This project was conceived in 2018–five years after the State of Michigan suspended democracy in Detroit and imposed an emergency manager on the City. Shortly thereafter, emergency manager Kevyn Orr ushered in a devastating wave of austerity measures and declared bankruptcy on behalf of the city, marking the largest municipal bankruptcy in United States history. This era of austerity has been defined by publicly-subsidized developments downtown and water shutoffs, home foreclosures, and school closures in the neighborhoods. In the largest majority-Black city in the nation, it appears to many that Detroit’s “revitalization” has amounted to the dispossession, displacement, and disenfranchisement of Black communities.

In the years since, common stories about the period of emergency management and bankruptcy have blamed Black Detroiters for an economic crisis fueled by systemic racism and celebrated Detroit’s “comeback” driven by wealthy white developers downtown. These narratives have been built by marginalizing and silencing longtime Black Detroiters and grassroots organizers who have different perspectives of “revitalization” and competing visions for the future of Detroit.

The Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Project was designed to document, preserve, and amplify the voices of grassroots organizers in Detroit during this pivotal chapter in the city’s history. Through interviews with longtime activists and organizers, this project explores how Detroiters are organizing their communities to challenge systemic racism and build movements for racial equity and self-determination. These stories must be told to prevent the whitewashing of Detroit’s history and to preserve important lessons for future generations of organizers.

The oral histories within this collection contain stories of community, oppression, resistance, transformation, and hope. While the focus is on the period of state takeovers and emergency management since 1999, some stories date back to the early 1940s while others begin in the late 1990s, all showing the long history of racism and resistance in Detroit. When put together, these diverse stories and perspectives create a mosaic of Detroit’s vibrant living traditions of community organizing and social movements. We hope this collection will educate, inspire, and empower future generations to carry forth these traditions.

  • Document the stories, visions, strategies, tactics, and lessons of grassroots organizing against systemic racism over the past 20 years
  • Document, preserve, and publicize the voices of grassroots organizers in Detroit during a pivotal moment in the city’s history
  • Challenge racist popular narratives about emergency management, bankruptcy, and Detroit’s so-called “comeback”
  • Make local histories of grassroots organizing publicly accessible to educate, inspire, and empower future generations of activists
  • Create a resource for teaching Detroit history from the perspective of organizers and activists
Voices from the Grassroots is dedicated to the life and legacy of Mama Lila Cabbil, a water warrior and champion for racial equity, human rights, and self-determination in Detroit and everywhere.