Detroit Town Hall

A diverse panel of experts discusses various social, political, economic, and legal issues that are key to Detroit’s future.

Alice B. Jennings attained her B.A. at Michigan State University and her Juris Doctorate at Wayne State University Law School. She is a founder of the firm Edwards & Jennings, P.C., specializing in civil rights and employment law, where she has been a partner since 1981. Formerly, she worked as an associate attorney and partner at the firm Philo, Atkinson, Darling, Steinberg, Harper & Edwards, P.C., specializing in workers’ compensation and personal injury. She is a current member and former chairperson of the State Bar of Michigan.

Nabih H. Ayad is the founder and chairman of the board of the Arab-American Civil Rights League, and was appointed by former Governor Jennifer Granholm as a Michigan Civil Rights Commissioner in December of 2008. Ayad also serves as the Vice-President of the Arab-American Political Action Committee (AAPAC), is on the Detroit NAACP Legal Redress Committee, and has served on the ACLU Lawyers Committee for the State of Michigan since 2002. Ayad received his JD from the Detroit College of Law at MSU in 1998, Bachelors in Science, Accounting, from Wayne State School of Business in Detroit in 1995.

Tawana Petty is a poet, who has also adopted the stagename "Honeycomb." She has been featured at many prestigious events, including but not limited to the 1st Annual Focus Hope Black Marriage Day Celebration, the International Black Expo, and the 175th Annual Emancipation Day Festival in Canada. Apart from her writing and performing, it is her community involvement that she holds dearest to her heart. She has mentored young girls at the Destiny and Purpose Community Outreach Center, has coached children on how to express their emotions through poetry at Wonderland Child Care Centers, and is currently the Executive Assistant of the Urban Network which creates programs to help inner city youth.

Malik Yakini is a founder and executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, which operates a seven-acre farm in Detroit. Along with DBCFSN he spearheaded efforts to establish the Detroit Food Policy Council, which he also chaired. Yakini was a member of the Michigan Food Policy Council, and serves on the steering committee of Undoing Racism in the Detroit Food System. From 1990 to 2011 he was executive director of Nsoroma Institute Public School Academy, one of Detroit’s leading African-centered schools. Yakini was honored as Administrator of the Year by the Michigan Association of Public School Academies in 2006, and served on the board of directors of Timbuktu Academy of Science and Technology from 2004 to 2011. He is also CEO of Black Star Educational Management.

Pastor Bill Wyle-Kellermann is a United Methodist pastor at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Detroit. He has been under appointment since 2006, and is a leading nonviolent community activist, teacher, and writer. Pastor Wyle-Kellermann is a Contributing Editor for Sojourners Magazine, and in 1991 published his book, Seasons of Faith and Conscience: Reflections of Liturgical Direct Action. He is also a co-founder of Word and World: A People's School, and is adjunct faculty at both the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education in Chicago, and Marygrove College's Social Justice and Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Detroit. I’m Tavis Smiley.

All of this week, we’ve looked at the city’s impressive comeback, its emergence from bankruptcy, and its determination to return to its former glory. But for many in the Motor City, the road ahead is anything but smooth.

So tonight we’ll do a deep dive into what activists and longtime residents of the city say is needed to create a thriving community for all. Money may be circling Detroit, but the question remains who will benefit from all of that renewed fiscal energy?

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation about Detroit’s future with the residents coming up right now.


[Walmart Sponsor Ad]

Tavis: This program was made possible with support from the Ford Foundation working with visionaries on the front lines of social change worldwide, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, a partner with communities where children come first.

Created in 1960, The Skillman Foundation is committed to improving meaningful graduation rates in the Detroit region so kids are ready for college, career and life. Kids matter here.

Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.


Tavis: Detroit has put critical plans in place to get the city back on track, but the hurdles remain awfully high. Water cutoffs to many of its citizens, foreclosures, tension between ethnic groups and a lack of transportation still plague the city despite the money that’s pouring in to downtown Detroit, specifically. Here to tonight about what life is like for Detroiters – many of them at least is an impressive panel of activists and long time residents of the city. The metropolitan of the city. Reverend Bill Wyle Kellerman is a united Methodist pastor who has participated in civil disobedience demonstrations fighting the water shut offs. Alice Jennings is an attorney and civil right advocate. Malik Yakini is the founder of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. Nabih Ayad is the chairman of the Arab-American Civil Rights League and Dear Born. And Tawana Petty works with the James and Grace Lee Bog Center. Thank you all for being here, please make them feel welcomed.


Tavis: Reverend. I want to start with you, Reverend, with this one question that I want to get to everybody. So let’s  move through this right quickly. Because this is a Town Hall and I want to give the residents of the city a chance to be heard, tell me the thing that most concerns you, the thing that we’re most not talking about on your heart about the comeback of this city.

Rev. Bill Wyle-Kellermann: I think what most concerns me is the way in which poor people, Black people in particular in the city are being pushed to the side. You’re right to name resources going into downtown, the Riverfront, the Woodward Corridor Avenue.

My church is actually in a neighborhood called Corktown which is getting lots of development resources. But that’s at the expense of others. Land values are being pushed up by clearing people out of neighborhoods by the very things that you named. Water shutoffs, resources being pulled out, fire and police, infrastructure.

The water shutoffs, I think, figure into that. And these days, they’re being attached as liens to tax bills. This coming weekend, there’s going to be, I believe it’s 65,000 tax foreclosures in the city. Wayne County, 37,000 of those are occupied homes. So we’re talking about 100,000 people in the weeks to come.

Tavis: Okay. Alice, what most concerns you about this so-called comeback that we’re hearing so much about?

Alice B. Jennings: For me, it’s that the inequality exists to such a degree that we have those that are very well off and those who are in abject poverty and that the dichotomy of those two groups is growing at a rate that is so expansive. And the water, the issue of foreclosure, they’re symptomatic of what we’re dealing with here.

Unless and until the unemployment issue is addressed and unless and until the attitude of those issues that have arisen about you’re poor and you just don’t want to pay your bill and you don’t want to do this or you don’t want to work, it’s the stereotypical type thing.

Tavis: It may be what you just said, stereotype and attitude, but since there’s income inequality in every city in this country, the gap continues to grow in every city in this country essentially, what makes Detroit uniquely different?

Jennings: Because it’s so accelerated and there is such a span between those that have and those who do not. If you just take a tour of the city, you will see it.

Tavis: Your number one grievance, Malik?

Malik Yakini: Well, first of all, Detroit is the most racially segregated metropolitan area in the country. So as we see this comeback in Detroit, what we’re seeing really is the development of two Detroits. We’re seeing midtown, downtown, Corktown, which are highly resourced, large amounts of capital being poured in.

Then we see the rest of the city which is left to languish. So many of us are concerned that this idea of this trickle-down prosperity won’t work and there’s no real history of that kind of strategy working.

Tavis: When you say segregated, for those who don’t really know the city, explain what you mean by that.

Yakini: Well, the city of Detroit itself, according to the 2010 census, is 83% African American and the suburbs surrounding Detroit are largely white. And that has everything to do with white flight which occurred beginning in the late 1950s, accelerating in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, so that we have a predominantly African American city and predominantly white suburbs surrounding the city.

There’s been some antagonistic relationship between the two for some time. So now we have this influx of new Detroiters moving in to Detroit gentrifying areas of the city and seemingly they have perks that the rest of the city doesn’t have.

Tavis: So, Nabih, what’s being unaddressed that most concerns you?

Nabih H. Ayad: What most concerns me if I have to sum it up in one word, Tavis, is sustainability. The fact that, you know, the focus is on downtown Detroit and that development, what have you, you can’t sustain that development.

You can’t sustain the growth of the city of Detroit if the rest of the Detroiters aren’t being taken care of, meaning the neighborhoods, the schools, the safety concerns, the lights on, everything else that goes along with making a major metropolitan city.

So my concern is that the sustainability may not be there if we’re only focusing on downtown Detroit or midtown or Corktown or what have you.

Tavis: Tawana, before I ask you that same question last, I want to just send out my best wishes to Grace Lee Boggs. I know, as I said for the introduction, that you work with her organization. Grace Lee Boggs is one of the great activists this country has ever known. She’s the pride of Detroit. Let’s give a round of applause and love to Grace Lee Boggs.


I know that she’s having some health challenges, but there are a whole lot of folk around the country who are pulling and praying for her. So please give Ms. Boggs our best wishes.

Tawana Petty: Absolutely.

Tavis: That question for you now. What most concerns you?

Petty: Tavis, what most concerns me is that city leadership doesn’t have a vision for this city or the world and they’re struggling to hang onto a capitalist system that’s obviously dying all across the globe. And because they don’t have a vision for the way forward, we’re getting crushed underneath that crumbling system. So I think that we have not paved the way forward in a new direction.

We’re at the end of these old epochs. It’s time for a new paradigm shift, one that’s community production, cooperative economics. And we really need to invest in people and stop investing in profits because it’s proven that there is like less than 1% owns the wealth of this country.

So if we keep on modeling our cities based on that, a lot of people are going to die because of it. You know, this is a matter of life and death and, in a Black city, 83% Black, we’re going to see the brunt of that.

Tavis: Reverend, let me come back now to where you began this conversation with these water shutoffs. I talked about that earlier this week, but tonight I get more time to kind of delve into this here.

For those, again, around the country who have been hearing about Detroit on the comeback, Detroit versus everybody, downtown Detroit is back. But they’ve not been hearing about these water shutoffs, take another minute or so to tell me what’s specifically happening, whose water’s being shut off, why is the water being shut off, how aggressively are they shutting off water. Just take a minute or two here.

Wyle-Kellermann: Right. One of the assets that’s actually the most financially viable asset of the city is the Water and Sewage Department. That figured into the bankruptcy, as I’m sure you know.

And part of making that more viable, more valuable to either private investors, privatization or now to a three-county authority, Great Lakes Water Authority, involved squeezing residents who were behind in their water bills.

Last May, the city under emergency management–we’re really talking about that city not under elected government–the emergency manager basically dictated to the water department these water shutoffs to people who were behind $150 or two months in their water bill. Well, a lot of people, things happen in their own life. Things happen in their home and suddenly they’re behind.

So there was a huge number of water shutoffs. 129,000 were announced. They were going to try to do, over the summer, 3,000 a week done by a private contractor who’s actually a demolition company, Homrich, Inc. not by city employees by and large, but by…

Tavis: So this is a private company that’s actually doing the shutoffs?

Wyle-Kellermann: Right. They have a $5.6 million, three-year contract to shut off water in the city.

Tavis: So more privatization at work.

Wyle-Kellermann: Exactly, yeah, right.

Tavis: So, Alice, I want to believe and I have to believe that people just don’t–there may be a handful of people that fit this bill, but to your earlier point, I have to believe that people just aren’t paying their water bills ’cause they don’t want to pay it.

Nobody wants to get their water shut off if they had a job, if they had the money, if they hadn’t fallen on hard times, as evidenced across the city. I would like to believe that they would pay their water bill ’cause they know they need water.

I only raise that because, if you take that point of view that I take, that people need resources to pay their water bill, then why not find another way to equate what people owe for their water bill?

One of the suggestions I’ve heard is tying water bills to peoples’ income so that everybody is expected to pay the same per se. If not that idea, how do we solve this problem?

Jennings: Well, solving the problem, we filed a lawsuit. We filed an equal protection and due process lawsuit in Bankruptcy Court based on the State Constitution. We said in that lawsuit not only is it harming substantially the family that’s being cut off, but also the community at large.

There are public health issues involved. We presented the expertise of Roger Colton, one of the leading experts in the country on developing water affordability plans. Those plans–and he testified–that it is better to get some percentage of money from the customer base than to cut off the water and get nothing.

And basically, what we have right now, I just talked to two women, one with eight children in the home, no water with eight children. A woman on oxygen with immune deficiency, water cut off last Wednesday. This is an ongoing problem. It is a health crisis of the highest level and I would hope that our mayor, Mayor Duggan, is listening.

This is heartfelt. We really need to care about our citizens. So, yes, the solution is there. We’ve presented him. We will be more than happy to offer him to the city for developing a plan that works and it is based on income and also to get money into the coffers.

Tavis: So, Malik, it’s not just the water issue, although that is significant. Your work is primarily around the issue of food security. We’ve been hearing for years across this country that food insecurity is growing. Give me a sense of how this issue is playing itself out in Detroit.

Yakini: I want to comment on the water first.

Tavis: Sure, please. Food and water go together, so…

Yakini: Absolutely. So access to good, clean water and access to good, clean food are human rights, period, regardless of someone’s economic standing. Just because you’re a human being on this earth, you have the right to have access to water. You have the right to have access to food.

So I think we have to affirm that and we need leadership that affirms that first and foremost, and that comes before any question of profit. So what we’re seeing in the city of Detroit is an abandonment of the city by most of the national grocers that were here in the 1960s and 1970s.

As of 2006 when Farmer Jack closed his last store, there were no national grocers in the city of Detroit. When I was growing up here, there were at least seven national chain grocers that had stores in multiple locations throughout the city.

So we’re left with a series of smaller stores that are independently owned which often sell inferior produce when compared to the produce sold in the suburbs. which often are disrespectful to Black men, Black women and Black children who shop in those stores, who often do not circulate money in the communities from which they make their profits.

So the community sees no empowerment as a result of the tremendous amounts of money that we’re spending on food. Now that, in addition to the fact that we often are not getting access to high quality food, it has tremendous health implications.

Tavis: What are the folk downtown eating?

Ayad: Whole Foods.

Yakini: Well, there’s a Whole Foods that moved into…

Tavis: Ah, that’s the answer to everything. I figured I’d have an answer to that question. They gotta eat something.

Yakini: But there are stores in the city of Detroit. So, I mean, it’s not that the city of Detroit doesn’t have any supermarkets. There are stores, but what many people are doing who have access to automobiles is leaving the city. So there’s a tremendous amount of leakage with people spending money in stores in the suburbs.

So people who don’t have access to automobiles–and we have a very poor public transportation system in the city of Detroit–are left to buy food from these stores we call party stores in Detroit. Or even worse, to buy food in Styrofoam packages and cans and boxes from gas stations.

Tavis: If you look at these areas of Detroit as–I don’t even like this term–as underserved areas or emerging markets–that’s the terminology they love to use–if you look at these areas as emerging markets, it seems to me there’d be a wonderful opportunity for a supermarket chain or chains to decide that they’re going to come back into the city because, for no other reason, there’s money to be made there.

It’s the same rationale that Mr. Gilbert used. I mean, you know, he may love the city. This may be the place of his birth, but Dan Gilbert is a businessman fundamentally, but he also wants to make money.

Why should I not believe at some point in the not too distant future somebody’s going to smarten up and say you know what? There are no supermarkets in Detroit and we’re going to go there and we’re going to clean up because these Negroes gotta eat something. You know what I’m saying?


Yakini: Yeah. So two points in response to that. First, I prefer the term “intentionally disinvested communities”.

Tavis: See, I can’t say that…

Yakini: Okay. Well, I can say it.

Tavis: I mean, I couldn’t enunciate it. I could say it, but…

Yakini: But we are seeing, for example, there’s a Meijer which is a state-owned, a regional grocer that opened on Eight Mile on the northern border of the city, and another one is opening in northwest Detroit. So we are seeing some stores coming back to the city.

Tavis: Okay.

Yakini: But what’s problematic with that is even with those stores–they’re still operating on what I call the extractive model. We’re not seeing the circulation of profits and the empowerment of communities. So our organization in fact favors cooperative models.

In fact, we’re working on creating a cooperative grocery store in Detroit’s north end where community members will have ownership and will see some circulation of wealth and empowerment in our community as opposed to just seeing the wealth sucked out of our community when we spend money on food.

Tavis: So, Nabih, we clearly live in the most multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America ever and Detroit is a part of that, obviously. And yet in the conversations about Detroit, the framing is still for the most part Black and white, Black versus white.

Since 9/11, there have been all kinds of conversations about your particular community and how they get woven into and accepted into and treated as if they are a part of the fabric of this country. How does being Arab in this state, in this region, in this city, at this particular time complicate things?

Ayad: Well, Tavis, as you know, the Detroit metro area is home to the largest concentration of Arab-Americans outside of the Middle East. Arab-Americans from the Phoenician days have been in business, so you can’t speak about Detroit and the Detroit region without mentioning the Arab-American being part of their fabric and part of that revitalization.

So the Arab-American, though, has their own challenges. Certain challenges are that we’re living in a post-9/11 era. There’s numerous bank closures happening to Arab-Americans. There’s no-fly list, the watch list. So how does that tie in? Not only is it a compelling civil rights issue, but at the same time, it’s a financial issue.

It’s part of the challenges not only of this region, but the city of Detroit has to incur. Because if I’m a multimillionaire investor, say, from Dubai or Qatar or from the Middle East and I’m looking to invest millions and be part of this revitalization in the city of Detroit and its growth, I may think twice about investing my money.

When I come to the airport, they stop me, they ask me questions for four or five hours, or I’m on this no-fly list and here I am sitting with presidents, but yet I can’t fly into the United States of America.

So those are the challenges and it’s at a disadvantage to this city, to this region, and to the economic and viable growth of the city of Detroit. So we have those challenges in place.

Now my organization, the Arab-American Civil Rights League, we do have hot lines. We are challenging these issues in federal courts and courts of appeals, but they are still challenges.

Tavis: How much more difficult do these challenges make life for those like yourself who live and work in this area now? Not those flying in wanting to invest, but those who live and work in this region every day?

Ayad: Oh, there’s certain challenges. People are not being promoted because of their Arab background or what have you, or their religion. As individuals, they are not being part of this revitalization. We want more incorporation of Arab-Americans into this. You know, Arab-Americans have always been there, you know, from the auto industry and even before that.

But we want to be part of that just like the African American wants to be part of this revitalization and growth. It shouldn’t be just for the top few that are benefiting from this issue. At the end of the day, it affects all of us.

Tavis: Tawana, I want to go back to the comment that I made earlier about Grace Lee Boggs who, again, I just adore and has been a guest on my program in the past. Because she is such a truth teller, it’s been her life being such a public advocate. Obviously, you and others are in that tradition here.

I’m curious as to how the activists, how are the advocates being treated or disregarded in this city right now as they try to raise their voices about the issues that we’ve been talking about tonight. Are you being heard? Are you being given an audience? How’s the body politic? How’s the infrastructure responding or not responding? Listening or turning a deaf ear to the community activist in Detroit?

Petty: Thank you for that, Tavis. The activist community has been suffering a lot of what we call white-out in the media. We have a few media representatives that will cover our stories, cover our op eds. I’m also part of Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management as well as We the People of Detroit and People’s Water Board Coalition.

I do a lot of work with Alice and Pastor Bill in the water struggle particularly. And Pastor Bill can attest to the fact that he was arrested and he’s also been thrown out of court against the bankruptcy in the city.

So the activists, we’ve kind of been labeled troublemakers who just don’t want to see the city come back and that’s the furthest thing from the truth. We don’t want the city to–first of all, I hate the city comeback language because where is it going back to?

And if it’s going back to a particular time that we’re starting to see what the racial segregation schools that are not being invested in, communities that are being starved out of resources and just only focusing on white people returning to Detroit, I don’t want to go back there, you know. And so if I have to be labeled a rabble-rouser or troublemaker, then so be it. Grace was absolutely…

Tavis: Which she was [laugh].

Petty: For 70 years, and still is, you know. She still encourages us. So, no, we don’t have a good reputation, but we’re fine with that because we want to see the city come back for everybody.

Tavis: This is unfair, but I have to do it because my time is up. I’m going to start with you, Pastor Bill. In 15 seconds, never mind all we’ve talked about tonight. And I get these issues and that’s why I wanted to have this conversation. What makes you hopeful about the future of this city? 15 seconds.

Wyle-Kellermann: God’s gotten into history and the way in which things appear, the way the lines project, is not the whole story. The spirit is at work, moves in communities, moves peoples’ conscience, can even touch public officials. God’s in this thing.

Tavis: What makes you hopeful, Alice?

Jennings: I’m hopeful because the people are still here. They’re still struggling, they’re still fighting for their rights and that makes me hopeful, and we’re going to keep fighting.

Tavis: Malik?

Yakini: The spirit of resilience and the spirit of resistance of the people of Detroit and also this idea that we can transform ourselves and transform our communities.

Tavis: Nabih?

Ayad: It’s the realization that Detroit is not just Detroit standing alone by itself. When you’re outside of the city of Detroit, people don’t know if you’re from Dearborn, Canton. They say where is it? They treat us as, oh, Detroit. They’re getting it. The suburbs is getting it. I think the whole state is getting it and that’s vital to the growth of this community.

Tavis: Tawana?

Petty: I’m hopeful in the people. I’m hopeful that our voices will one day be heard. We have shows like yours that are willing to put forth the true narrative of what the people here, me, love their city, where we’re spiriting our city, and we’re going to stand together in this thing. So I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to do that.

Tavis: If y’all are hopeful, I’m down with hope. There we go. Please thank the panel for being here tonight.


Thank you all for your insightful commentary. That’s our show for tonight. See you again tomorrow night. As always, thanks for watching and keep the faith.


Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

[Walmart Sponsor Ad]

Tavis: This program was made possible with support from the Ford Foundation working with visionaries on the front lines of social change worldwide, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, a partner with communities where children come first.

Created in 1960, The Skillman Foundation is committed to improving meaningful graduation rates in the Detroit region so kids are ready for college, career and life. Kids matter here.

Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: March 27, 2015 at 4:49 pm