Call to Action - Panelists urge U-M Law students to 'measure up'

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By Lynn Monson

Legal News

The quest for economic justice in Detroit will require vastly improved schools, a thriving entrepreneurial spirit for creating new jobs, better leadership from public officials, and more collaboration among the city's many constituencies.

Those were some of the leading issues cited during a panel discussion Monday at the University of Michigan Law School in celebration of the national Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

Four Detroit leaders representing government, education, nonprofits, and the media were invited to Ann Arbor to participate in the forum, "Dr. King's Vision for Economic Justice: Focus on Detroit."

Organizers and panelists summoned King's words and history of seeking social justice as a context for solutions to Detroit's modern-day problems.

Panelist Bankole Thompson, editor of The Michigan Chronicle, told the law students among the 200 audience members that they have a choice as they pursue their law careers.

"One of the things that King did during his time - I call it his pilgrimage on this planet - was to challenge the hypocrisy of the men and women who sat idly by and watched unjust laws be applied on people of color," Thompson said. "You do have an obligation to the legacy of Dr. King in terms of: what kind of lawyer will you become? Will you be one who will measure up to what Dr. King talked about? Will you be one who will be willing to challenge the hypocrisies of our time? Are you willing to speak out? ..."

That call to action was a theme repeated throughout the two-hour program as panelists cited the well-documented problems of Detroit and offered a set of alternatives for the city's renaissance.

The educational system, both nationally and locally, was the target of panelist Daniel Varner, executive director of Excellent Schools Detroit, a coalition of political, education, business, civic and foundation leaders who want every Detroit student to be in an excellent school by 2020.

"We have, as a country, done an awful job educating black and brown children, just an awful, terrible, awful job," Varner said. "I submit to you that, given the demographic trends in this country, the most important thing for us to get figured out right now is how to redesign our education system so it works for every child. ... I think that is the civil rights issue of our generation."

Detroit City Council President Charles Pugh agreed that turning around Detroit's failing school system is crucial for the city's children because their future success is tied to the city's future success.

"We could attract Google, Microsoft, Starbucks, Walmart, all the major corporations in the world ... to Woodward Avenue in Detroit, but who would they hire, who would they promote?" Pugh said. "... As we turn out students (from) our public schools, our charter schools, all of our schools in our city, how well do our students compete? We should not only be teaching our kids to get a job, but to also create jobs, to become entrepreneurs. So I think we need to change certainly what we've been focused on the last 50 years in educating our kids and come up with a new paradigm."

Shirley Stancato, chief executive officer of New Detroit, an organization devoted to improving race relations, said Detroit's problems require broad-based coalitions and greater communication among various groups.

"It's always the question of who is at the table," she said. "At New Detroit, we talk about the new Detroit table."

She quoted a passage from King: "Men often hate each other because they fear each other. The fear each other because they don't know each other. They don't know each other because they can't communicate. They can't communicate because they are separated."

Stancato said race relations have improved in recent decades, but there are still social structures in place that separate where black and white residents live and how they socialize, for example.

"We talk about, oh, things have changed, and they have. We don't carry around some of the same attitudes (we did), but the structures are still in place ...," Stancato said. "So in terms of anything that we create from an economic equity perspective, policies particularly, there needs to be a variety of folks sitting around the table - young, old, black, white, Asian, etc. ... When you have a variety of folks (and) racial diversity, you're going to come up with a better decision, a better product, than (when there is) just one group of folks at the table."

Published: Thu, Jan 19, 2012

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