New Year, New Detroit: The Origins and Future of the Coalition

t's a busy time at New Detroit-as evidenced by the schedule of its president and CEO, Shirley Stancato.

Between board meetings, conference calls with other organizational leaders and writing an op-ed piece taking Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr to task for his "lazy" and "dumb" comment, Stancato is at the forefront of helping our city evolve into another kind of "new Detroit"-one that's post-bankruptcy, under new leadership and more racially equitable.

This year, Stancato celebrated her 10th anniversary as the head of New Detroit, the race-relations coalition that works for social justice and understanding among cultures.

"I think that there are more voices now, I think we've made some progress in a lot of areas, people within organizations, but we still have some major gaps. Our work is still important and needs to be done," she says.

At the dawn of a new year and a new day in Detroit, Stancato looks back at New Detroit's origins and her own-and what she hopes for the future of New Detroit and the city itself.


The birth of New Detroit

New Detroit, headquartered in the Fisher Building in Detroit's New Center, began in the aftermath of the 1967 riots. Then-Gov. George Romney was reportedly blindsided by the boiling racial tension in Detroit at the time, so he called together the city's then-Mayor Jerome Cavanagh and Joe Hudson, chairman of the department store chain carrying his family's name, to a meeting.

The idea of three White men addressing the concerns of Black residents seems odd today, but one must consider the racial and power dynamics of 1960s Detroit. Black residents, although growing in population, were a minority. And much of Michigan itself was governed by White men.

Hudson was one of the more well-connected business leaders in Detroit and could help bridge the gap among residents. Cavanagh acted as a civic liaison while Romney brought concerns back to Lansing. And New Detroit was born.

At that time, Stancato, nee Coleman, was living on Wabash Street on the city's west side with her parents and five siblings-three brothers, two sisters. The Coleman family had migrated years earlier to Detroit from Louisiana, where Stancato was born. Her father worked in construction while her mother tended to home.

"We weren't poor; we just never had any money," Stancato laughs. Simple wisdoms, of which Stancato has many, like this would carry her through Wayne State University, where she pursued a bachelor's degree in sociology and a master's degree in industrial relations, and through a long career at the now-defunct National Bank of Detroit.

Stancato moving up the career ladder

Throughout her career, Stancato was frequently the only woman in the room. "It's the story of my life," she says, when asked about navigating a male-driven world. But having three brothers and a nurturing father, who at 92 is a deacon at New Christian Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit, taught her the male point of view.

Stancato had risen to a senior vice president role at NBD, but was heavily involved in charity work and sitting on boards of other community organizations. When approached to serve as president of New Detroit in 2000, she initially declined.

When she was approached again, she realized she could apply methods taught at NBD to working at New Detroit.

"The bank's philosophy was, when you partner with community organizations and get involved with the community, that's a good way to get business. But also, if your community is strong, then your business is strong."

Stancato's role at NBD was to add value to the shareholders. At New Detroit, she now adds value to shareholders of Detroit: Her neighbors.

Another key lesson Stancato took from NBD was talking to people. At NBD, Stancato supervised retail operations: Customer service, teller interaction, almost everything that goes on in a branch of a bank. These days, Stancato says, she's not intimidated by being the only woman in the room. But breaking the ice for talking about race can be a challenge.

"Sometimes people say, ‘I don't see race,'" Stancato says. "If you don't see race, you don't see part of me." It's easy to find common ground with other characteristics, like parenthood, before overcoming the race barrier, Stancato says.

Focused on race discussions

One of New Detroit's core missions is to not lay blame on one race for another race's shortcomings-nor is it to compare which race has greater challenges. The organization instead looks for structural issues that show why one group or one person stands where they stand.

The best place to have honest yet unobtrusive conversation about race? The dinner table.

"People feel safe and have these convos. We don't talk about it, and we don't talk about it because we don't know how. (But) there's something about being invited to a person's home and having dinner … " Stancato says. That's why New Detroit hosts race relations dinners. The venue is always different, but the conversational focus and purpose is the same: bringing better understanding. 

New Detroit has expanded and contracted simultaneously under Stancato's leadership. It prides itself on being the only local organization that focuses "solely on race," which is why it discontinued some niche-oriented missions like immigration policy and some other broader community initiatives. "We're not a diversity organization," Stancato cautions.

It has added an annual youth summit, drawing dozens of teens from across the region to discuss race, an event that has grown as Detroit's suburbs increasingly diversify. In 2006, New Detroit held its first regional race summit, calling together leaders from across the tri-county area for panel discussions, including a presentation from the CEO of Southwest Airlines.

On a local level, New Detroit empowers minority-owned businesses by assisting them with the tools they need to thrive in a competitive landscape. Those entrepreneurs are getting younger, Stancato notes. "There's a group that's doing work that you don't hear about, and I am so inspired by these young people because they're not asking anybody's permission."

Early this year, New Detroit is set to issue its first regional race equity report, which will highlight disparities in the region (for example, cancer rates among Asian women and infant mortalities among African-Americans), which organizations are addressing them and what other organizations can do to help.

The future of the race-relations organization

This month, Mike Duggan, Detroit's first White mayor in 40 years, takes office-and for some Black Detroiters it's tough to accept that our predominantly Black city is now back to being run by a White man. Always nonpartisan, New Detroit stands neutral in Detroit's political affairs. But Stancato does say that Duggan's race has nothing to do with his leadership ability.

"It's the wrong narrative," she says. "It's painted as, ‘Now the White guy's here.' … Let's focus on the city, the region and what we need to do become strong again.

"We do have an emergency manager – that's a fact. Whether we like it or not, we are in bankruptcy. But there's a lot going on in spite of that," Stancato adds.

Although never a stranger to places beyond city limits, New Detroit finds itself more and more within suburban settings. The organization is everywhere from addressing concerns with school superintendents and teachers who have never had students of color, to partnering with other coalitions facing issues arising when minority populations become greater in other cities.

But more of a challenge is, surprisingly, keeping up with technology. New Detroit makes it clear it wants to connect with everyone on all levels, but younger constituents "are all into Instagram now!" Stancato laughs, lamenting that she received 86 emails before her day started. "And I don't even want to deal with tweeting."

Even as New Detroit moves forward, there are echoes of its beginnings. G. Scott Romney, son of the former governor, sits on the board. Scrolling through an event program, Stancato boasts about former up-and-coming leaders who now sit in political office, judges' benches and other leadership roles statewide.

But Stancato says she doesn't consider herself a local leader. Rather, she adopts an ideal learned at the family church: Servant leadership.

"I serve first," she says. "It's my job, I believe, to make sure that the people that I work with have what they need to get the job done, to make sure that the community is better off as a result of what I do. It's about impacting and empowering people to have better outcomes."

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