Comeback city: Detroit can rewrite its story in next 40 years

Tonya Allen Headshot

Recently, I heard Luis Ubinas, president of the Ford Foundation, remark that 40 years ago cities like New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Boston were considered dying cities. Each of these places were fiscally broke, had high unemployment and had residents leaving. No one thought these places would be viable again, which was reflected in the infamous billboards saying, "Will The Last Person Leaving Seattle -- Turn Out The Lights?" Forty years later these places have rebounded and our nation's economy is embedded in them. Detroit today is no different than New York, Seattle, Boston and San Francisco of yesteryear. The next 40 years is when we create our comeback story.

How that story will read has been weighing heavily on me in the past few weeks. For starters, the Foundation has begun a strategic planning process, an intense analyzing of both what we have accomplished in the first six years of our 10-year Good Neighborhoods work and what the next four years of that work and beyond will look like. We’re asking ourselves the toughest questions about whether we are on track to achieve our 2016 goals, what we need to shift to ensure we do and what we might need to scale back on in order to tighten our focus and provide the biggest impact for children in Detroit. 

I’m also feeling introspective because earlier this year, I turned 40. I am still a little surprised that I am publicly acknowledging this milestone, especially because I spent the last 11 years denying that I was any older than 29. Yet, there is something special about 40. In addition to being a chronological turning point, I have matured and am no longer grasping at vanity. Rather, I am now reflecting on the past, contemplating the present and preparing for the future. I am inspired by the possibilities of the next 40 years of my life.

As I take stock, I am amazed at the things that we, Detroiters, have accomplished when we set our minds to change the conditions of children and families in Detroit. Despite our gains, I am also painfully aware of the challenges that persist and continue to outwit us. Detroit is a tough place with tough issues. It is daunting for us to think that we are capable of fixing our city's most vexing problems. However, I am reminded of the quote attributed to anthropologist Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

I am inspired by what the next 40 years in Detroit will be. This is the time when we should work harder, smarter and better because we know what the future holds for us. This is the time for us to not just comeback, but to do it better than anyone else. We must use this opportunity to transform schools, neighborhoods and our economy to be inclusive so that today's children will break the generational cycle of poverty that handcuffs them from opportunity. This is our time and it is my time. The next 40 years will be a game-changer and I am suited up to play. Are you?

Over the next few months as we churn through our strategic planning process, I’ll be blogging about things that inspire me. It’s a way to remind myself -- and you, too -- that together we can make a difference, and we can change Detroit for children. I hope this will spark a dialogue about how we get better and how we do better. So please feel free to share with me here, what things inspire you?

-- Tonya Allen is the Foundation's Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of Program.

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