Practicing Democracy: The CitizenDetroit Project

Practicing Democracy: The CitizenDetroit Project at Wayne State University

CitizenDetroit engages, educates, and mobilizes residents through the use of social media and in-person experiential exercises designed to view the financial crisis occurring in Detroit, a city that has experienced disinvestment, deindustrialization, and social divisiveness. This issue is particularly relevant given the State of Michigan Governor’s announcement on March 14, 2013 to appoint an Emergency Financial Manager for Detroit, despite popular vote by residents against state control.

In the spring of 2012, the Forum on Contemporary Issues in Society (FOCIS) at Wayne State University, directed by Irvin D. Reid, inaugural holder of the Applebaum Chair in Community Engagement and President Emeritus, launched CitizenDetroit, a series of community workshops designed (1) to educate city residents about critical factors and significant events that have contributed to Detroit's economic crisis, and (2) to help them to engage in a budget exercise which allowed them to understand the challenges of democratic governance.

CitizenDetroit is a model, applicable for engaging citizens in distressed urban areas across America, to:
• Educate high-performance voters, including first time voters, about historical myths and facts that may misguide much of community dialogue; • Inform influential voters about entrenched policies that impede government's ability to serve the needs of constituents or adapt to current economic, environmental and social challenges; and • Challenge participants to evaluate the actual policy-making dilemmas facing lawmakers today so as to create a cadre of informed civic and political activists.

Making real change in America requires the involvement of citizens who are engaged earnestly in the political process and who know that their voices can make a difference. For this kind of engagement to occur and be effective, citizens must be educated about social and political issues. CitizenDetroit was created as an attempt to lead the charge to establish an educated electorate in Detroit and have an impact on the citizens of Detroit in their civic engagement and the practice of democracy. We believe that CitizenDetroit is a valuable tool, transferable, to distressed urban cities throughout the United States.

Through the creative uses of social media, CitizenDetroit will extend its reach both within and beyond Detroit. Regular sessions of groups of citizens meeting face to face, will now be able to engage a larger more diverse group of participants who are not easily engaged through the regular sessions. This will be done through the formation of Google hangouts and screensharing (in real time)of the same information others have in the onsite sessions in order to engage new voters. This will vastly engage a broader spectrum of citizens, particularly youthful citizens.

The hurdles in large urban City governments are both financial and organizational. Each day leaders and its citizens are at crossroads. Every day the city leaders face critical decisions. The success of distressed cities in America hinges not only on the soundness of their decisions, but on the public’s ability to understand and evaluate the choices that are available. After all, informed citizens make informed decisions. In many ways, that is the essence of democracy.

A 3-minute video on CitizenDetroit can be found on YouTube at:

Try it out