Taking Detroit’s Poverty Fight to the C-Suite

By Bankole Thompson

The quest to fight poverty in Detroit should not only be the exclusive domain of policy thinkers, elected officials and the everyday people who rail against an unjust economic system that creates misery and sense of hopelessness.  

The conversation about how to help people lift themselves up from the economic doldrums to a level of economic empowerment does not belong to anyone interest group. It is not owned by the legions of grassroots activists, who frequently in a display of righteous indignation engage in protest and other forms of legitimate discontent to call attention to the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots.

I believe that if we are to seriously meet the challenges of inequality and dismantle the barriers to economic opportunity, reasonable and open-minded individuals must be willing to expand the conversation to the C-Suite where poverty is rarely a focus. 

We must specifically enlist the participation of those in the executive ranks of the corporate leadership in Detroit, who are deeply interested and are willing to take part in the conversation about the inequality gaps and how it’s strangulating the city’s rebound.

Let’s be honest. The role of corporate Detroit cannot be divorced from identifying realistic solutions to end the economic disparity that has largely defined the comeback of Detroit. Not every corporate leader may be interested in discussions around poverty or willing to join the arduous task of truly leveling the playing field for blacks who are left behind in this recovery.

But that should not stop the conversation in the C-Suite as a whole about what should be done regarding income inequality in Detroit. It should not keep the wheels of social and economic justice from moving to ensure that inclusive policies across the board are adopted to reduce inequality by creating the kinds of jobs that people can live on.

The urgency for action is the reason why The PuLSE Institute, Detroit’s anti-poverty think tank, is kicking off a CEO Forum on Poverty Series on March 11, 8-9:30a.m. at the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel in downtown Detroit. The ticketed breakfast forum will feature three of Detroit’s top business leaders: Cindy Pasky, president and CEO of Strategic Staffing Solutions, Alessandro DiNello, president and CEO of Flagstar Bank and Jerry Norcia, the president and COO of DTE Energy discussing strategies to combat poverty. All three business executives including Daniel Loepp, the president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan are members of The PuLSE Institute Business Leaders Against Poverty Initiative, a working committee of the Institute.

Jerry Norcia
Cindy Pasky
Alessandro DiNello

The upcoming conversation with these business leaders is not only important but also timely. They are significant players with a front row seat to an uneven recovery that is increasingly facing legitimate and skeptical questions about its inclusive nature and the future of blacks in this revitalization. That is why it is important to engage senior corporate leaders with the levers of economic power who are not running away from the poverty debate but are willing to discuss their roles and what it will take to reduce Detroit’s poverty numbers.

I’m looking forward to moderating a solution-oriented dialogue with these industry captains about what is required to create equitable solutions for those who are living on the margins. We have to reframe the conversation about Detroit to center on poverty. That is the No. 1 issue facing the recovery and the urgency in dealing with the disturbing levels of income inequality in this city. 

As a journalist who has a front row seat to this recovery, I can attest to the fact that the conversation about where Detroit presently is headed is one-sided. There is heavy focus on the recovery through the lens of what is taking place in downtown, Midtown and Corktown- the three islands of opulence- and less attention to the vexing issue of poverty, the hallmark of life for many in Detroit.

By pushing an unbalanced narrative as the dominant feature of an increasing economic and political inequality in Detroit’s comeback, it further reaffirms the inequality that exists. Also, the drivers of such narrative are doing damage and disservice to thousands of families whose lives are exhibits of the social inequality that hardly receives the media spotlight because all attention is focused on driving an imbalanced narrative.

We must reckon with the fact that announcement of the next tallest building in downtown is no more important than dealing with the crisis of homelessness in Detroit, or the fact that affordable housing may not become so affordable in a few years.

Erecting a skyscraper in the business district won’t have a consequential and positively life-changing impact like putting resources together to train thousands of Detroiters for job opportunities in the marketplace. 

Giving millions of dollars to cosmetic and aesthetic projects as opposed to concrete programs that will tangibly change lives and improve the living conditions of many who feel abandoned in this city, is not the way to make the recovery of Detroit inclusive.

To achieve equitable growth for Detroit beyond the few targeted neighborhoods that are receiving turnaround attention, we must first tackle the foundational challenge of poverty, not the middle class. The dark reality about the trend of the ongoing recovery is that it has the propensity to create winners and losers because the perception of unfair economic inequality further expands the socio-economic divide.

That is all the more reason why the voice of the private sector cannot be absent in the public debate about poverty, the biggest issue confronting the recovery. Companies doing business in Detroit should have no issue making significant investments in reducing poverty and helping to raise the standard of living for Detroiters. In doing so, they are also raising the standard of their companies in the community and showing that their interests is more than just the bottom line.

Socially responsible and value-conscious companies with a moral and ethical vision should join the conversation about how we reduce the burden on the poor and make poverty less expensive on families who are living on the edge daily.

The C-Suite is known for many things. But one thing that it isn’t well known for is fighting poverty because there are few in the boardrooms who are willing to take the issue on without qualms.

Still the quest to stem growing inequality is gaining traction as demonstrated by the most recent meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos. At the Davos gathering the spotlight was on how major corporations and billionaires around the world can begin to switch the pendulum to inequality.

Detroit is not Davos. Yet it represents many of the issues around inequality that were highlighted in Davos. Here at The PuLSE Institute, we are starting that conversation on March 11 about how companies that consider themselves stakeholders in the city should be at the forefront of the poverty debate. 

In a market-based economy, corporate titans have the unmatched power to make serious investments in public goods that will result in transforming lives and increasing opportunities for Detroiters to participate in the current economic boom.

An investment in public goods is an investment in the future of Detroit that can end the vicious cycle of extreme inequality.

We each have an obligation to lend our voice to the debate about the threat posed by inequality because Frederick Douglass warned, “where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”

Bankole Thompson is the editor-in-chief of The PuLSE Institute and an opinion columnist at The Detroit News. For submission inquiries send email to info@thepulseinstitute.org 

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