You can’t look back at Pam Lewis’ six years at the helm of the New Economy Initiative without being impressed. And with her recent departure for other endeavors, this is a moment to underscore the reasons why.
Since its founding in 2007, NEI’s mission has been to build an entrepreneurial culture in metro Detroit. Originally founded to invest $100 million from philanthropies — including Kresge — in the transformation of the southeast Michigan economy over eight years, this initiative of the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan has lived on to continue the vital work of 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 a senior program officer starting a decade ago, and beginning as executive director in 2016, have also been profound, bringing an increasing emphasis on the diversity and inclusiveness to the participants in this new entrepreneurial culture.
I’ve admired Pam’s authentic leadership, inspiration and mentorship for many years, but I appreciated the chance a little more than a year ago to learn more about her thinking and her conception of the issues we all face when she and Andre Perry gave a joint presentation to the Detroit Neighborhood Forum, our regular discussion table for Detroit philanthropies and key cross-sector partners. I was lucky enough to both hear their presentation and join them a separate call to explore the issues of equity and redevelopment that they both grapple with.
Andre is the author of the must-read Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities. He is also a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program where Pam is a nonresident fellow in recognition of her in-depth, first-hand knowledge of what it means to work for economic recovery in America’s cities.
When we spoke, Andre recounted 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 greater — but still segregated — opportunities of Northern cities like Pittsburgh, where he was born, and Detroit, where he also had family, and which looms large in his work as a scholar.
His scholarship has focused on the “devaluing” 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 talked about the disinvestment in older cities, in general, and communities of color in particular. Andre’s work is definitely related to disinvestment but brings important additional insights. He points out how time and time again an otherwise identical asset is seen as less valuable simply by dint of its owner and/or location. Homes in black neighborhoods are underpriced on the order of 23% on average, or $48,000 each and collectively a staggering $156 billion.
That devaluation plays out in many ways.
“We’re always talking about loans and grants, but most people start their business using the equity of their home or some individual wealth,” he said, for one example. “Home ownership” — and devaluation of those homes — “impacts business ownership.” In fact, Andre often points out that $156 billion is enough to finance four million Black businesses, based on the average start-up figure for Black entrepreneurs.
The impact of devaluation hits innumerable homes … innumerable families … innumerable individuals. For Andre, there is a personal “what if” that hits the life of his late, estranged father, Floyd Allen Criswell, who moved between Pittsburgh and Detroit during his short life.
A heroin addict and father of three, including Andre, by the time he was 19, Criswell was sentenced to prison three times during the 1970s. He was stabbed by another prisoner in his sleep in 1978 during his final prison term at what was then called Jackson State Penitentiary. He was a day short of his 27th birthday.
“I followed where my dad lived,” Andre told us. “And he lived in areas that had significant housing devaluation, in which homes are underpriced compared to homes in white neighborhoods. … Now that equity is what people use to start businesses, send their kids to college, to move to better neighborhoods. … If he lived in areas in which homes were properly priced and communities were properly invested in, he would have better schools, had 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 the lack of investment in black communities were also accomplices.”
Pam talked about the way that story resonated with her life — likewise a child of the Great Migration, though from a solidly middle class family. Still even in a family that owned a home and could send Pam and her siblings to college, from Andre’s framing, she could see the impact of the lost equity as well. There was less wealth than there might have been to pass on, to work with.
And looking to the work of bringing more Black Detroiters into entrepreneurship, she sees the same missing value as an impediment time and again — one that organizations like the NEI and its partners and allies work mightily to overcome.
It was inspiring to listen to Pam and Andre during those two sessions last year, both engaged and committed in their work, discussing not only barriers but tactics to overcome them.
Here are just some of Andre’s thoughts: “In Detroit, there are thousands of properties at a price point below which a bank will not back with a mortgage. So, we’re in need of new mortgage products that will enable low-income renters to become buyers. … We need new policies, new zoning practices that will enable government to prevent large [companies’] buying of large swaths of homes in particular areas. … We should be finding entrepreneurs who are proximate to the problem to solve it, instead of providing loans to people to swoop in and who don’t know the community, who don’t really see the value in a place. … There’s nothing wrong with Black people that ending racism can’t solve. We have to look at policies that preclude investment in Black neighborhoods.”
And the payoff for overcoming these issues, he argued, is a benefit not just for Black and Brown residents, or even for all residents of majority Black cities, but for the broad society as well.
Pam discussed the need for greater support for the work of the NEI. Philanthropy has stepped up, but “the commercial banks and the private sector need to do way more” in her estimation. She talked about the mismatch between much of the federal government’s small business support — where small can be as many as 1,500 employees — and the truly small businesses starting with a workforce as few as one.
Looking immediately ahead, Pam talked about the importance, in light of COVID, of bringing new support to Detroit entrepreneurs — particularly entrepreneurs of color — and bringing a greater alignment between NEI’s entrepreneurial supports and the Community Development Organizations that intimately know their neighborhoods and their reviving commercial corridors.
Those plans came to fruition.
In May of last year NEI announced creation of a $19.5 million philanthropic fund to strengthen small business support 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 commercial corridor work of six CDOs and 25 anchor businesses in corridors across the city.
Those two major wins for Pam’s team were testaments to the leadership of an engineer by training who can, as she put it, go from “blank pages to actual plans that turn into things.” We wish her well in future endeavors doing just that. (And I would be remiss not to echo Pam’s DNF shoutouts to longtime NEI Associate Director Don Jones — who retired from NEI last summer — and to the numerous organizations that collaborate with NEI to make all of its 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 post after directing 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 those will come into play.
The challenges remain, but there is progress — and a wealth of valuable ideas — to build on.
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