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While there's no silver bullet to address the longstanding inequities in Detroit, investing in students is a good place to start

To enact lasting change, the city must deal with deeply ingrained issues of racism and inequality with a wave of innovation and commitment, longtime residents say.
Image: Saint Agnes High school
An abandoned school room at Saint Agnes High school in Detriot.Grant Faint / Getty Images

Google “Detroit revival” and you’ll be flooded with deep-dive editorial pieces and edgy video campaigns detailing how this once booming, then downtrodden and now recovering city is determined to make a comeback. As billionaire Dan Gilbert — Detroit’s largest taxpayer and its biggest employer — pumps money into the city, new opportunities arise for eager millennials looking to get their start. 

But beneath the surge of optimism simmers more complicated questions: While Detroit may be ‘reviving,’ who is really being ‘saved’? And how can leaders of this movement ensure that the prosperity will extend far beyond downtown?

There are mixed feelings on this notion of a “revival.”

“To call it a ‘revival’ is disrespectful,” says Lakia Wilson, a third-generation teacher in the city and now executive vice president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers. “Detroit is our home. We never left. And we’re never going anywhere.”

Aya Waller-Bey, a product of the city’s public schools, who studied at Cambridge as a Gates Scholar, agrees. “Saying it’s a ‘revival’ is harmful for the people who have been living there — the people who decided to stay and do the grunt work.” 

“People” like Kimberly Johnson, a former Detroit public schools teacher who started Developing K.I.D.S., an organization that creates community-building programs to keep Detroit’s children civically engaged and out of harm’s way.

“Gunshots running through my backyard, stores getting robbed — there was constant trauma just trying to protect my kids,” Johnson says. “I knew if we could prevent trauma, we wouldn’t have to do as much intervention later. So I said, ‘I have to do something.’” It’s these five words, “I have to do something,” that define the work of Johnson, and so many other Detroiters.

While most people associate Gilbert with the downtown area, he’s also worked to extend his reach to the neighborhoods through his company’s philanthropic arm, Quicken Loans Community Fund. So far, they’ve been successful in a plethora of ways — from helping 600 Detroiters own their homes, to partnering with Urban Alliance to pilot a 10-month paid, professional internship program for students in Detroit, according to Laura Grannemann, vice president of strategic investments.

To enact real change, the “revival” can’t just wash away the city’s deeply ingrained issues with a wave of innovation and design, the city’s advocates and longtime residents say. Instead, it needs to address what’s at its core — longstanding racism and inequality — because it’s these problems from Detroit’s past that still forecast the lives of its children, who were the biggest victims in its downfall, despite not having played a role in it.

To paraphrase historian Thomas J. Sugrue, author of “The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit,” the “conventional wisdom” of Detroit usually goes something like this: Detroit was once a thriving metropolis — the brains behind the automotive industry and the heart of Motown. It’s where black men and women could seek refuge in the thick of the Jim Crow era.

It’s where anyone could find work on the assembly line and make a dignified life for themselves. And it’s where people of all backgrounds lived peacefully beside one another. That is, until one hot summer day in 1967 when a couple of agitators started a violent riot, leading to the well-documented white flight, during which white, wealthy people fled the city for the so-called oasis of the suburbs. Detroit's demographics have shifted dramatically from 84 percent white in 1950 to 83 percent black today.

It’s then assumed that the aftermath of these riots is primarily responsible for the crumbling of Detroit’s empire, leaving only a crime-riddled ghost town in its wake. That is, until 2010, when Gilbert moved the headquarters of his company Quicken Loans, the nation’s largest mortgage lender, from the suburbs of Detroit to the center of downtown. Cue the “revival.”

But this is hardly the full story.

The “conventional wisdom” forgets that the black people who came to Detroit for a better life were actively excluded — and in some cases, literally stoned — upon arrival. It doesn’t account for the conditions these black families were subjected to, or the fact that the economy was struggling even before the uprising. And it rarely acknowledges that white families were moving out of the city long before the summer of 1967. Today, metro-Detroit is one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the country — and that didn’t happen by accident.

In the words of the Rev. Larry Simmons, executive director of the Brightmoor Alliance, a coalition of organizations in the city’s Brightmoor neighborhood, “We can do better.” And that means every person who claims a stake in Detroit’s success.

“You have young people with hope and optimism moving in and enjoying the proximity to and the identity of the city,” Simmons said. “And then you have residue of poverty — crime, trauma and abuse.”

But Simmons is optimistic. “I believe this is a challenge we can solve. And education is the key to that.” 

Still, Jack Elsey, executive director of Detroit’s Children’s Fund, said that “the fact is, if you’re a child in this city you're still far more likely to grow up in poverty, and you’re far more likely to attend a low-performing school.”

But the Detroit Public Schools Community District, much like the city, is in the midst of a defining — or redefining — moment. After 20 years of a tumultuous state takeover, the district appointed Dr. Nikolai Vitti to be the new superintendent. In his first year, he got started on his ambitious five-year reform plan: raising teachers’ salaries, filling teacher vacancies, and implementing music, art and physical education at all schools.

But there’s still more progress to be made.

“When you look at the history of DPSCD — and look at the data and poor test scores in isolation without understanding the context — one could say, ‘Well the reason Detroit as an economic engine hasn’t done well is because it doesn’t have a workforce that’s educated and equipped,” Vitti says. “But that doesn’t define the proof of talent our students actually have.”

While there’s no silver bullet to address the persistent and pervasive inequities in Detroit, investing in its students is a good place to start.

At the core of Detroit’s problems lies an ugly truth: This story would not be made possible without the seeds of inequality and racism that were sewn into its fabric by its early occupants, creating a patchwork quilt, stitched together through revisionist history, and passed down for generations thereafter.

That’s why “Detroit’s recovery must be entrenched in our DNA,” said Tonya Allen, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, a private philanthropy that advocates on behalf of Detroit’s children.

“Because of our diverse population," Allen said, "we have the ability, and the responsibility, to focus on inclusivity and equity — explicitly on racial equity.”

This story appears as part of coverage for “NBC News Learn Presents: Education Now Detroit,” a two-hour live community event supported by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. For more information, go to nbcnews.com/learndetroit.