Sustainable Business Conversation, Jan-Feb 2018

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Sustainable Business Conversation, Jan 18, 2018 Topic: Justice in Sustainability

Is it a good thing to inherit money? Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are advocating for the very rich to give away a large portion of their accumulated wealth and be thoughtful about how much money younger generations inherit. One of them said that I want my kids to have enough to do anything that they want but not enough to do nothing. Family businesses need to do succession planning. It is good to provide voices for people from around the world who might not be able to tell their story. Urban planning and urban renewal have a bad name in Detroit. These projects had many negative impacts on African American communities in the past. This is true in Detroit and a number of other cities. The City of Houston has no zoning because the African American community voted against zoning in the mid-60s. They felt they needed to protect their vibrant communities and feared that government would zone them out of their own homes. In practice, zoning is highly political and usually favors those with the most power. In general Houston is much more flexible and vibrant as a result of no zoning, but there are problems with making infrastructure workable. It has been OK to build in a floodplain, which clearly has consequences. Housing prices are lower. Go to downtown Detroit on most weekends, and you would think Detroit is a majority white city. There is a feeling of “them not us” in the new developments. The current urban planning department is staffed mostly by folks from out of town with degrees from prestigious universities. My life has been shaped by accidental encounters. I was born to a coal miner’s daughter in West Virginia. That culture is very different from the culture of sharecroppers in the deep south which is much more prevalent in Detroit. My grandfather was well respected in the coal mines as supervisor, even though he was one of very few Blacks in the area. The supervisor was the person who could get you out of the coal mine alive – survival was at stake. Our neighbors were mostly white, German and Italian. My Dad was a union guy fighting scabs. After the family moved to Detroit, Mom got all of the eight kids into a Catholic school for free. She always liked getting something for free. All of my classmates were white. I got a different sense of things from attending that school. I have dyslexia, as does my twin brother (probably). We found ways to compensate all our life. He could read out loud to me and then I could discuss and explain what it meant. I figured out a way to read – not phonetically – but a way that works for me. I am an outlier. My family did not blend in with the neighborhood. Mom didn’t fit in. I have trouble with I have trouble with some folks who think they know Black people without bothering to ask us. Sometimes things are done to attract Black people but those things are actually repelling them. If I sense things are about sending missionaries to save the pagan babies, I run the other way. I was involved with a diversity planning committee at Albion College. It started as a panel of Black students to talk about problems. The President assured us that he would work to rectify problems. The assumption was that the senior people at the college have the answers. There was no expectation that students could be involved in creating change. The leaders saw some people as limited to the problem, but not part of the solution. To really create change, you have to create community and get people in touch with capabilities they didn’t know they had. If gentrification goes too far, you lose the sense of the city. It’s important to get input from the neighborhoods. A good book is The Color of Law – A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein.


Sustainable Business Conversation, Jan 25, 2018 Topic: Understanding Ourselves and the Communities in Which We Work

There can be friction between Black and White communities. We all want agency over our own lives. We may be talking at each other but nothing is connecting. Every side interprets things differently. It’s a negative when disempowerment is part of a project intended to do good. Outsiders come in with good intentions but people in the community are seen as passive rather than active participants. One project sent a lot of sewing machines to Afghanistan in order to “fix” women there. This idea was imposed from the outside and did not result in empowering people. People did not find a sense of how to re-invent themselves or how to invent solutions. We need to find a sweet spot where adding people’s talents, energies or money can create something positive. I’ve been a consultant to large companies. I’ve run a “junk workshop” where I would challenge people to make things from a table filled with all kinds of junk. There are fast-paced, timed challenges to get people out of their sense of limitation. People come to this with a sense that they can’t do anything without permission. These challenges get people to start to work together and become creative. The client wanted me to have all the answers, but really the people who worked there had the answers when the right questions were asked. White American culture tends to have a culture of exceptionalism. African American culture seems to have a sense of limitation, this may be based on the culture of slavery. A good book is Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent Donovan. The author was a missionary sent to Africa to save people. But over time he changed and decided that he came to Africa to save himself. He came to learn something from the people and communities he met. He learned that saving someone else is falsehood from the start. First you have to free yourself. When I got my Masters degree, it was to save myself, not to save others. I became a social worker and lost my way. I thought my purpose was to save others. But as I worked in Detroit, the dynamic changed. I learned to hug clients and improvise. I became what I needed to be. As a therapist I need to join in with the client in the work of therapy. If I just sit back and don’t join in, we lose something. When I join in, I am better at the end of an hour of therapy. I believe in meeting people where they are at and sharing a part of who you are. A set of chance accidents brought me here. My mother was born in 1919, daughter of a West Virginia coal miner who was well respected because he could lead the workers and get them out of the mine safely. Women made the decisions that brought the family here to Detroit. My aunt followed a 2-bit boxer to make him marry her. Coming from West Virginia created different ways of thinking, not rooted in sharecropping. But there is still plenty of disfunction. My mother decided my father must be rich because he had a Buick. She had a distrust of white people. She found a way to get eight kids into Catholic school for free. At school they collected pennies to save pagan babies. It seemed like a noble thing – to love everyone regardless of race or creed. But actually, it was awful. My brother and I were the only Black kids in the class, and they turned us into pagan babies. The worst part was that suddenly other kids, including the girl who was my long-time enemy, started being “nice” to us. It was better when kids were being honest, even if they were mean to us. Dependence on outside forces and magical thinking can be dis-empowering. You come to expect others to magically save the day. Poor people don’t like to be thought of as poor. People with few resources are continually thinking of how to solve problems. I come from a blue-collar family which has staunchly stood by its roots. We lived in a nice neighborhood but even though we are white, we were different from most. Our identity is being roots – and many people walk all over the roots without thinking. New ideas and flowers are pretty, but the roots feed the tree. Back in the industrial neighborhood (Southwest), people know what’s up. You don’t have to say it. I don’t think people understand me here. You think you can drive down my street and know what’s going on – but that’s not true. You want to come and change Detroit but Detroit is probably going to change you.

Sustainable Business Conversation, Feb. 8, 2018 Topic: Poetry and Language in Sustainability

I want to see a mix of humanities and business school. Something needs to push business beyond its boundaries to recognize its about more than money. How we talk about the work we do is important. For instance it makes a difference to call something a gathering instead of an event. An event is completely planned and you attend as a passive consumer. A gathering invites active participation. Language really matters. When someone who has never spent time in Detroit says “I want to come help ‘save’ Detroit”, I cringe. You need to know and respect the history of the city and the communities. For a poet, every single word choice is important. I don’t consider myself blue-collar but I do work hard in my landscaping business. I don’t punch a clock for someone else. I’m an entrepreneur and own my business. Nowadays lines can be blurred between a blue-collar worker and other types of work. In a modern factory you have to be technical and usually need training. Newer workers in the auto plants don’t get paid as much. Companies are offering buy-outs because they want the older workers with generous contracts to leave. Times change. Kids just out of college are not paid much at all – and often have huge loans to pay off. When I lost my job in 2009, I thought I’d get a job easily because that had been true in the past. But in 2 years of active searching I only had 3 interviews and no offers. Things will never be the way they used to be. Employers no longer reward loyalty. These days kids are not taught to be creative. There is too much teaching to the test. Children need art and creative play to develop resiliency and empathy. Those qualities are central to what makes us human. Too much technology is hurting us the most. Cell phones are allowed in classes which is very bad. The younger generation doesn’t know what to do without a phone – they are missing out on so much learning. Kids are way too stressed today. Too many are suicidal. Kids used to be alley rats, playing with worms and snakes. Now kids are hardly allowed to play. Boredom creates resiliency. After thrashing around for a while they’ll get tired and find things to do. Addiction to cell phones is real. Smart phones have only been popular since about 2007, but they are designed to be highly addictive. If the power grid goes down, young people don’t know how to do things on their own. It’s scary how fast things are changing. My family used to go for Sunday drives, just exploring, not knowing where we were going. When everything is done by Google maps, there is no adventure in getting there. There are plenty of kids in Detroit who have never been outside of their neighborhood. People thought I would not survive when I moved out of the city to Belleville. So many kids were killed in my old neighborhood, but people didn’t think they could go anywhere else. Parents never took their kids anywhere. Kids grow up with a fear of the unknown. So many Americans never leave the USA. That leaves us culturally isolated. This tendency is passed down from generation to generation in many families. Some of us broke out of these family dynamics and were the first to leave the city or the county or to go to college.


Sustainable Business Conversation, Feb 15, 2018 Topic: How Cities Change, Evolve and Move Forward

How do you change a city and move it forward in a way that’s respectful? Troy wants to take public land and create a downtown. Investors come in who just want to buy properties and make money flipping them. This is not a good way to build community. I’ve found out that agriculture is not necessarily welcome in residential neighborhoods. A hops farm includes tall structures, guide wires and fencing. Is it an asset to a neighborhood? Tall foliage creates screens and hiding places for bad folks and can make residents feel unsafe. Scrappers will come to steal metal – so you need tall fences and barbed wire. The guide wires are trip hazards. Urban farms can be stinky and have noisy equipment. Palmer Woods residents made it clear they don’t want a farm nearby. Some people are just opposed to change. A Florida town, Longboat Key, didn’t want any new businesses. Old businesses are closing and the commercial area is dying out with no new energy. Ann Arbor has become an employment hub with tech companies and the hospital – but there’s not enough living space. There are height limits on new buildings. Commutes have become terrible. Hard to find space for low income housing. Employees are not paid at levels that make housing affordable. The gap becomes larger and larger. In Lafyette Park, 10 years ago you could get a townhouse for $50,000 to $80,000. Now they are going for $300,000 to $500,000. There are fewer Black residents and more millennials living there. I don’t see a viable systemic solution under capitalism. People who can make a lot of money flipping real estate will do it. Building community wealth would keep real estate capital in neighborhoods. Old Detroit has many abandoned houses. There are well-made brick homes sitting empty and lots of people who can’t afford homes. In general, White people with capital moved out and lower income folks bought them. A variety of factors (scams, rip-off landlords, water bills) took a toll and houses become abandoned, then scrappers strip everything out. If houses are not taken care of and lived it, a neighborhood can go down very quickly. Squatters can be a huge problem. A single person or small family gets a house and strangers appear and move in forcibly. I saw this when I did social work in Detroit. A house was full of about 20 people who didn’t belong there. Banglatown has found creative ways to stabilize neighborhoods. Artists moved in and noticed that the neighborhood was transitional and could go either way. They found funding from National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and other places to buy vacant houses and create event space and places for artists in residence. A skate park was built for the neighborhood. White, privileged newcomers walk a fine line. They worked to engage the neighbors. Bangladeshi traditional musicians were helped to create a music school. There was a lot of social capital in these traditional communities. On the west side of Detroit, long-time residents remember stable neighborhoods and healthy communities. Some of that got lost after World War II and really broke down in the 1960s. Detroit Community Wealth Fund loans money to coops and community-based businesses in Detroit. They seek to support democratically controlled businesses that can help create an equitable economy. Anger stokes some people and communities. Anger can be a force that holds tight-knit communities together after the jobs have disappeared. In the 1980s people became more isolated as things like TV and air conditioning became common. People have retreated into their caves. It’s hard to get to know your neighbors these days.


Sustainable Business Conversation, Feb 22, 2018 Topic: Debt and Sustainability

There are debilitating aspects of financial debt. Do young entrepreneurs in Detroit fully understand what they are taking on? Debt is now packaged into almost every product or service. There are so many credit cards or apps for buying things. Predatory debt harms people. There is a debt to the environment when we take things from the natural commons without any ways to replenish those things. We are setting up a long-term debt with nature. Is there also a social debt? What would that look like? Debt has become the norm. It’s how most people buy a house or a car. When I was buying a car I asked the sales person how much the total cost would be. He instead told me the cost of a monthly payment – which was not the question I asked. He answered in debt language. When you lease a car you are getting pre-packaged debt as a financial obligation. Healthy debt keeps you going and helps you live your life. You can still make money and make decisions. It does not own you if you have a realistic plan to pay off the debt. I use my credit card for many purchases because I get points and airline miles. I pay it off every month. It’s easier for me to pay with a card, however the merchant has to pay the fees to the credit card company. Student debt has become very risky. Young people can borrow so much before they fully understand the risks of debt. It costs so much to go to college – and then many kids with college degrees just can’t find jobs that pay enough to repay the loans. College kids with no income are sent pre-approved credit cards – bad habits start. Marriages fail because of money issues and too much debt. Businesses may need a line of credit for unusual things. There might be an extra pay period this month or sales might be slow, but there is a business plan and things will catch up. If possible its good to plan ahead and have a cash buffer for those situations. Does debt control you or do you control debt? If you can’t sleep at night that’s a clue. My business plan is to keep overhead down for times when income is low. We need t keep control of expenses. We only use 2 credit cards. One is issued by the bank and one is for Home Depot. My business is seasonal and I know I will need some credit to get through the winter. We have a family lending pot for family members. When the pot is empty it’s gone. No more loans until past ones are repaid. We agree to put so much into the pot per quarter or 6 months. Important not to stress out about the repayment. When debt controls you, you can get wrapped up in shame and guilt. It can hurt relationships. For my adult children, I give them one get out of jail free card – after that you are on your own. I only put into the pot what I can afford to give up anyway. The borrower pays it forward – to me or to other family members. Grandma had 9 kids and all are college educated. She helped the first one get through college and that one helped the next one and so on. One uncle was really good with money and siblings borrowed money from him, starting when he was 11 years old. Helping each other was mutual. There are different ways of helping besides money. It is disempowering to only take. You need to also give. Folks in Detroit have had almost no power for so long that some have held on to what they do have so tightly. People feel disempowered and over-compensate in unrelated areas. Little communities are isolated from each other in so many ways.