Creating a New Democracy

Creating a New Democracy
By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, August 29, 2010

The next few months are critical for the future of Detroit.

Mayor Dave Bing has announced that he will begin a series of public hearings that will culminate in establishing a land use policy for the city. Carefully avoiding the terms “rightsizing” or “downsizing,” the Mayor said, “Right now it’s all about ideas. That’s why we want to engage the community.”

Mayor Bing is right when he says, “This plan really sets the stage for the next 20, 30, 40 years, so I don’t want to be rushed into a final decision without input from the community or the leadership around the table. There are a lot of people who would say you’re moving too slow. That’s not the approach we want to take. This has to be well thought out. We can put a plan together, the problem will be the implementation of the plan. Everybody needs to come to the table on this.”

While we welcome the planned series of discussions about the future of our city, we have no illusion that five meetings, spread across a city of 139 square miles and nearly a million people, come anything close to real input and discussion. We need to hold the Mayor to his words. It is a mistake to move too quickly on such important decisions. It is a really big mistake to move without genuine debate and decision-making within the community.

If there is any lesson the Mayor and his consultants should have learned over the last few months, it is that Detroiters are intensely interested in participating in the determination of our own future and that of our children.

After decades of denial, the political and corporate elite is finally recognizing that we are at a critical moment; that we are in a painful transition from a city that flourished at the opening of the industrial age and was then devastated as that age came to a close. What they still fail to see is that many Detroiters realized long ago that we are a shrinking city and that there is no single, magical plan to restore our lives. Knowing that we have only one another to turn to, many Detroiters have already been putting our land to very good use.

Long before the Mayor lived in the city, neighbors gathered to tear down dangerous houses, to look after good homes no longer filled with life, to take over empty lots for gardening and community arts, often bringing together generations and restoring community ties. With little more than heart, imagination and commitment to the city, Detroiters have been rebuilding lives through neighborhood gatherings, community actions and conflict resolution.

We are at a moment when we have the opportunity to not only reinvent our city but to invent a new kind of democracy.

As a city, we are learning that the institutions of the past hold little promise for our future. Democracy requires a lot more than voting, and certainly more than five public meetings.

Just as Detroit has been in the forefront in creating a new model of what cities of the 21st century can look like, we are beginning the process of determining how to enact a new kind of democracy.

At the moment the one elected body that is showing a visionary understanding of a different kind of decision-making is the Detroit School Board.

In a thoughtful letter contradicting Nolan Finley’s charge in the Detroit News that public meetings are a waste of time, Board President Anthony Adams wrote, “The fact of the matter is that in order to advance and sustain educational reform, this community must be embedded in the process for change and embrace it.”

We have the opportunity to not only remake our city together, but to fashion new democratic processes that enliven and enrich all of us.



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