Pope Francis and Detroit Leaders

By Bankole Thompson

If there is one thing we learned in 2013 is that Detroit is still in need of leadership that demonstrates what it means and tells the truth about where the city falters without sugarcoating the facts, and one that doesn’t wait for political expediency to decide reaching a decision.

Notwithstanding, the election of a new Mayor Mike Duggan, whose appointments so far have received mix reviews because of his inclusion of past political players in past city administrations, Detroit is still on a leadership rollercoaster ride. Still looking for leaders who will unite everyone in a collective aspiration, ones that can have an instant touch of giving everybody invested in this city a sense of belonging.

Part of the reason why we’ve seen a rather bold private sector leadership in the city taking center stage while political leaders tend to take a back seat is because those elected officials have long given up their mandate to govern, and when they governed, they failed their constituents.

Detroit is still lacking behind on the socioeconomic scale in the nation in terms of the level of poverty that has gripped this city for decades.

When was the last time a mayoral campaign platform focused on poverty and children?

When was the last time politicians discussed mitigating the dire economic consequences that are eroding the basic necessities of life for those who have lived in this city and given their entire lives to a town they loved so dearly?

And it is an embarrassment that neighborhood development is now on the private sector table when it should be a government mandate. Taxpayers who foot the bill at city hall deserve to have decent neighborhoods. Because they pay the bills and oil the wheels of the cars that officials drive, Detroit taxpayers have long deserved better life but have been disappointed at every turn for a new political development.

So even as Detroit continues to evolve in 2014, city leaders can do themselves a favor by emulating leadership that isn’t afraid to rock the boat, but one that is firmly rooted in the idea that what affects one, affects the rest.

And that example is being set by the Catholic Church’s Pope Francis, the first Latin in history to hold the papacy at the Vatican in Rome.

Francis’ introduction to the world stage has some grinning and others visibly upset while many are jubilant at the arrival of a man who is speaking from deep conviction and experiences about socioeconomic inequality and deep seethed poverty around the world.

The revolution that is taking place now in the Catholic Church forcing extreme conservatives like Russ Limbaugh to dismiss Francis as a “communist,” and Fox News calling the new Pope the “Catholic Church’s Obama,” is simply a call to action to tackle those issues that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi, Mother Theresa and other universally accepted and celebrated figures spoke about.

“Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points,” Francis said in his Apostolic Exhortation, known as the Joy of the Gospel.

All that Pope Francis, the 77-year old Argentine Jesuit is doing is refocusing the mission back to those who have been left out and told they are on their own by calling on Catholic leaders to build a “church for the poor.”

And in that group includes some of our seniors in Detroit facing public safety nightmares almost daily, and now waiting for their pensions to be axed in a bankruptcy court, the majority poor who are cut out of the basic existence of life and sentenced to a revolving door, hundreds of children who are living in indecent conditions that none of us would accept for our children.

“It is not my problem,” is how some reading this article would scream.

It is easy to blame them for their predicaments but they too are owed decent and better services from city hall.

It is easy to wave the flag of “rugged individualism,” and remind them that they should pull themselves by the bootstraps, but it is hard to pull yourself when you don’t have any boots to wear in the first place.

No amount of personal responsibility message can alleviate the unbearable conditions that a lot of children in this city are going through.

Last year at the invitation of Mary Kramer, publisher of Crains Detroit Business, I volunteered as a bartender for a fundraiser organized by the Women’s Caring Program (WCP) in Gross Pointe Park. I was encouraged by the enthusiasm and energy in the room at the garden party to raise money for early childhood programs for disadvantaged children that would prepare them for kindergarten. Because WCP believes that: children deserve a chance.

Detroit leaders can no longer put a mask on poverty. That should be part of the goal in 2014. Take a page from Pope Francis, who has basically abandoned the luxuries associated with the papacy and has even dismissed being referred to as “your holiness.”

Political leaders in Detroit should demonstrate what personal sacrifice they are making on behalf of the people they are claiming to serve.

I would recommend that in 2014, our city leaders start to create programs or use their bully pulpits to forcefully address some of the inequities in our community. Detroit would go a long way if each our political leaders had a foundation or charity (not misused) that was helping raising money for WCP and other programs that are serving children and parents less fortunate.

How ironic that often the private sector, which Pope Francis himself has accused of crash capitalism, is often where you will find individuals establishing charities and foundations to help address social equity.

It should not be just a city paycheck that our officials work away with every two weeks. They should also add social equity to the equation and that means showing us how many children are smiling in this city everyday because of what they’ve personally sacrificed. Leadership leads by example and Francis has handed down the gauntlet.

E-mail bankole@bankolethompson.com or news@bankolethompson.com 

We can all in the words of Dr. King become a “Drum major for justice,” and that begins by making real and concrete difference in 2014, and those using taxpayer money as our elected officials cannot be backbenchers in this mission.

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