You May Not Know These Black Millennials, But They're Helping Detroit Make Its Comeback

"Whenever we see the positive side, the evolution of the city, it's always white faces."
The Huffington Post

Stories of Detroit's revival have continually left out the black residents working to improve the city they've called home for decades.

Young black Detroiters have chosen to stay in the majority African-American city or have returned from other places to take part in revitalization efforts -- they’re working in the large organizations and foundations steering the ship, starting the new businesses, educating the generation following them, participating in the vibrant art scene and drinking the pour-over coffees. But their contributions go largely unmentioned.

“Whenever we see the positive side, the evolution of the city, it's always white faces,” said Chase Cantrell, a 32-year-old lawyer. “There are young black people who are doing great things to help the revitalization of the city, and no one's talking about them.”

Cantrell is one of the millennials who grew up in Detroit and believes in the city’s resurgence. But he and some of his peers are increasingly concerned about their lack of representation, a phenomenon that has real-world harm, according to Donyale Padgett, associate professor of diversity, culture and communication at Detroit’s Wayne State University.

“It really does alter and affect one’s concept of self,” Padgett said. “I think one of the questions it brings up is, where do I see myself and where do I fit in, in this new Detroit.”

In some ways, that lack of representation speaks to a real and troubling lack of diversity among those with power and capital in the city, but there are still many native Detroiters playing a part in its revival. And while the white artists and entrepreneurs coming to Detroit often get praise for the creativity and courage that entails, there are black millennials showing just as much innovation and hustling just as hard -- and they deserve recognition, too.

Below, hear from 11 native Detroiters who are deeply passionate about the place they call home and are making sure they are included in the city’s future.

Cornetta Lane, 28, is turning gentrification into a learning experience.

Credit: Charles Ashley; HuffPost

Cornetta Lane has spent almost all of her life in the neighborhood of Core City. So she was taken aback last year when she read an article about a couple who had purchased a nearby building and started referring to their location as "West Corktown," due to its proximity to the increasingly trendy neighborhood of Corktown. At first, she was infuriated -- she saw the new name as the first step toward gentrification and the erasure of Core City's identity and history.

But Lane, who also works at a credit union, fueled her frustration into creating Core City Stories, a biking and walking tour that let participants learn about neighborhood history by listening to residents’ stories. It's an offshoot of Detroit Dialogues, her monthly discussion group that blends civic engagement with conversation and artistic expression, and Lane plans to bring the model to other neighborhoods experiencing tensions between different groups of residents.

“Rebranding and gentrification, it really brings out exclusion and displacement,” Lane said. “I think a lot of times we forget that we’re people and we have an emotional connection to the place we call home.”

People on the Core City Stories bike tour learned from Core City residents about the Detroit neighborhood and its history.

People on the Core City Stories bike tour learned from Core City residents about the Detroit neighborhood and its history.

Credit: Rachel Rosenbaum

Adam Hollier, 29, is using a wide skill set to make a difference in Detroit, starting with his own neighborhood.

Credit: Adam Hollier; HuffPost

Adam Hollier has done a lot: He has earned a master's degree in urban planning and gotten a real estate license, has worked for Detroit’s former mayor and a former state senator, has run for a state representative seat, and has sat on the Ann Arbor, Michigan, school board.

Now, he is the vice president of Hantz Woodlands, a major urban agriculture initiative -- in the last two years, the organization has planted 20,000 trees in vacant lots and blighted areas on Detroit’s east side. One of Hollier’s focuses is on partnering with the community, including starting an urban agriculture program with a local high school.

Hollier sees the wide range of jobs he’s had and problems he’s solved as a toolbox to share with other Detroit residents.

“The message for Detroit and Detroiters has got to be, ‘You can do it, and if you can’t do it with what you have now, who do you go to to get it done,’” he said. “I’d like to be type of person who you go to and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this idea and I want to do these things but for whatever reason I can’t make it work.’ That’s what I want my legacy to be.”

Hollier also believes that Detroit's revitalization needs to come from its neighborhoods as much as from the large developers investing in the city's center. He and his wife, Krystle, recently bought a house in the North End, a few blocks from his siblings’ homes and where his family has lived for six decades.

“That’s the thing that I think will really fix this city, is if people from my generation say, the neighborhood I grew up in is the neighborhood I am going to invest my time, money and resources in,” he said. “Unless we occupy and develop the spaces that are in our neighborhood, no one else will.”

Dave Anderson, 28, is proving that supporting diversity is just good business.

Credit: Dave Anderson; HuffPost

When Dave Anderson left Detroit at age 22, he never planned to come back: Robberies and exposure to violence had left him with what he and friends jokingly called “Deep Detroit Hatred Syndrome.” But he did eventually return, and the hatred turned into a “deep passion” and a desire to make an impact on his hometown.

Anderson was working full-time as an engineer in May 2013 when he and his friends started talking about partnering on a new business, a coworking space. Three months later, they opened Bamboo Detroit, which offers workshops, invests in other new businesses and hosts events. Bamboo has grown from 15 to 100 members and is still expanding.

“I don’t think we could have done it that quickly in any other city that I know of,” Anderson said.

Of Bamboo’s members, about 40 percent are women, 40 percent are minorities and 40 percent live in the city rather than the suburbs.

“Since we got started, we wanted to build a diverse community where everyone feels included and has access to the same opportunities,” Anderson said, adding that having diverse leadership was a primary way to achieve that.

Rhonda Alford, 31, and her team of female football players are defying expectations about Detroiters.

Credit: Rhonda Alford; HuffPost

Rhonda Alford is a licensed pilot and self-described serial entrepreneur who runs a tutoring company and advertising agency in addition to her latest venture, a women’s full-contact football team. The Detroit Pride finished its first season last month, taking home the trophy in the Independent Women’s Football League Affiliate Bowl.

“It was a great opportunity to give back to the community,” she said. “I wanted to bring something kind of cool to the city.”

Alford, who grew up in a football-loving family, said people frequently assume her players wear bikinis -- instead, they find serious athleticism and stiff competition. She wants their games to be events that draw crowds to the city, like major high school or NFL games.

Alford attended college outside of the city and came back when her dad was diagnosed with cancer. Though she returned to help her mother care for him and her brother, who has special needs, coming home was always in her long-term plan.

“Being born and raised here, seeing what Detroit was going to come back to, I knew,” she said. “I saw the vision. I always wanted to be a part of the revitalization of the city.”

Credit: Detroit Pride

Amina Daniels, 30, is challenging Detroiters to get healthier without sacrificing fun.

Credit: Amina Daniels; HuffPost

Amina Daniels has always been health-conscious and business-minded. She started her first business when she was 11, selling concessions at neighborhood sports games, and only begrudgingly added candy to her inventory when she realized it helped her make more money.

She left Detroit after graduating college, but returned in 2013 with big plans to open the first indoor cycle studio in the city. Those plans have been beset by obstacles: Several months after she returned, she was hit by a car while riding her bike, and she's still regaining strength in her knee.

“When I was in physical therapy, I saw a lot of women and men in their 40s and 50s who couldn’t do basic exercises. … I was amazed at how many people have not been active for decades,” Daniels said.

A plan to partner with a suburban cycle studio this January failed when their facility burned down. However, in the last two years, she's still kept up her mission of bringing fun, healthy activities to the city by hosting weekly bike rides and other events, and aims to open her studio, Live Cycle Delight, early next year.

Daniels’ business idea just won a $50,000 grant from a small business incubator, but she said in many ways, her win is the exception.

“It’s more white males that have been getting some of this free money and it’s a lot of outsiders, a lot of people who aren’t from Detroit, who didn’t grow up in Detroit,” she said. “So you don’t look at that as a negative thing, you just look at that as, maybe, another opportunity to make sure you have a better product.”

Britney Stoney, 26, is getting local accolades and wider exposure for the new soul sound she developed in Detroit.

Credit: Playground Detroit; HuffPost

Everything about Britney Stoney’s music has her hands on it: She sings, plays guitar, writes her own lyrics and produces. Stoney had been singing since she was a kid in school choir, but it wasn’t until she bought a cheap guitar at a Detroit garage sale and started teaching herself chords that she began to see herself as an artist.

She was attending college in Ohio at the time, and hating it.

“I think I just was trying to do what was expected of me, so I just went to whatever school, and it was so bad. I couldn’t stand Ohio,” she said. “But I think if I didn’t got there, I wouldn’t have really known what I wanted to do."

She decided to quit school and move back to Detroit in 2009, where she found the arts scene that Tiffin, Ohio, was lacking. She moved into a loft with a sneaker designer and Mic Phelps, a rapper she teamed up with for eclectic freestyle performances at open-mic nights around town. The constant open mics quickly lead to bookings at big summer festivals, getting immersed in the city’s supportive music scene and winning a Kresge arts fellowship.

“I was really lucky, because I met some really genuine people that actually were interested, and really liked what I did and wanted to help me,” Stoney said.

Stoney is one of many people working in creative industries that live in her neighborhood, Eastern Market.

Stoney has lived all over the city, in places that now look radically different -- one of her old apartment buildings has been replaced by a casino parking lot, and when she lived on the east side, the houses around her were torn down until her family’s was the only one on the block still standing. She grew up in mostly black neighborhoods and attended predominately white schools in the suburbs.

That’s helped her feel comfortable living among mostly white neighbors in the predominantly black city.

“I'm surrounded by art and artists, and that’s just inspiring,” she said. But she also questions the recent influx of newcomers.

“I do see a lot of young white people coming for the arts scene,” she said. “If they’re going to be here in Detroit they should make themselves aware, have respect for the city and the people who have been here, not just kind of being here for the hip thing.”

Ronald Norwood, 23, is making a career out of his passion for educating and mentoring Detroit youth.

Credit: Ronald Norwood; HuffPost

Former high school class president Ronald Norwood once planned on being Detroit’s mayor, though he has since put that aside to work on other civic and education issues.

Norwood facilitates programs under the Neighborhood Service Organization’s youth initiatives project, training young people in advocacy and giving them tools to create campaigns around issues like bullying and gang violence. As a high school student, he was involved in creating one of those campaigns, called Hugs Not Bullets.

First, though, the 23-year-old struggled with his own education -- he didn’t learn to read or do basic math until eighth grade. Norwood credits support from family and mentors for his achievements in high school and college.

“I realized that I got to where I was and became so successful, because people helped me,” Norwood said. “Not only am I good at helping people, because I enjoy it, that’s something I love to do, but that’s something people did for me.”

Phillip Simpson, 32, is nurturing other artists’ careers while creating his own work.

Credit: Phillip Simpson; HuffPost

Phillip Simpson is an eternal optimist who runs the Baltimore Gallery, where he hosts local artists' shows; he also paints and started the Smile Brand to sell merchandise related to his fine art work and spread his positivity. He previously owned a clothing store and worked at a tech incubator.

Always an artist, he attended high school at the Detroit School of Arts, where his fiancée's daughter now majors in dance, and grew up in the Osborn neighborhood.

“Coming from an inner-city neighborhood, you can have those influences -- bad guys, people a couple houses down selling drugs -- but you can also have a mother who don’t allow you be apart of that,” Simpson said. “Going to high school, a lot of my friends in my neighborhood dropped out in 10th grade, but I kept going. I always wanted something more.”

For a short period, Simpson painted smiley faces and positive messages on abandoned houses in his neighborhood.

“It started out of a need to see some more happiness around here. … It was just a chance that one person walks past it and it makes their day,” Simpson said.

Credit: Phillip Simpson

Brittni Kellom, 29, is turning her own childhood trauma into a mission to make young people's lives better and safer.

Credit: Brittni Kellom; HuffPost

Brittni Kellom is getting a degree in psychology from the University of Michigan, but has been running her own organization since she was a teen. Twelve years ago, she founded Just Speak, inspired by her own experience with childhood sexual abuse. The survivor-led nonprofit creates safe spaces for young people who have deal with sexual trauma, and holds workshops, offers support services and advocates against abuse.

“I want young people to feel safe in their own city,” Kellom said.

Kellom said support from her mother and other family members, who helped her get involved in a wide variety of extracurricular programs, helped her survive.

“There are a slew of young people because of the city’s resources, etc., that aren’t exposed to those things,” she said. “You can just imagine the amount of young people that don’t have those foundations, and so that was the driving force behind Just Speak.”

Kaylan Waterman, 26, is introducing visitors to Detroit, while hoping newcomers come to the city with more awareness.

Credit: Kaylan Waterman; HuffPost

To Kaylan Waterman, one of Detroit’s best qualities is its people -- whether her neighbors, fellow participants of the arts scene or members of her church. She grew up in Grandmont Rosedale, the kind of place where new neighbors were welcomed with plates of baked goods, and says she loves Detroit’s supportive community.

“I think thats one of my greatest fears, that we would move away from that, because sometimes I feel a little ostracized by 'New Detroit,'” she said.

Despite the tight-knit community, Waterman said that when she was growing up, many of her parents’ peers considering moving out of Detroit for better opportunities to be a kind of status symbol, and that a lot of people in her generation left the city. But Waterman decided to stay in Detroit, where, until recently, she worked at an unfulfilling corporate job. She quit to work at Hostel Detroit, a nonprofit and informal welcome center for the city, and concentrate on her folk rock band, the Normandies.

Part of Waterman’s job is introducing people to her hometown, something she relishes. But in the past several years she’s had concerns about the attitudes of some newcomers.

“I think people are often times shocked that they’re meeting another young person that has lived here their whole life … almost like it’s damaging this perception they have of 'New Detroit,' like they like to think that everybody’s moving here,” she said.

Chase Cantrell, 32, is participating in Detroit’s comeback, but still asking the difficult questions about inclusion.

Credit: Chase Cantrell; HuffPost

Chase Cantrell represents some of the best millennial qualities. He found a way to do something he loved in his field -- working on real estate deals in transactional law -- but he still has an entrepreneurial streak and is developing an events app on the side with friends. He craves adventure, and briefly lived in Paris, but he also wants to make an impact on his community, and returned to Detroit, where he now helps lead the Francophile club.

He’s enthusiastic about the changes to Detroit -- including a small boom of high-end retail -- meant to attract millennials like himself to the city. However, he still has reservations about how the city is being revitalized.

“We celebrate it; we participate in it; we understand our privilege in being able to do so,” Cantrell said about himself and his peers. “The changes in Downtown and Midtown are striking, and it’s hard to evaluate to what extent they're positive.”

He said he often goes to places where he’ll look around and realize he's the only black person present.

“This is weird, given that I'm in Detroit,” he said. “Are we building this downtown where normal, middle- or lower-class residents can go in and feel comfortable?”

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