The 370,000 Detroit citizens living without power while I was in France last week never left my mind. There is always talk about green energy in terms of job creation but, as we see, this is about survival. Our investment in green alternatives equals nothing less than protection of our citizens. 

I was part of a large delegation of Detroiters participating in the opening of the 10th Biennale Internationale Design in Saint-Étienne, France. This year Detroit is the guest city. The Detroit delegation was a mix of artists, designers, musicians, DJs,  architects, curators, lawyers and arts advocates. It was an honor to be surrounded by such brilliant minds and to witness how the vibe of Detroit can transform and influence a whole city thousands of miles from home. Among the delegation was the Detroit Afrikan Funkestra, a seven piece band which performed nightly and expertly providing cultural context for Akoaki’s design installations inspired by Detroit.

While on this trip I took advantage of being surrounded by Detroit culture creators and continuously discussed strategy. Strategies that serve the people of Detroit. They confirmed what I already know: the problem-solving abilities of creatives are holistic, and to never underestimate the artist. One of the many conversations I had was with a musician who introduced me to ecological economics. As I sit here with the flu, I am studying this particular type of economics feverishly, pun intended. We all agreed, there is no reason any one of Detroit’s citizens should live without power for days and for some, unfortunately, weeks, only to be told that the energy company DTE will be raising their prices. The old way of completely relying on corporations to provide for our basic needs is unsustainable and dangerous. Without compassion, as a result of the recent outage, DTE wants to price gauge us, a city that is already struggling with a 40% poverty rate.

Artists take risks that work.

My role in the delegation was two-fold. I went as a founding member of the Detroit Culture Council (DCC), an advocacy group for the creation of a cultural affairs department within city government, and as a mayoral candidate. As the mayoral candidate, I was invited to have lunch with the mayor of Saint-Étienne, Gaël Perdriau. A conservative, Mayor Perdriau and I definitely had one thing in common, our belief that arts and culture are essential to a high quality of living within a city. He expressed to me that like Detroit, Saint-Étienne lost a good portion of their population and he is trying to figure out a way to attract people back to the city. Beauty is the great seducer and to create more beauty is his ultimate goal. By actively supporting endeavors like the design biennale he believes this will attract not only newcomers but the young who leave to pursue higher education. The sophistication of Mayor Perdriau was impressive. So unfortunate that our city government remains unconvinced.

As a member of the DCC we held a public conversation with members of Perdriau’s administration. Among them were the head of arts and culture, Marc Chassaubéni, the director of the design biennale, Josyane Franc, and the vice president of tourism, Robert Karulak. This all took place at Detroit Shift Space, created by Cezanne Charles from Creative Many, a Michigan-focused arts policy, advocacy and research organization. DCC laid the foundation and briefly discussed the ongoing problems creating the need for a cultural affairs department: criminalization of artists, lack of voice within city government which leads to ignorant decision-making and reckless spending, the exclusion of artists based on culture and skill-set, ultimately the need for support from our government. But then we listened. One point that stood out the most from our French colleagues was their dedication to creating space for experimentation. It was important to them to develop collaborative spaces so artists across disciplines could “activate a deep space of wonder.” In order to make this happen, it is important, in their estimation, to blend the line between business and community and resist the rigidity of the institution since 70% of their arts and culture is supported by public funding (distributed by their arts council). That percentage seems like a dream to us, however, we understand how institutions and foundations can suffocate experimentation within the creative space. Through my conversation with the vice president of tourism, I learned how they marketed the city using the design biennale. By working with transportation (which France has an excellent train system) and other entities they were able to ensure that the whole country, if not the world, knows that Saint-Étienne is the city of art and design. The marketing was well executed, one of the most significant skills Detroit must master. 

Among those performing during the biennale opening events were lyricist Black Milk and the Nate Turner band. Black Milk is originally from Detroit. He’s so loyal you would think that he still lives here, but he lives in Los Angeles. I asked him after his amazing performance, "What can Detroit do better to attract talent like you back home?" He paused and replied "Marketing." Detroit needs to do better in telling its story and highlighting the greatest asset that it has, the people. This point was further driven home when on my last night in Saint-Étienne I went to a party curated by Cornelius Harris of Underground Resistance. Waajeed first spun and then Mark Flash. It was my first time witnessing the genius of Mark Flash. This man with a superhero name remixed and created live beats that had me and the entire dance floor spinning out into the cosmos. The sonic journey he produced was incredible. Our marketing must reach Detroiters as well. If our youth knew how close they were to such genius work...imagine what could they produce.

Cultural literacy is a key component to all of this, a phrase coined and used most eloquently during the panel discussions by sonic curator, music producer, and lyricist Bryce Detroit. His work within entertainment justice has helped to articulate the root of all that I witnessed in France and at home. Without a deeper understanding of the cultural context from which all of this creative genius is born we will not have an understanding of Detroit, and thus the path forward. Detroiters young and old must strengthen their cultural literacy so that we can imagine futures that serve us authentically. It is within ourselves that we will find solutions that will make living in Detroit healthier and more enjoyable. By underestimating the power of culture, design, and experimentation we underestimate the power of the people. The solutions are there, we just have to implement them. 

I have come to realize through this trip, I as mayor am not the solution creator, I am the one to create the platform, the space to assist in the solutions that are already in process, long before city government became knowledgeable of its existence. Detroit is known for its resilience and magnificent ability to attend to challenges in the most creative ways. That genius is born out of the culture of doing. 

Giving birth to new models and narratives.

When I left Detroit the water was contaminated and when I returned home 10 days later people were still without power. If this doesn’t signal that we need to aggressively implement a new approach to providing for basic needs of every citizen, I don’t know what does. More than ever we must be bold and take the risk, move into that alternate direction so that every Detroiter can live assured of basic power and clean water.

Because we can't do anything in the dark.