In Blog: Factually Speaking

From the League’s First Tuesday newsletter.

I grew up on Wisconsin Street in northwest Detroit. I have vivid memories of my walks to Bagley Elementary School, Post Junior High and Mumford High. I never worried about my safety walking to school, my future or whether college would be an option. But things were changing—and racial disparities were growing—right before my eyes.

Mine was the last class from my neighborhood elementary school to go to Post and I became acutely aware of changes in the racial makeup of northwest Detroit and the neighborhood shifts that were happening. As the Black student population of Post increased, White parents didn’t want their kids to go there anymore. I felt very badly that the Black and White kids didn’t interact much.

Fast forward to Mumford High School in 1962. My friends and I were on the college prep track, but most Black kids were in the vocational education track. Classes weren’t very integrated except for gym and swimming and there was little socializing among the Black and White kids unless you were involved in sports (never my strong suit!).

Blockbusting was rampant. My parents decided to move to the suburbs in Oakland County after I graduated high school. I felt such guilt. The first time I came home for a weekend from college was to a new home without trees, without sidewalks, without diversity.
And back at college were war protests, sit-ins and frat parties. As I learned more about the world around me, I wrestled with my place in it. I thought a lot about the luck of the draw. Why was I able to grow up with few struggles even though I was a first-generation American while people of color faced so much adversity?

During the summer of 1967, I had a job as a teller at a credit union. I drove to work on the Southfield Freeway and saw dozens of tanks filled with the National Guard. I thought I was in a war zone. I couldn’t believe what was happening to the city I loved and the residents and business owners who loved the city. The experience was even more alarming on the streets and in the neighborhoods.

Detroit had come unpinned amidst racial tensions, civil unrest and an uprising of disenfranchised residents. We were glued to our TVs. A friend of mine lived in the Green Acres subdivision near Livernois and 8 Mile Road in northwest Detroit, and we spoke on the phone about the fires and looting happening all around.

The news saddened and frightened me. But eventually, it opened my eyes.

In many ways living in Detroit and experiencing the unrest, albeit from afar, helped set the foundation for me to work on social justice issues as an elected official and now as head of the Michigan League for Public Policy, but I confess I was a bit of a late starter. I wish that I had spoken up more then, paid more attention to the signs I saw about the inequities around me. I tutored kids at the Jeffries Project (actually snuck out of the house to do it) and thought I was making a difference, but in retrospect, there was so much more I could have and should have done.

But I am trying to make up for lost time and missed opportunities today. That’s why I am so invested in the racial equity work we are doing here at the League.

Last fall, we focused on racial equity in our annual public policy forum, bringing people of all races together to have those difficult but necessary conversations. We strive to look at every element of our work through a racial equity lens. And we continue to draw attention to the rampant racial disparities that exist in 2017 that stem from many of the actions and decisions of the 1960s and previous decades by people in power—primarily White men. In the past year, we have examined racial disparities in our education system, the alarming inequities in child well-being for kids of color, and the lopsided racial incarceration rates that are devastating our families. Our community engagement staff continue to work on the ground with communities of color in Flint, Detroit, Kalamazoo, Battle Creek and more.

Looking back at what happened in Detroit in 1967, my hope is that people and times are different now, but I know that hatred, fear, frustration and economic insecurity still challenge us today. I, for one, am working hard to do now what I couldn’t do then—truly have an impact on achieving racial equity in Detroit and Michigan.

— Gilda Z. Jacobs

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