Tonya Allen: Finding inspiration in ... the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial

Inspiration Moment 1: Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial 

This blog is a part of Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of Programs Tonya Allen's new blog series about the things that inspire her. This is the second blog in the series. To read the first, please click here.


Photo of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial courtesy of the National Park Service.

At a luncheon late last year, I had a “wow” moment — one of those times when you can't believe you’re experiencing or learning something so fantastic. It was a moment I almost missed, because it came during a busy day when I was running from meeting to meeting. I was tempted not to attend because the burdens of my daily schedule were overwhelming me, and I knew I had to drive later that afternoon to Flint. But I decided to keep my word and was blessed by this decision.

The Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan hosted the luncheon. The guests of honor included Dr. Ed Jackson and Dr. James Chaffers, who served on the design team for the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C., Jackson as the executive architect and Chaffers on the design criteria committee and selection jury.

The two gentlemen shared how they were chosen to bring this important project to fruition. They shared stories about the significant challenges they faced – things like having no money, no design and no site for the monument. Nevertheless, they met every month on their own dime for 15 years to establish the monument. Fifteen years!

A few months later, I was at breakfast with Rod Gillium, an esteemed Detroiter and former General Motor executive, and I asked him about what he considers his greatest accomplishment. He answered that it was his contribution to establishing the MLK National Memorial by chairing its working board. He too shared the challenges of leading and executing an ambitious project to establish the only national monument to a citizen of the United States that did not serve the country as president.

These two experiences helped me understand the true magnitude of the accomplishment to establish a monument in Dr. King's memory. They also came away with a set of important insights that can be especially meaningful for Detroiters. In the face of hard times and significant uncertainty, those who worked on the MLK National Memorial did not get deterred by stumbling blocks. They deployed their faith over the long haul. The project was originally expected to take four years and, all in all, it took longer than two decades. These men and women used their ingenuity to find new approaches to achieve their ultimate goal; they turned their stumbling blocks into stepping stones. Lastly, they assembled the best talent they could to lead this effort. Many of their top leaders were Detroiters, and I have only named a few of them.

The lesson for me in this is that Detroit has what it takes to be a great city again. We don't have to aspire to be who we were; rather, we can recraft our history to create a new reality and narrative for ourselves. This monumental task will not be easy, and most likely frustrating and back-breaking.

Yet, if we apply the lessons from those who worked on the MLK National Memorial, there is hope for us. First, we must become comfortable and embrace that this is hard work, that it will not always go they way we want it, and that it will take a lot longer than we expect. Second, we can not get distracted by our daily burdens and appointments (like I almost did that afternoon), but rather focus on our collective vision. This will require a great deal of faith and aspiration. And last, we have to assemble the best talent in the country — and the majority of it is in our own backyard, in our neighborhoods and in our downtown boardrooms.  

If we do these things, then we too can have the entire country marveling at what we create together. Not a monument — a new Detroit. This audacity inspires me!