Throughout the past two decades, Sugar Law Center has given special attention and effort to our home city and our home state. Detroit and Michigan once embodied the promise of American prosperity. Today they represent the nation’s neglect of that promise. Then and now, Detroit and Michigan embody the needs, aspirations and travails of American workers. They show the best and worst of industrial capitalism and corporate globalization.
Sugar Law represented Southwest Detroit families when a new public school was built on toxic land. We fought for Flint residents against an incinerator that would pollute neighborhoods already burdened by poverty and racism. We’ve advised Michigan communities on passage and enforcement of living wage laws. And we’ve stood with unions here in organizing drives and strikes. Today, Sugar Law helps Michigan workers fight wage theft, unsafe working conditions and discrimination. We are using generous support from the Fund for Equal Justice, Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and a wonderful three-year commitment from the Ford Foundation to advance our Michigan-focused community benefits work through our Stronger Michigan Communities initiative.
The community benefits model is a strategy that works in the United States economic and social context. Community benefits work changes major development projects through community organizing, applied research, legal mechanisms, and alliance-building. Through a community benefits agreement between impacted communities and developers, communities can achieve:
- Access to job training and job opportunities created by the project
- For local small businesses, access to service and supplier contracts let on the project
- Environmental protections from health risks created by construction and project activities such as diesel exhaust, dust and other health risks
- Minimized housing and local business displacement
- Sustainable practices on the project leading to improved quality of life and empowerment of the local community
- Other improvements targeted to the goals of the particular project and needs of the involved community.
Over the past three years, community benefits coalitions have requested and come to rely upon Sugar Law’s assistance in their quest to advance effective and equitable economic development—development that will create good jobs and ensure healthy and safe living environments for historically marginalized communities. The Sugar Law Center’s role within Michigan’s community benefits movement has been twofold: 1) providing technical, legal and organizational support to coalitions engaged in community benefits campaigns, and 2) providing technical, legal and organizational support to a standing alliance of organizations that seeks to act as an ongoing resource for community groups.
Our work with the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition (SWD CBC) and the West Grand Boulevard Collaborative (WGBC) illustrates the scope of support we provide to grassroots coalitions. The SWD CBC is composed of members who reside in and own small businesses within Detroit’s Delray neighborhood. The neighborhood’s population is composed of nearly equal percentages of African-American, Latino and White households. Demographics reveal a community with concentrated poverty as indicated by markedly lower high school graduation rates (25.6%), household income ($18,951), per capita income ($12,354) and markedly higher poverty rates (41% below the poverty line) than the City of Detroit as a whole. In response to a new international bridge project, the Delray community came together to form the SWD CBC. The bridge project will be one of the largest construction projects undertaken in the history of the state. The bridge’s Michigan footprint will be wholly within Delray. Since 2010, the Sugar Law Center has provided ongoing support to the Coalition.
With the WGBC, we provide an equally broad range of support, targeted to differing needs. The WGBC is a community coalition composed of members who live and work in a neighborhood located just outside of the Midtown area in Detroit. Midtown is one of the few sections of Detroit experiencing population growth and is a focal point of economic development plans. West Grand is a neighborhood of modest homes and dedicated residents. West Grand’s population is over 90% African-American and the neighborhood is pocketed with entrenched poverty. Upon learning of the proposed construction of a large medical warehouse abutting their community, the WGBC voiced support for the project, but sought a dialogue with developers to address community concerns. When this was not met, the WGBC reached out to the Sugar Law Center. We began working with the WGBC in 2012 and since that time.
Starting in early 2010, Sugar Law has also taken a central role alongside dozens of unions, community groups, environmentalist and faith-based activists who have come together to create a standing coalition called “Doing Development Differently in (Metro) Detroit” (D4).
Sugar Law’s role in D4 includes helping to structure the coalition; build its accountability to member groups; and research specific community needs. We will also offer assistance in developing and drafting community benefits agreements, memorandums of understanding, and contracts and legal representation in CBA negotiations with public agencies and private developers. By adding legal expertise to D4’s tools, Sugar Law will strengthen the coalition’s efforts to advance effective and equitable economic development for metro Detroit.
Sugar Law’s work for D4 is one part of our Stronger Michigan Communities initiative. We have been approached by groups working for community benefits in neighborhoods throughout Detroit and other Michigan cities. “Sugar Law’s involvement in our process has been an essential part of our growing an effective, mutually trusting coalition,” says Venus Chapman of Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength (MOSES). “I know other groups would benefit from working with them.” And as noted by Rev. Joan Ross, “North End Woodward Community Coalition’s work for transportation justice has been strengthened greatly by Sugar Law’s technical assistance, relationships, and resources for communications and media outreach. Sugar Law staff has demonstrated a real commitment to serving our historic community, and their help distinctly increases our power to affect social and economic policy.”
If you would like to get involved with Sugar Law’s work on Stronger Michigan Communities or are seeking support for initiatives that your organization is involved with, contact us or give us a call at (313) 993-4505 and see if we might be able to help.