At this late date, I think most Detroiters would agree that the likelihood of a city-saving miracle featuring the angelic appearance of cash-heavy care packages floating down from the sky and into the city treasury appears highly unlikely. The state and feds have their own money problems, and we can stop looking around waiting for some generous philanthropist to dash in at crunch time and save the day.
As the old saying goes, God helps those who help themselves. Not to dismiss or in any way discourage any assistance from beyond the city's boundaries, because Detroit still needs all the help it can get. But in the end? Detroiters will have to play the starring role in saving Detroit.
In that spirit, I'd like to add my name to the growing list of those who believe the newly formed ARISE Detroit! has exactly the right idea about how to get things started. A weeklong informational and promotional campaign designed to formally introduce the fledgling organization to the city ended Friday, June 30, at Fellowship Chapel. The focus now is getting down to the work at hand.
For those of you who've not heard about ARISE, or have seen the billboards and other publicity but still aren't quite clear about its purpose, the idea came from former Detroit News editor Luther Keith, who, in the interest of full disclosure, is a good friend of mine. The organization, which has a paid staff of just two Keith and an assistant has received a $300,000 grant from the Skillman Foundation. The rest of the work is done by volunteers and is supported by in-kind contributions.
"It's a very lean operation that hopefully will grow," says Keith. "The vision is much bigger than the staff."
Having paid close attention to the highly publicized and highly controversial message delivered by comedian Bill Cosby, who essentially placed much of the blame for the current ills of the black community in the black community's lap and who has since gone on a tour promoting the not necessarily new gospel of self-help, Keith decided to heed Cosby's challenge and do what he could to rally his hometown to heal itself. Not quite one year later, the result is an effort that has galvanized the collective efforts of numerous metro Detroit community leaders, churches, organizations, media and committed individuals unlike anything seen around these parts in quite some time if ever.
Their philosophy, put simply, is that there are already more than enough resources available in Detroit to assist residents in obtaining training, finding jobs, getting family counseling, drug treatment or just about any other assistance required. The last thing Detroit needs is one more group to compete against existing organizations for financing and clients. What Detroit needs is an entity that can connect needy residents with the appropriate resources, and that's where ARISE comes in. Far too many Detroiters know they need help, but have no idea where to get it.
If ARISE is successful, that dilemma is about to change. A sort of umbrella operation, not seeking to change how existing organizations operate or to compete against them in any way, ARISE seeks to connect providers with clients who may not even know they exist. ARISE has also begun to engage the community in a dialogue through forums where people can voice opinions about what the city needs and how those needs can be addressed.
"Our job is to connect people to organizations that are involved with children and families. Getting people excited about volunteering to help their community. That's what ARISE has been able to do," says Keith.
There's no doubt this is a massive undertaking. It's also an undertaking that requires long distance runners, not sprinters. But if the momentum set off by the launch doesn't slack off, which may be the effort's biggest challenge, then ARISE just could be one of the best and most constructive things to add a spark to Detroit's renaissance.
At the Fellowship Chapel event, more than 70 people gathered for a three-hour community summit called "Reclaiming the Village." Compared to the opening day ceremonies, where several thousand people came to Campus Martius Park in downtown Detroit for a volunteer fair where they could sign up to assist, the numbers were small. But considering the fact that it was a beautiful Friday evening on a holiday weekend when just about anyone would have preferred being anywhere outdoors, it was still an impressive showing. Even more impressive was that so many stayed until the end to speak not simply about what ailed their community the absence of fathers, the crisis of the black male, the high incarceration rate of African-Americans but what could be done to provide the cure.
Earlier in the evening, the major highlight came when Bill Cosby himself phoned in to the gathering and was put on a speaker to offer encouragement to the movement despite the almost certain oncoming volume of detractors and critics that would be following closely behind them to try and tear down any sign of progress and declare the entire effort a failure. Cosby also said it didn't matter whether those who had shown up were large or small in numbers.
"It will grow," he said. "It will grow."
Keith says that from this point forward there will be few if any more big-bang events. The plan now is simply to utilize the hundreds of volunteers ARISE has managed to attract so far and continue to recruit still more willing to volunteer their time working with existing Detroit organizations to take a hands-on approach to repairing the city.
"We were not created to do big events," says Keith. "That's the problem with Detroit. We're hung up on big events. Well, if this isn't big enough for some people, then I'm sorry."
Listening to Cosby speak, I couldn't help but think about the heated criticism heaped on his comments regarding the failures of poor blacks by author-intellectual Michael Eric Dyson, who has said more than once that Cosby should "pick on someone his own size," and should quit running away from Dyson's repeated challenges to debate him in a public forum. I have said before that I wasn't necessarily enamored with the way Cosby made his comments, and I don't think poor blacks can be saddled with all the blame for what is happening to them. I also don't believe it's fair to say that they alone have somehow become an embarrassment to the race or that they have essentially pissed on the gains of the civil rights movement, as Cosby seems to suggest. However, to say that black people as a whole not just the poor bear little responsibility for such things as black-on-black crime, painfully violent and misogynist lyrics promoted by certain segments of rap music, and other symptoms of a dysfunctional community is to willfully ignore the truth. To attack Cosby for his highly publicized anger is to attack the messenger rather than the content of the message, which demands attention.
Furthermore, sometimes you have to make people mad to make them do something. This is not to suggest that ARISE never would have happened without Cosby, but to whatever degree that Cosby's tirade played into its creation, that is a good thing. I can only hope that other urban communities will respond in similar fashion and take hold of their future for themselves because God helps those who help themselves.
Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org