing that isn’t happening enough, especially where I live, is I don’t really think that’s necessarily improving. I think people have moved locations, but it’s like Bloomfield Hills in downtown Detroit. And I think that one thing we can do—and it’s hard when you’re already an adult, because I don’t want to go in and, you know, just say like, “Oh, I need to make friends with some poor people.” Like that’s not something that is going to work. But on the other hand, I think it’s about instilling values and values that encourage people to get to know other kinds of people. And it can be a little contrived, but maybe it needs to be sometimes. And that to me—I don’t know if that’s a hack, but I think it would work.
Kirkpatrick: Interesting. Okay, right here?
Ping: Hi, my name is Ping, and I’m a cofounder of a new startup that has yet to launch, but it’s called the Royce Detroit. And I moved from Brooklyn two and a half—well, New York, two and a half weeks ago. So I think hearing this discussion’s been really interesting, because narrative of Detroit works. One of the narratives has definitely—has been a call to action for me and my wife to move from Brooklyn, from New York, to Detroit and to invest everything that we own. We sold two houses to buy the house we live in plus two more for investment, and we’re planning on starting this business in downtown. So I think it’s just—I just want to comment that it’s working, that there’s a positive narrative of Detroit that’s bringing people outside in here. And most of my friends have never been here. I’m from Singapore originally, but grew up on the East Coast, spent all my university to working life in New York, and admittedly, have not—you know, I’m getting to know Detroit as I move here and there’s a side of it that—obviously, it’s not all idealism that brought us here. So we plan to contribute to the narrative, the narratives of Detroit.
And just a little anecdote: I mean we, you know, a week and a half ago we ordered pizza, because we were unpacking. So the Dominos guy comes in and he’s delivering it, and he’s this African American young man. He’s looking into our house. We’re feeling a little uncomfortable—we live in Boston Edison. And all of the sudden he goes, “This is great, you guys are—we need multiculturalism.” I mean he took us by surprise with what he said to us. It wasn’t like, oh, you know, something dodgy. It was really something positive. So just a little—you know, my perspective as a new Detroiter.
Kirkpatrick: Thank you. That was good.
Biki: Hi, my name is Anne Biki [ph 0:54:47.0] and I just relocated here and I live in the City of Detroit. I grew up in Saginaw. And a couple of different comments, quickly—and I’ve lived in probably five cities in the US and multiple cities abroad, all as an adult. I think Detroit’s narrative, in my experience, has always been very positive outside the State of Michigan, especially abroad. I’ve almost always heard good comments internationally. Again, people think about the music. They don’t think about issues of race relations. They think about the diversity and they think of it as positive.
Growing up, I decided I wanted to do international work, and I quite frankly, growing up in Michigan, never had the sense that that could be done in the State of Michigan because I was not as experienced with Detroit—although, I grew up in an African American neighborhood and my biggest culture shock of my life has been going to a white college in Michigan. So I feel quite happy to be in Detroit, and I hope I am authentic and not just gentrifying. I want to pay taxes, I want to contribute, and I have a lot of different ideas. But I think we have to recognize, in Michigan, we don’t do cities well and we treat our cities badly. And it’s not just Detroit. It’s all of our cities. Some of this has to do with race relations, some of this has to do with terrible state policies that subsidize different kinds of growth.
And I guess I do have a question, at the end of this—and I have many other—I could talk all day, but I guess I’ll give up the mic. My question to you would be, thinking about Detroit, its development—set aside the other cities—how do we work on state policies that are actually holding back and helping to contribute to all of these issues? Because it has to do with sprawl, too much housing—I mean there’s a million of them. But who works on those issues at that level?
Hood: I think that’s a different conference.
Rossi: Hi, Jon Rossi. I just finished the Techstars Accelerator. Relocating from Denver, Colorado to Detroit. So I feel like in Detroit—Detroit has opened its arms and said, “We’re here.” I feel like it’s this Midwestern hospitality that really embraces kind of the outside world to come in, and it just—it’s real humbling, because even from the Uber drivers to the people that work at like Sister Pie Detroit, I mean everyone’s making a real big effort. And I think what people need to ask is, “How can I keep helping those types of businesses, how can I keep helping my neighborhood?” Rather than, “I want Dan Gilbert to help, or the government to help,” it’s how can we really help our neighborhoods?
Hood: And how can we help all neighborhoods, not just the five cool ones that get all the press—all of them.
Taibi: Hi, my name’s Fatima Taibi [ph 0:57:40.0]. I’m from Windsor, Ontario, but I’m actually a student here at Wayne State, and I’m also a journalist with the campus newspaper, the “South End.” So I just wanted to ask you guys about whether you guys look at students and how to bring, you know, whatever it is that you are doing in the community to students here at Wayne State? Because as a Canadian, I grew up in—Windsor is the fourth most diverse city in Canada. So I grew up in an immigrant neighborhood, very diverse, was not used to very like, you know, kind of clique-y groups. So when I came here to Wayne State, it was kind of a shock. But then if you look at some certain groups within campus, you see people, you know, converging on like similar points of interest. So for example, I’m a journalism student, so me, black students, Latino students, like a bunch of us who are in journalism, we’ll all be together in one certain organization because we all have one common thing. So you guys kind of have this idea of one common “let’s make Detroit better,” and by that, like all neighborhoods. Do you think you could possibly bring that to campuses?
Hood: We’re here.
Kirkpatrick: Hey, we brought Techonomy—
Taibi: But the students aren’t here—
Hood: Yes, and we have to have a collective definition of what better is also.
Taibi: Better in terms of like—you know, to change the narrative. So in order for people to be saying, you know, like 6 Mile or whatever it is, is now good and stuff like that, and we can actual have a great life here the same way we can have it in Midtown or in what is developing to be Corktown, like the improvements that are happening there. And by students, I mean like the ones that you see in the student center right now, not the business students that might be here, or the journalist who has to cover the event, but like the actual people that are on campus.
Kirkpatrick: Well, it’s wonderful how many different perspectives there are on this narrative. I mean it’s a complex issue. And I thank John for really stimulating it with the piece he wrote originally and for being willing to come up here and give us a challenge. And I think it’s a challenge we have to take away and keep working on it. You know, any final thoughts, particularly from our two Detroit stage people, or John—I think any of the three of you, I’d love to hear any closing thoughts.
Hood: If you want to help, first engage by listening. There’s more knowledge with the people that are here than you can possibly imagine. I know everyone from everywhere else has told you, you have all the answers and that you’re amazing and you can fix things, but the people here also have knowledge that is valuable that should be valued at the same level.
Egner: Right, absolutely. I think the narrative that we’ve got to start driving is a back to the past—we’ve got to grab it from the past. The five dollar a day wage changed the world. It took Detroit—it doubled Detroit’s population in six years. It doubled it again in the next 20 years. It created the Arsenal of Democracy. It turned the World War. It created Motown. It was this notion of opportunity, using innovation and assets to drive opportunity for all. I think that’s the narrative that we have to grasp back to. And if you look at how markets have evolved, the middle-class is being squeezed. This issue of disparity gap will be the issue of the presidential election, I’m convinced of that. And as that happens, we’re going to move the B to C relationship back again from—away from business to consumer to business to community to consumer, and I think that narrative will be driven right from here, as it was in 1920.
Kirkpatrick: That’s good to hear. John, any observation?
Hagel: I think a very interesting discussion. Again, I would just emphasize, at least the way I think about narrative, it’s not about explaining the way things are, it’s what’s the call to action.
Kirkpatrick: In other words, what’s the vision and what do you try to collectively do to get there?
Hagel: Yes. And, again, what are two or three things you could do in the short term that would actually give some credibility to that call to action.
Kirkpatrick: Well, there is a whole conference in that. But thank you all for being at this conference.