At 6 p.m. Wednesday evening, St. Peters Episcopal Church in Southwest Detroit will host a second community hearing over concerns some residents have expressed about the beleaguered community's largest community development corporation, Southwest Solutions.
Until the first hearing held on February 2, my initial introductions into the issues concerning Southwest Detroit's Mexican Town community centered around the plight of residents coping with the environmental fallout of being located adjacent to the city's industrial corridor and the campaign of young street artists who hope to have their craft decriminalized.
But another aspect of the complex problems facing Detroit's largest hispanic community came into focus at the first Southwest Solutions Peoples Hearing organized by St. Peters pastor Bill Wylie-Kellerman and long-time community advocate Elena Herrada. Herrada and Kellerman joined other local business and community leaders on a panel expressing community concerns over several issues that range from the relocation, housing and care of former homeless Detroiters into the area, how government investments are being distributed among the local non-profit sector, and the lack of local representation within the organization.
Southwest Solutions has a noble history in the community going back to its founding in 1970 by beloved Monsignor Clement Kern, who as pastor of Most Holy Trinity became known as the "conscience of Detroit" because of his passionate commitment to helping the poor and disenfranchised. Beginning as a mental health agency in the wake of de-institutionalization, SWS has gradually expanded beyond its core mission of providing psychiatric counseling and medication to adding additional services such as housing, community economic development and other services.
After listening to the panel discussion and some of the reactions that followed, it seemed that the core of the problem seems to be one faced by our larger society in the wake of changes we've all experienced since current SWS Director John Van Camp became head of the organization in 1981.
The boom-and-bust economic expansions of the 1980s and '90s, as well as the rise of globalization and down sizing of governments, created a void which quasi governmental non-profit organizations and CDCs such as SWS could fill. For sure, where there are needs to be met, there is also opportunity for those willing to do the work.
But in the same way that socio-economic forces have led our larger governments and corporations to lose sight of "on-the-ground" realities faced by the citizens, they are also supposed to serve. Because of the wisdom that "all politics are local," it's understandable that in the course of fulfilling their mission, the same could happen to a Detroit-based CDC like SWS. The question is: Is that what's happening to SWS?
Following the first hearing, which was labeled so because the matter was initially to go before the city council only to have it nixed at the last moment, Van Camp reportedly said that he was willing to listen to the concerns of the larger community and would take their criticisms and concerns seriously.
However those noble sentiments seem to fall by the wayside as a subsequent article in the Michigan Citizen saw community members charge that SWS was "wreaking" havoc in neighborhood communities. Meanwhile a SWS spokesperson responded that hearing organizers were expressing racist sentiments and violating fair housing laws. Like most disagreements, that all comes down to perspective and that both sides may have legitimate points.
The problem though comes when power is tilted to one side. When one side is in a position to create fear and intimidation among residents for daring to criticize their way of doing things, that's a problem. When one side is in a position to influence whether city council hearings stay on the docket and the other is left to its own means to be heard, that's a problem.
Then there's the matter of if you happen to be in a position of power, maybe it's a good idea to let your critics be heard. It just maybe that they have something valuable to say that will both help you continue to serve your mission better and build up the community at large in the process.
For sure, one of the criticisms leveled at SWS was the lack of community residents among its top brass. It seems a no brainer to me that if your work is focused in a community, having decision makers with an ear to the ground and ties to the community would seem like sound policy. But then again, whether it's the Detroit Works Project, the Detroit Public Water System or some of the other controversial community development plans afoot in the city these days, local input and perspective seems to be a trending afterthought.
I'm looking forward to learning more at the next hearing on Wednesday evening and hope to see more community members -- whether critical of SWS or not -- contribute to the dialogue. The problems facing the city, the community, SWS and their clientelle are truly complex.
Still, I have a feeling the meeting is a very necessary one. If all sides truly want the best for themselves and Detroit (which I believe they do), only good will come of it. Southwest Detroit faces some very difficult challenges, but this is one that can be overcome if all sides work together for the benefit of the whole community.
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