Deeper Democracy By Shea Howell

Thinking for ourselves

Deeper Democracy

By Shea Howell

February 5, 2013


Shea Howell
Shea Howell

At a time when the mainstream media is trying to justify the destruction of democratic processes by ridiculing citizens, it is important for us to lift up the many ways people are advancing democratic dialogue. Such an opportunity happened Monday night as the Riverfront East Congregational Initiative (RECI) gathered to talk about land use and economic development. In spite of the cold and snow, more than 60 people met at the Sunday Dinner Company for a lively discussion about the future of our city. It is the kind of gathering that is carving out a new, vibrant democratic space in Detroit where citizens discuss ideas, values, and the possibilities to create new ways of living together.


At tables set for small group conversation, people talked about how the RECI values for development “affect how we talk with our fellow congregants and neighbors about recent issues in our community?”


The values included asking developers:

  • How are they being held accountable to the community?
  • Do they articulate intentions for community improvements?
  • How do they maintain and/or improve quality of life for current residents?
  • Are they using community benefit agreements?
  • Do they provide opportunities for cooperative ownership to residents?
  • Do they collaborate with existing organizations and institutions?


Gail Parks asked for ideas to frame the presentations. The main concern was that of accountability by developers to the community. Carol Jordan introduced the panelists who offered insights about development that reflects respect for the community.


The Reverend Ron Spann, a member of the Advisory Board of the Christian Community Development Association, said that three concepts framed the Evangelical Christian approach to development: Relocation, Reconciliation and Redistribution. He said that Relocation is not about moving people, but about shifting ideas.


Redistribution challenges us to rethink ownership and land value. We all know the statements, “Give a man a fish, he will eat for a day, teach a woman to fish, she will eat for a lifetime.” Missing from this is the critical question, “Who owns the pond?” He argued that faith -based development demanded moving from ownership to stewardship, from seeing land as a private commodity to a shared community trust.


Faith based development means ‘learning to listen, live and love, beginning with what people know.” He said this is the basis for “the moral imagination necessary for religious groups to engage in social action.”


This set the stage for Charity Hicks of the Eastern Michigan Environmental Action Coalition. Ms. Hicks talked about Community Land Trusts as a way to hold land for the benefit of the community, taking speculation out of development. She described 4 trusts operating in Michigan.  Traverse City, Boyne City, Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor provide successful models of citizens establishing Community Trusts to provide for affordable housing and to protect existing residents from accelerating taxes. She explained how this idea, rooted in ancient texts and indigenous practices, fosters community governance and grassroots democracy. “It provides a tool to reimagine the city on principles of stewardship and inclusion,” she said.


Ernie Zackary gave concrete examples of projects that preserve heritage while adapting new methods of energy production, especially geothermal and solar. He contrasted the practice of demolition with the ideas of deconstruction. Mr. Zachary said that the experience of the Cass Corridor should help us understand that “the key to revitalizing an area is preserving what is there and reusing everything we can” as we build anew.


Kris Miranne of Doing Development Differently in Detroit talked about Community Benefit Agreements. Her group is working toward agreements with the international bridge and Henry Ford Health Systems. Such agreements, she says, make clear how everyone is able to benefit from development.


The meeting ended, as it began, with a question. “How can our spiritual community and values influence business and development?”


The mainstream media are desperate to diminish the quality of thinking by ordinary citizens about our city. But the emerging democracy runs far deeper than they know.


RECI is an initiative of the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion. Information about the Community Learning Series can be found at