Linda Campbell arrived in Detroit in 1972 as a 22 year-old recent college graduate and moved in with family members on the Westside near the intersection of Ilene and Fenkell. It was the year before Coleman A. Young was elected as Detroit’s first Black Mayor and Linda described the city as vibrant, active, and thriving. “When I came here, I had never seen Black people living so well and living in their beautiful homes and vibrant neighborhoods,” she recalled.
Linda left Detroit in the 1980s but returned in the 1990s to find the city she loved and admired had completely changed. Disinvestment in the city as well as both white flight and industry flight were components of the systemic racism that created the conditions that Linda observed. “I cried when I saw what had happened to that neighborhood…it had been such a beautiful city for everyday working-class folks and particularly Black people…and the ravage of disinvestment that I saw when I came back, I couldn’t believe it.”
Now, Linda acknowledges that Detroit is fractured between parts of the city receiving funding and investment and those that are not. “We’re seeing two cities here in Detroit,” she explained, “what’s happening in Downtown, Midtown, and what’s happening in the rest of the communities, the rest of the neighborhoods.”
Despite what she witnessed upon her return to Detroit, Linda speaks about the city she has called home for decades with pride: “…it’s sort of in the DNA of Detroiters to fight back, to organize, whether it’s in the block club level, whether it’s a bigger neighborhood association, or rather through the more formalized organizations, social justice organizations.”
Growing up in the 1960s and witnessing young people dedicate their lives to the Civil Rights Movement inspired Linda to get involved in struggles for Black liberation. “These were young people, these were Black people who were unafraid, who were standing up to power, and really, really putting their lives on the line, and I wanted to be part of that legacy as I matured and grew,” she reflected. Linda first became active as a teenager fighting for better schools and went to college at the height of the Black student movements of the late 1960s.
As inequitable development ramped up in the city and threats of emergency management loomed in the 2000s, Linda drew from her own background and traditions of resistance in the city to advocate and organize for the rights of Detroiters.
Because there were already several specific grassroots organizations in Detroit working on a range of issues from the transit system to environmental justice, Linda co-founded the Detroit People’s Platform in 2013, which worked to build cohesion and a unified message. “We wanted to define a quality-of-life platform that Detroiters could rally around and fight to protect through public policy and advocacy and organizing.”
Before Republic Governor Rick Snyder imposed Emergency Management, several grassroots organizations were actively resisting such threats to democracy. The Detroit People’s Platform “started thinking about what kind of movement infrastructure did we need to put in place to really sort of enhance and strengthen the on-the-ground democracy that we were determined to hold onto.”
Leading up to Emergency Management and soon after Emergency Management began, the narrative of the city and state governments and the media was that Detroit was too big in terms of land and that, due to its size, investment needed to be concentrated exclusively in Midtown and Downtown: “Many strategies really pushing back against the new narratives and strategies that were being imposed on the city…at that time, they were talking about downsizing the city, so people started organizing. Out of that organizing came the Detroit People’s Platform.”
In June of 2013, the Detroit People’s Platform (DPP) held a convention for activists and organizations around the city to come together. Through educational workshops and lively discussions, the Detroit People’s Platform was able to develop a five-point platform that would guide the organization and advocacy of activist groups in Detroit moving forward. In its five-point platform, DPP emphasizes and works to bring about good governance, economic justice, transit justice, housing justice, and the commons.
Linda recalls the convention as having “lots of learning, lots of energy,” and “very interactive, very democratic.” The convention also laid the groundwork for how the coalition and Detroit People’s Platform will move forward. The convention emphasized “the learnings about the different issues that were happening in the city at that time and an intentionality about creating a structure that we would live into in the future.”
In January of 2014, as development in Downtown and Midtown Detroit increased, often at the expense of taxpayers in Detroit, Linda and the DPP organized a coalition of community organizations to implement the Community Benefit Agreement Ordinance. The CBA proposed by the DPP required that every developer who received over a certain amount of tax breaks from the city sign a legally binding CBA that put forth the needs of the community and ensured the developer would meet those needs. “It was a hard-fought campaign,” she recalled. “Ours was basic grassroots organizing, out there knocking on doors, making phone calls in church basements and barber shops and the fish restaurants at night, organizing and talking to Detroiters about why this was so important.”
The Detroit People’s Platform raised $11,000 in their campaign for the Community Benefit Agreement Ordinance (CBA) whereas their opposition, the Detroit City Council representing the business interests in the city, spent $1.25 million in support of an alternative, weaker CBA that would allow publicly-subsidized development efforts to continue in the Downtown and Midtown areas at the expense of the other communities and neighborhoods. Like many city leaders across the United States, Detroit city council emphasized development in certain areas of Detroit, namely Downtown and Midtown, and gave significant tax breaks to any developer seeking to invest in those areas. The Detroit People’s Platform developed a CBA that would benefit the citizens of Detroit that were often left out of the equation with development and investment in Detroit.
Although the opposition won and a weaker ordinance was ratified instead of the ordinance Linda hoped for, she still sees the positive impacts of the campaign. “Post-emergency manager and bankruptcy when our democracy had been pretty much stripped from Detroiters, Detroiters organize[d] and [fought] back with a…progressive lens about the future, with a sense of self-determination that we can make this city work for us,” she explained. “It sort of sent the signal that Detroiters are back, Detroiters are taking hold of and reinvesting in their democracy and their self-determination.”
Linda and the DPP have not slowed down since the passing of the diminished CBA. They’ve focused their efforts on introducing amendments to the CBA that will create more people-centered and community-emphasized outcomes for development in Detroit. As oppositional efforts continue to place the focus of development on Midtown and Downtown, the DPP maintains the strength of their coalition: “We’re not going anywhere. We have a long-term investment in making sure that Detroiters experience their equitable development in the city. After all, we subsidized most of the development that’s happening in this town.”
In understanding how the Detroit People’s Platform can support and further equitable development in Detroit, Linda lists several necessary steps, including passing the CBA to ensure that development and investment in the city is benefiting Detroiters, holding the city government accountable for how resources are invested, developing a racial equity strategy to emphasize racial inclusion, and ensuring that the development is not only beneficial to Detroit citizens economically but also environmentally. “I’d like to see our planning department be much more exacting with these developers in terms of issues of sustainability…that’s just a start of how I think we should think about the bigger question of equitable development in the city.”
Linda’s hope for Detroit remains strong in the face of continued bulldozing by government officials and investors. “Movement-making is in the DNA of Detroit,” she explains, and DPP puts in the work to build on those traditions. The DPP hosts workshops aimed at educating citizens about the systemic issues facing Detroiters, publishes quarterly newspapers to both educate on such issues as well as counter the narrative that bulldozing neighborhoods instead of investing in them is somehow positive, and distributes informational one sheets on the myriad aspects of their platform. They have also supported recent community efforts to win real community benefits agreements through training residents on the CBA process, providing media support, and showing up at public meetings to support community members.
With the strong history of Detroiters speaking truth to power, Linda consistently works to carry on the legacy of those who have gone before her. “My commitment has always been to honor and live into the hopes and aspirations of my ancestors.”
“There’s a thoughtfulness that’s always existed at the grassroots level in Detroit.”
Currently, Linda is a part of the Building Movement Project, the Detroit People’s Platform, the Economic Justice Alliance of Michigan.
Linda Campbell, interviewed by Peter Blackmer and Oriana Yilma, April 5, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.