Detroit’s Civic Engagement Today

Jordan raising his hand to volunteer

Civic engagement today looks very similar to the civic engagement of the past in many ways, and in other ways looks very different.  Many of the social justice issues around which people engage like employment and policing have been a thread from the past to the present.  Some of the methods have remained the same; for example people continue to protest and publish written communications to educate the public. And the structure of our government hasn’t drastically changed so there are still critical court cases and elections that require our engagement.  However, there have been some changes.  The growth and influence of technology has changed how we connect and expanded what tools are available to us.  As more people join our communities, we become aware of new and different needs that may connect with existing challenges or require entirely new learning and exploration.  For example, past civic engagement around immigration issues were mostly focused on new arrivals; today that focus remains but the public awareness of the needs of young children from immigrant families has grown.  Finally, as we examine and critique the past, while learning more about the issues we care about, engagement and methods can evolve to better represent those issues and accomplish goals.

We’ll explore today’s civic engagement in this lesson; consider what inspires you about civic engagement today, how it’s connected to the past, and what it could look like in the future.


Ballot box

The right to vote and voting itself, seems obvious and simple enough. Three out of every four years there is an election; it may be an election president, for state legislators or local office like county commissioners or city council. In many ways, our understanding of the roots of civic engagement is forever tied to this act. Despite voting seeming simple, the ability to elect our representatives and have a voice in establishing law, is core to the function of our democracy. Additionally, the right to vote has been denied to certain groups and fought for on their behalf since the beginning of our country. Here’s a short list of voting laws that were adopted over time after people fought for their right to vote:

  • U.S. Constitutional 15th Amendment (1870) granting Black men and Mexican American men the right to vote (this is five years after the 13th Amendment which legally emancipated slaves)
  • Jim Crow laws (1870’s-1965) in southern states suppressed the right to vote for people of color with state specific barriers such as literacy tests
  • U.S. Constitutional 19th Amendment (1920) granting women the right to vote
  • U.S. Voting Rights Act (1965) was designed to reinforce the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, and it prohibits discriminatory voting practices in states and stopped the practice of voting related Jim Crow Laws
  • U.S. Constitutional 26th Amendment (1971) lowering the voting age to 18

States have a lot of liberty in creating their voting systems and laws beyond what’s federally mandated (the list above and some other laws).  For example, in California, elected school board members may be non-citizens, whereas in Michigan that’s not the case. Or in Michigan, people with felony convictions do not lose their right to vote, whereas in Mississippi people with those convictions do.

Voting is a core part of civic engagement, yet engaging younger voters has consistently been a challenge in the U.S.  In recent years, voter participation among younger people has been reduced even further than before.  Detroit has a similar challenge with voter turnout and voter participation among younger people.  For all Michigan citizens, the level of voter participation has remained about the same in the last 70 years, falling slightly during Presidential and Gubernatorial elections. Detroiters can be very civically involved, but historically have voted less than their fellow Michiganders. Detroiters voted at roughly 50% in the 2016 and 2012 Presidential elections and only 22% in the local 2017 elections for Mayor, City Council, and Clerk. 

In fact, overall, voting in the United States is lower than other democratic countries. As of this writing, the U.S. was ranked 26th in voting of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, behind nations such as Canada, Italy, and Israel. 

Voter participation may be down because of disappointment with the electoral system and its leadership.  However it’s up to us to get to know our prospective leaders and their values and/or to become the leadership we want to see.  Additionally, the fight for voting rights of the past, continues today in the form of civic action against voter suppression. Voter suppression is a political tactic used to discourage certain groups from voting and therefore ensure elections reflect the opinions of other groups.  Voter suppression continued to be a challenge in the U.S. since the laws of the Jim Crow South especially as it re-emerged into mainstream consciousness in the 21st century.  In 2004, a Republican supported organization, Voters Outreach of America, allegedly collected voter registration forms from individuals and only submitted those which indicated the people were Republican.  On election day, Democrats who thought they’d been registered, were unable to vote.  In 2006, a national debate over voter ID laws–the requirement that voters have a state issued ID to vote–began.  States were beginning to require state identification to vote which would exclude individuals who, for whatever reason, did not have state identification (e.g. a driver’s license or state ID card) from voting. These decisions were reinforced by the Supreme Court decision Shelby County v. Holder which cancelled a portion of the Voting Rights Act that ensured changings to voting laws in states were cleared by the federal government.  That clearance added a level of accountability to ensure states’ voting laws were not discriminatory.  This decision allowed many states to adopt laws requiring ID to vote, as well as practices that purged voter rolls (removed people from the registered voter list).  Michigan has an ID law but it is less restrictive than other states.  Our state ID law requires that voters are asked for ID. If a voter doesn’t have their ID, they may sign an affidavit of identity and continue to vote.

“If voting didn’t matter, they wouldn’t make it so difficult.”

Congressman John Lewis (D-Georgia)

Voting By The Numbers

Many of our elections are determined by the majority.  As of 2020, and for the next generation, Gen X’ers, Millennials, and Gen Z will make up the majority of the electorate. So, if all the members of those groups who were able to vote did vote, elections would be likely to reflect the priorities of those groups.  Similarly, Detroit is Michigan’s largest city and with high enough voter turnout, the opinion of voting Detroiters could determine statewide elections.


The world is moving at a faster pace and everything is impacted by that fact. The internet’s many ways of communicating and compiling information has dramatically changed civic engagement in Detroit. Some notable examples:

  • Many public meeting notices, minutes, and presentations can now be shared and viewed online 
  • Meetings are broadcasted on public access TV and streamed on the internet as well as hosted online entirely (e.g. Zoom meetings)
  • Communication with lawmakers can take place more quickly with e-mails, texts, and even a DM on Twitter
  • Campaign finance reports showing who is financially supporting candidates and elected officials are available online
  • Data and news are more accessible; some historical information is best found in person in the library archives but today you can find so much more information at home within seconds
  • Entire organizing campaigns–ones that are local and ones that connect people around the world–are starting online with the use of hashtags, videos, photos, and written editorials
  • Everyone has the opportunity to write and build a readership

[Character: I love that my friends share so much great information with me on Instagram and my other social media.  But I hate when someone sends me something that gets me all upset about an issue only to find out it wasn’t true.  I wish people on the internet took a little more time to make sure information was correct.]

Social media and the prevalence of digital communications online has increased both the quality information we can get and the manipulated information. At the time of this writing, platforms such as Twitter have sought to restrict false information, while Facebook allows unvetted theories to populate its pages arguing that too much monitoring would impact its users freedom of expression. A large part of civic engagement is to make informed decisions on topics and candidates. Overall, news organizations are expected to have professionally-trained journalists whose articles are reviewed by editors for accuracy. Contrast this with posts shared by friends, family and others, who should be responsible citizens, posting accurate information, but this may not always be the case –– nor, should it be expected. Our friends, family members, and the people we follow online are great sources of information for what’s happening on the ground and to connect protestors for example, with resources from supporters all over the world. Protestors have been able to quickly share organizing information, generate bail funds, and find housing, for example, by using social media. However, the people we follow on social media aren’t always the most reliable sources on all the ins and outs of policy, government structures, or statistics.  We should combine what we learn from our social networks with information from trusted, fact-based media outlets, institutions of higher learning, research entities, and subject matter experts.

The act of being diligent about information shared on social media, is being civically engaged. Click here for some tips to spot fake news.

Expanding Representation in Detroit

Detroit has been home to the LGBTQ community for decades. Starting in the 1940’s, Historic Palmer Park and the 6 Mile and Woodward area was once a hub for housing and entertainment for a multicultural LGBT community including restaurants, book stores, and bars.  In 1996, to better serve Black LGBT Detroiters and honor the history of Palmer Park, the Hotter than July Black Pride Festival was launched.  The weeklong Black Pride festival including a picnic, brunch, and candlelight vigil for those lost to the HIV/AIDS virus or brutality, was launched by a coalition of organizations making up the Black Pride Society.  In 2020, the event celebrated its 25th anniversary.  The city of Detroit also hosts the largest Michigan pride festival, Motor City Pride, at Hart Plaza each June.  The event was originally hosted in Ferndale and moved to Detroit in 2011.

Representation expanded in Detroit’s government as well in the 21st century.  In 2014, Detroit Police Department announced the role of LGBTQ liaison and its first appointed officer in the role, Detroit Police Officer Danni Woods, an LGBTQ officer.  Much like other marginalized groups in Detroit, the LGBTQ community has had an antagonistic relationship with police over the years and continued discrimination against LGBTQ people today increases the likelihood that they will come into contact with police.  The role of LGBTQ Liaison was a joint effort between the DPD and the Detroit’s Office of Civil Rights which works to investigate and address discrimination in the city of Detroit (learn more in the department highlight).  As of this writing, the city has also added the roles of LGBTQ Liaison to the Mayor’s Office.

The needs for representation of Detrot’s immigrant communities have changed over time and with them the response to those needs.  Detroit and Henry Ford’s $5 per day wages attracted many different people for work: Polish and Irish immigrants, white Americans from Appalachia, Arab Americans settling from Middle Eastern countries, Mexican Americans travelling north for safety following the Mexican-American War, Puerto Rican Americans migrating from their home island. 

Over the years, Detroit has continued to be a hub for migrating peoples. The Latinx community has continued to grow, Detroit is home to one of the largest populations of Arab immigrants, the eastside of Detroit was home to the Hmong community following the Vietnam war, and recently newer communities have been growing including the Bengali community in Hamtramck and the surrounding area and immigrants from African countries.  Civic action and engagement on behalf of immigrant communities has been a critical issue in Detroit.  Community members have gotten civically involved by creating their own organizations. Like LA SED and ACCESS did in their origins, Fatou-Seyydi Sarr identified the need for immigrants from African countries.  She started African Bureau for Immigration and Social Affairs (ABISA) so support immigrants and refugees from African countries become connected to resources, learn their rights, and become civically engaged.  In 2007, when President Donald J. Trump threatened to eliminate funding for cities that declared themselves “Sanctuary Cities,” creating a separation between their local police departments and the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), in Detroit and other Michigan cities there were demonstrations against the federal immigration policies.

“A Day Without Immigrants” was a nationally organized demonstration with each participating city having its own organizers.  In addition to a rally, immigrants and people supporting immigrant rights abstained from going to work and/or school as well as from making purchases hoping that their absence would make a statistically significant impact on economic systems and proving the importance of their participation in the United States. Despite demonstrations and advocacy, the city of Detroit did not declare itself a Sanctuary City but Detroit Public Schools Community District did draft and approve a resolution declaring itself a “Safe Zone” where ICE would not be welcomed without prior notice and parents would be able to keep their immigrant status private.

The groups of people within the city have changed but the desire for a city that supports all of its residents has not. People use civic engagement to ensure a supportive city by reinforcing positive community building and addressing unmet needs.  The challenges of poverty have created some of those unmet needs over time in Detroit, and has impacted Detroit services and Detroit residents.

Poverty and City Systems

Since 2007, about one third of Detroiters have lived in poverty. Parallel to the financial challenges of Detroit individuals and families, the city of Detroit was losing revenue and maintaining high expenses.  It is always essential for city’s, especially large urban city’s, to collect their revenue such as property and income taxes and service fees in order to maintain a balanced budget and pay its expenses.  However, when your community is challenged by poverty and your city is desperate for revenue, conflict arises.

Home ownership and housing became large issues for the city as it started to face its economic downturn in the 1950’s and even more so following the national housing market crash of 2008 and the Great Recession from 2007 to 2009.  Detroiters, many of whom had worked very hard to own homes in the city, found themselves unable to pay their property taxes, facing foreclosure, and in some cases, abandoning their homes. Whereas in the past, segregated housing and discriminatory neighborhood alliances were primary issues, in recent years, Detroit’s civic engagement has been about ensuring affordable housing is available, protecting home ownership from tax foreclosure and ending evictions.  Community members have coordinated to provide services to individuals and worked with the City to create new ordinances ensuring affordable housing downtown.  The County has created property tax payment programs to assist individuals with keeping their homes from being foreclosed (and then seized) for non-payment.  Housing however remains a critical issue for Detroiters.

Additionally, access to clean water is a critical issue for Detroiters.  As a community health issue, following the Flint water crisis Detroiters demanded that water be tested in our city.  The Detroit School Board tested all of the water in Detroit’s schools in 2017 and replaced all of the drinking fountains shortly after having received the results to project students from high levels of lead and copper.  Safe water is one thing, access to water services has become another in Detroit.  Following the city’s bankruptcy in 2014, Detroit was forced to settle its books including collecting payment or terminating service for water. Residents, organizing on behalf of individuals who could not afford their water bills, blocked workers from accessing homes to shut off water service.  Similar to the S.T.R.E.S.S. court cases of the late 1960’s, which were used as a platform to elevate the story of police brutality in Black communities, the organizers were arrested for disorderly conduct and used their court case to bring attention to the impact of water shutoffs on Detroiters experiencing poverty and to, what they saw, as the larger issue: state imposed emergency management.

Policing and Surveillance

It was the murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his murderer in 2013 that led Alicia Garza to Facebook where she created a status that ended with Black Lives Matter.  The phrase was adopted as a hashtag, a rallying call, and eventually the name of Garza’s organization all of which existed to end police brutality and anti-Black racism within the justice system. Black Lives Matter has established chapters in cities across the country including Detroit.  Following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020,  Detroiters, as with other major cities across the country, began a sustained nightly effort protesting in downtown Detroit with the phrase, “Black Lives Matter,” which led to a meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan, where the protestors presented a list of 23 demands.

Included on the list were policing issues unique to Detroit which have been a part of the community discourse prior to George Floyd’s death. Demands such as:

  • End Project Greenlight and 
  • End Cash Bail

Project Greenlight, facial recognition, and public surveillance have been the subject of community organizing since 2016 when the first gas stations partnered with the city to install cameras filming in real time as a safety and crime prevention method.  Since 2016, Project Greenlight has spread to business across the city leading to some intersections in the city having the flashing green lights signifying a Greenlight partner business on every corner.  People opposed to the program say it violates privacy, is poorly managed, and can’t be proven to reduce crime.  The City and supporters of the program point to instances of immediate crime intervention as a result of a Greenlight camera and statistics show lower instances of crime as evidence that the project does work. One year following the start of Project Greenlight the city of Detroit purchased facial recognition software which can be used with public cameras to identify individuals accused of crimes.  Facial recognition software was relatively new and studies have shown that it is more likely to misidentify (and therefore potentially lead to the false arrest) people of color, especially those with darker skin.  These recent city of Detroit investments have led to a large amount of controversy, civic engagement, and organizing surrounding policing and surveillance.

Detroiters Continue to Protest

Protests continue to be a method of civic engagement in Motown. Detroiters have protested Kid Rock’s use of the confederate flag at his downtown restaurant. Protests have focused on drinking water shutoffs or the over taxation of homeowners in the city. When R. Kelly’s history of sexual assault made national news, #MuteRKelly protestors, organized by Detroit woman and local organization leader, Kalimah Johnson, gathered outside his Detroit concert at the Little Caesars Arena.

Protests can be legally permitted or an illegal “disturbance;” they can be acts of civil disobedience such as peacefully occupying a restricted space, and they can sometimes become violent conflicts between protestors and opposition. One Detroit example of a recet civilly disobedient protest is when protesters blocked the i-75 freeway in 2013 to oppose emergency management. What’s important is that protests are more than demonstrations and connected to bigger goals that fit into a plan to create change.

Everyday Civic Acts

Civic Engagement means many things in Detroit today. As we have seen, voting is an essential part of being civically engaged and to fully explore civic engagement, you have to explore all of the ways you connect with your community and elected officials. From going to meetings to block clubs, and even organizing protests, your voice and actions matter in helping to shape our neighborhood, our city, and our world.

Block Clubs

Block clubs have been central to city neighborhoods for years. They help beautify neighborhoods, look after neighbors, and maintain safety. They’re also an excellent way to meet and reach elected leaders with area needs. Block clubs are spaces where neighbors can socialize and build relationships as well as spaces where they can share knowledge and resources as well as create a shared vision for their neighborhood. The connection between block club members and dedication to that shared vision can help to hold a neighborhood down and keep it going during difficult times.

The City of Detroit’s Department of Neighborhoods provides information on how to start a block club.

Lesson Review

Draw a timeline that maps out all the years you’ve learned about in this chapter.  Make the timeline as creative or straightforward as you’d like. Add stops on the timeline where different types of civic engagement occurred in Detroit.  If you don’t have space for one long timeline, stack them and for example draw one line from 1800-1900 and add your stops, then below it add a new line for 1900-2000. What kinds of patterns do you see over time?