Are We Doomed? Kresge's CitizenDetroit Program Suggests Otherwise

November's 2014 midterm elections had the lowest turnout in 70 years. Pundits have attempted to explain these dismal figures, pointing to traditionally lower turnout in non-presidential election years, demographic trends, and the fact that the electorate was likely turned off by negative advertising and nonstop campaigning.

While there's certainly truth to these explanations, what's irrefutable is the fact that citizens are disengaged from the political process. So what is to be done?

For one answer, we turn to Detroit. As the Motor City emerges from bankruptcy, it provides a unique case study in how local citizens can have a direct impact on the fate of their community. After all, the city is more or less starting from scratch and opportunities abound.

Enter longtime Detroit supporter the Kresge Foundation, which recently awarded Wayne State University a one year, $100,000 grant to support CitizenDetroit, a community outreach program administered by the Forum on Contemporary Issues in Society (FOCIS).

The goal of CitizenDetroit is to mobilize residents and provide a framework for "constructive political discourse." Community participants co-create "standards for evaluating leadership and decisions made in Detroit." In the words of Wayne State's Irvin D. Reid, it "challenges the tendency of individuals to sit on the sidelines and oppose the actions of city leaders based solely on media coverage and urban legends."

This is, of course, great stuff that's critical to the health of Detroit's political discourse. But it's also a slightly alarming development. Since no programs emerge from a vacuum, the existence of CitizenDetroit seems to suggest that existing mechanisms to hold politicians accountable and promote healthy discourse — things like the press, the voting process, and the entrenched political system — are broken. Something more is clearly needed.

Of course, the proof is in the pudding. The city went bankrupt. There were multiple failure points that inevitably created such a unprecedented event. And Kresge seems to be saying, "OK, let's all learn from our mistakes and make sure it doesn't happen again."

To accomplish this, CitizenDetroit aims to:

  • Reach high-performance voters and first-time voters about historical myths and facts that may misguide community dialogue objectives.
  • Inform influential older adult voters about entrenched policies that impede government's ability to serve the needs of constituents or adapt to current economic, environmental, and social challenges.
  • Challenge youth and older adults to evaluate the actual policymaking dilemmas facing lawmakers today so as to create a cadre of informed civic and political activists.

One last thing. Detroit isn't the only dysfunctional city, county, or state government in the country. Kresge's approach is refreshing because it can be replicated elsewhere.

To quote an old adage, "All politics are local." And if communities hope to reengage disillusioned citizens, locally-focused like CitizenDetroit may be our best hope.