Editor’s Note: Caroline Hopper is the associate director of the Aspen Institute’s Citizenship and American Identity Program. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Orlando Bailey, a 30-year-old black community organizer and lifelong Detroit resident, believes in the power of a good argument.
“It’s important to argue,” Bailey told me. “We sometimes feel like we need to find common ground to make people, specifically white people, comfortable, and to make issues palatable for folks who were born in privilege. I’m not interested in that. We must be more nuanced.”
Bailey helped our team organize an event to address tensions between long-time Detroit residents and newcomers, as the city adapts to a time of rapid change.
Emerging from decades of economic and demographic decline, culminating in its 2013 bankruptcy, Detroit is now growing. As part of this growth, new businesses are moving in along with people attracted to the relatively low cost of living. And Detroiters are balancing the need to preserve the culture at the heart of the community’s identity and existence with positive investments and contributions that newcomers may bring.
These tensions are not just about old versus new. They are inextricably linked to race, class and neighborhood identity.
Unlike Bailey, Ian Colin McCain, 26, is part of a recent wave of arrivals to Detroit. McCain is a Master of Community Development student at the University of Detroit Mercy. As a middle-class white male in the largest majority black city in the country, McCain said, “Before moving to Detroit, I was never challenged to fully unpack my power and privilege in society. And I think a lot of newcomers are like me in that way.”
McCain is referring to the trend that critical private and public investments in Detroit have been largely concentrated in select pockets of the city, and a dominant narrative that claims these investments are “saving” Detroit. While investments are welcome, this narrative is incomplete. For one, it ignores centuries of black culture and history that built the iconic American city. In addition, it fails to acknowledge the continuing plight of some neighborhoods that fall outside of the more affluent, whiter patches that are benefiting disproportionately.
The key to addressing this kind of division is to have better – not fewer – arguments. After all, argument is fundamental to any democracy, and limiting arguments can suppress needed deliberation. This is the premise of the Better Arguments Project, a collaboration among the Aspen Institute, Facing History and Ourselves, and Allstate.
A call for arguments of any kind may feel backward given the divided state of our nation. Americans on either end of the political spectrum not only disagree, but also distrust and dislike members of the other party in growing proportions.
According to Pew Research Center, the number of Democrats and Republicans with highly negative views of the opposing party is more than twice what it was in 1994. The implications of this animosity go beyond political disagreement and threaten to undermine our ability to engage with each other at all.
An antidote to this dangerous trend is for more Americans to learn how to communicate with those we disagree with. But to do so, we need to change how we have arguments.
We need arguments that are more emotionally intelligent, rooted in history and honest about power imbalances. To accomplish this, our team identified five principles of engagement: 1) take winning off the table; 2) prioritize relationships; 3) pay attention to context; 4) embrace vulnerability; and 5) make room to transform.
And with the help of Detroit residents like Bailey and McCain, we put these principles to work. The Better Arguments Project joined with a local partner, the Urban Consulate, to host a public event for participants to address tensions together directly.
Approximately 250 Detroit residents attended the event and were seated at round tables in small mixed groups made up of both long-timers and newcomers. “There are spaces in the city where these two worlds collide, but this was the first time I have been part of a conversation designed this way intentionally,” said Bailey.
These residents had gathered to gain an understanding of the range of Detroit experiences and to share more about their own. Leveraging the argument framework, participants could lean into the hard truths and discomfort that are necessary in addressing the complexities of long-timer and newcomer dynamics.
“These conversations have been happening organically, but they have been siloed. It goes a long way to have this conversation out in the open,” added Bailey.
No matter their perspectives, participants demonstrated concern, care and responsibility for their city simply by showing up.
After discussing and committing to the five principles of engagement, which served as the architecture for the conversation, participants “argued” by following a series of question prompts that were designed to incrementally move conversations into divisive territory.
As one step, participants were prompted to confront false narratives that feed into long-timer v. newcomer tensions.
Many long-time Detroit residents named widespread and imbalanced stereotypes about Detroit’s economic revitalization. For example, participants cited relatively new companies, like Shinola, which specializes in luxury goods and has been credited for the city’s economic revival.
They questioned whether Shinola, whose image is predicated on its ties to Detroit, benefits from this narrative more than residents benefit from the company’s presence. In response to the criticism, the company tweeted, “While we are so thankful for the love we did want to make it clear that without the city of Detroit, there would be no Shinola.”
Newcomers named stereotypes that suggest they are the only Detroit residents benefitting from recent growth. “We had a tough conversation about balancing new businesses in Detroit,” said McCain. “On the one hand, Detroit needs and benefits from new small businesses, and many of us enjoy them. On the other hand, we need to make sure that these businesses are catering to all Detroit residents, and that long-time Detroiters also have the resources and training to launch new enterprises.”
Ultimately, participants confronted what was defined to be the most divisive prompt: “What do you think newcomers owe to long-timers? What do long-timers owe to newcomers?”
“I wanted to make sure that I welcomed newcomers,” said Bailey. “But I underscored that I want them to be good neighbors by sharing resources, privilege and platform.”
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In the same gradual style in which they were led into argument, participants emerged out of argument through reflection. Together, they considered how they could use Better Arguments concepts in their everyday lives. “Since the event, I have tried to challenge the stereotypes that are told to newcomers arriving to live and start or join existing businesses or organizations in Detroit,” said McCain.
“For example, newcomers are often told that Detroit is a blank slate. Instead, I try to tell the full story about Detroit: it is a vibrant city that has thrived in many ways for over 300 years. Conversely, I also share the hard truths about socioeconomic challenges, and how those are the direct result of racism, unfettered capitalism and other forms of systemic oppression.”
“I learned that in some senses, I can relate to newcomers who come to create something new,” Bailey added. “But this has to come with a profound respect for what was here before us, and an intentional acknowledgment of the trauma of living in a city with resources, experiencing those resources being stripped away, experiencing the loss of democratic power because of emergency management, and now experiencing a so-called rebirth in some neighborhoods that can feel like it’s being done in spite of you or without you.”
Taken in isolation, Bailey and McCain’s Better Argument won’t solve the complex challenges facing Detroit. However, their engagement demonstrates what’s possible in working toward a less polarized America.