You can’t look back on Pam Lewis’ six years as head of the New Economy Initiative without being impressed. And with his recent departure for other projects, it’s time to highlight the reasons.
Since its founding in 2007, NEI’s mission has been to build an entrepreneurial culture in the Detroit metro area. Originally founded to invest $100 million from philanthropies—including Kresge—in transforming Southeast Michigan’s economy over eight years, this Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan initiative has survived to continue the vital work in supporting a new entrepreneurial ecosystem.
NEI helped the Motor City realize that a future as a diverse economy was not only imperative but possible.
Pam’s contributions, as Senior Program Officer for ten years and as Executive Director in 2016, have also been profound, increasingly emphasizing diversity and inclusiveness for participants in this new entrepreneurial culture.
I have admired Pam’s genuine leadership, inspiration and mentorship over many years, but appreciated the opportunity a little over a year ago to hear more about her thinking and her conception of the issues we all face when she and Andre Perry gave a presentation at the Detroit Neighborhood Forum, our regular discussion table for Detroit philanthropies and key cross-sector partners. I was fortunate to hear their presentation and participate in a separate call to explore the equity and redevelopment issues they both face.
Andre is the author of the essential Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in Black American Cities. He is also a Senior Fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, where Pam is a nonresident fellow in recognition of her deep, first-hand knowledge of what it means to work for economic recovery in American cities.
During our conversation, André told his personal story, which is also part of his book. His family took part in the great migration of African Americans fleeing the Jim Crow South for the larger – but still separated – opportunities of northern cities like Pittsburgh, where he was born, and Detroit, where he also had family. , and which figures prominently in his scholarly work.
His scholarship has focused on the “devaluation” of assets in predominantly black cities — a phenomenon with impacts and implications for everyone in a city, regardless of race, by the way. Those working in the trenches of community development have long spoken of disinvestment in older cities, in general, and communities of color in particular. André’s work is certainly related to divestment but provides important additional information. He points out how time and time again an otherwise identical asset is deemed less valuable simply because of who owns it and/or where it is located. Homes in black neighborhoods are undervalued by an average of 23%, or $48,000 each and collectively a staggering $156 billion.
This devaluation manifests itself in several ways.
“We always talk about loans and grants, but most people start their businesses using their home equity or individual wealth,” he said, for example. “Homeownership” — and the devaluation of those homes — “impacts ownership of a business.” In fact, Andre often points out that $156 billion is enough to fund four million black businesses, based on the average start-up figure for black entrepreneurs.
The impact of devaluation is hitting countless households… countless families… countless individuals. For Andre, there’s a personal “what if” that strikes the life of his late father, Floyd Allen Criswell, who moved between Pittsburgh and Detroit during his short life.
A heroin addict and father of three, including 19-year-old Andre, Criswell was sentenced to prison three times in the 1970s. He was stabbed by another prisoner in his sleep in 1978 during his last prison term in what was then called Jackson State Penitentiary. He was one day away from his 27th birthday.
“I followed where my father lived,” André told us. “And he lived in areas where there was significant housing devaluation, where homes are undervalued compared to homes in white neighborhoods. …Now that equity is what people use to start businesses, to send their kids to college, to move to better neighborhoods. … If he lived in areas where house prices were properly valued and communities were properly invested, he would have better schools and better job opportunities. He could have started his own business, could have gone to college. … He died at the hands of another inmate, but I say housing devaluation and lack of investment in black communities were also complicit.
Pam talked about how that story resonated in her life – also a child of the Great Migration, but from a solidly middle-class family background. Even in a family that owned a home and could send Pam and her siblings to college, from Andre’s framing, she could also see the impact of the loss of equity. There was less wealth than there would have been to transmit, to work.
And when it comes to working to bring more Black Detroit people into entrepreneurship, she sees the same missing value as a barrier time and time again — a barrier that organizations like NEI and its partners and allies are working to overcome. overcome.
It was inspiring to listen to Pam and Andre at these two sessions last year, both engaged and engaged in their work, discussing not just obstacles but tactics to overcome them.
Here are some of Andre’s thoughts: “In Detroit, there are thousands of properties at a price below which a bank won’t pay off with a mortgage. We therefore need new mortgage products that will enable low-income tenants to become buyers. … We need new policies, new zoning practices that will enable the government to prevent [companies’] buying large swathes of houses in particular areas. … We should find entrepreneurs close to the problem to solve it, instead of lending to people who don’t know the community, who don’t really see the value of a place. … There’s nothing wrong with black people that ending racism can’t fix. We need to look at policies that prevent investment in black neighborhoods. »
And the payoff for overcoming these problems, he argued, is a benefit not just for black and brown residents, or indeed all residents of majority-black cities, but for society at large.
Pam discussed the need for more support for the work of the NEI. Philanthropy has intensified, but “commercial banks and the private sector need to do much more,” she said. She spoke of the mismatch between much of the federal government’s support for small businesses — where small ones can have up to 1,500 employees — and true small businesses that start with as few staff as one.
Immediately, Pam spoke about the importance, in light of COVID, of providing new support for entrepreneurs in Detroit – especially entrepreneurs of color – and bringing greater alignment between supports for entrepreneurs. of NEI and community development organizations who know their neighborhoods and their renaissance trade corridors intimately.
These plans came to fruition.
In May last year, NEI announced the creation of a $19.5 million philanthropic fund to bolster support for small businesses in response to the pandemic. In June, NEI announced the Anchor Business Grant Program with a $1.2 million grant from Kresge to support the trade corridor work of six CDOs and 25 anchor businesses in the city’s corridors.
These two major victories for Pam’s team are a testament to the leadership of a trained engineer who can, as she puts it, go from “blank pages to real plans that turn into things.” We wish him good luck in his future endeavours. (And I would be remiss if I did not echo Pam’s DNF cries to longtime NEI Associate Director Don Jones – who retired from NEI last summer – and the many organizations that work with NEI to make all his work possible.)
We wish Pam well and look forward to working with her successor, Wafa Dinaro, to build on the legacy of Pam and Pam’s predecessor at the helm of NEI, Dave Egner. Wafa comes to this role after leading economic development for Wayne County. She has experience in project management, community development, strategic planning and communication. And she’s in a position where all of that will come into play.
Challenges remain, but there is progress — and a host of valuable insights — to build on.