News from the Field

Documenting Detroit’s Decline – Documentary Paints a Bleak but Fair Picture of Detroit’s Decline

Detroit is a troubled city that presents a great challenge for philanthropic organizations and nonprofits working to improve conditions there: How do you convey the dire circumstances and balance the grim reality with inspiring accounts of heroic efforts to revive the city?

In Detroit and elsewhere, journalists and documentary filmmakers face a similar challenge. They need the freedom and support to tell stories as they find them without tailoring their accounts to advance the public-relations demands of their benefactors.

It’s not always easy, and the relations between philanthropy and the fourth estate can be strained.

The award-winning documentary Detropia, which will be broadcast nationally on PBS next week, is an excellent case in point. The film recently won the Henry Hampton Award for social documentary film in the 46th Annual Film and Video Festival, a joint project of the Council on Foundations and Media Impact Funders (I direct the latter group). The filmmakers Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing received generous support from the Ford Foundation and the Sundance Documentary Film Program to produce the film.

But a private early screening in Detroit last year with philanthropy and nonprofit leaders got a scathing response. According to numerous reports published by local news outlets, grant makers criticized the film as overly negative and said it failed to reflect the efforts of foundations and their grantees in working to turn the city around.

“They just rejected the film outright,” says Ms. Grady. “They told us we missed the story; we missed the dozens of rays of light that were being planted all over Detroit.”

Ironically, the filmmakers, whose previous work included the critically acclaimedJesus Camp, set out to craft a very different story, under the working title Detroit Hustles Harder. Their starting premise was that gritty, resourceful urban entrepreneurs and activists were rebuilding Detroit against all odds.

But they found that the isolated stories of artists and activists and entrepreneurs—whose experiences are reflected in the finished film, to be fair—are nevertheless overshadowed by the gravity and the scale of the problems facing Detroit.

“Philanthropy would like to believe that Detroit hustles harder, but it’s more complex than that,” says Rahsaan Harris, executive director of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy, who holds a doctorate in public and urban policy from the New School.

And more important, Ms. Grady and Ms. Ewing would argue, Detroit is a cautionary tale about the impact of globalization and the decline of the middle class that may be coming to a city near you.

I am no expert on Detroit, so I cannot pass judgment on the question of whetherDetropia is too harsh an account.

But it’s hard to argue that it should have been more upbeat. Since the film was completed, the city’s bleak financial position has only worsened.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder recently appointed Kevyn Orr as emergency financial manager to take over control of Detroit.
This month Mr. Orr reported that Detroit’s financial position was even more bleak than previously understood, as it labors under long-term obligations of $15-billion and city services in shambles.

The last time I was in Detroit, over 20 years ago, I was a reporter for this newspaper, writing an article about the Detroit Symphony and how it was supposed to rise like a phoenix from the ashes in its new home, the renovated Orchestra Hall.

Under the ambitious leadership of its new executive director, Deborah Borda, the orchestra planned to make its new home at the historic 1919 grand auditorium a centerpiece of new urban development.

But Ms. Borda departed as quickly as she arrived, moving on to a plum job at the New York Philharmonic. The Detroit orchestra has struggled financially in the intervening years, and just last year the organization crawled out from more than $50-million in debt related to its Orchestra Hall development.

Looking at the experience of the Detroit Symphony as one example, it’s important to understand all of the financial and legal issues that have plagued the orchestra, and not simply acknowledge their excellent performance standards and the fine acoustics of Orchestra Hall.

Some in philanthropy have little appetite for media coverage that probes too deeply or casts a critical eye on unpleasant realities.

Soon after I left The Chronicle of Philanthropy to lead the Surdna Foundation’s Nonprofit Sector Support Program, I was invited out to a delightful evening of dinner and the opera by one of the elder statesmen of philanthropy. I was taken aback when another dinner guest, one of the grande dames of New York foundations, castigated The Chronicle as a disappointment.

According to this foundation president, grant makers wanted The Chronicle to celebrate the triumphs of philanthropy, and they were not amused by a newspaper that wanted to reveal scandals and pry into the operations of major foundations.

Fortunately, the founders of The Chronicle of Philanthropy had another idea for coverage of the field, believing that nonprofit organizations deserved a respectful but skeptical news source.

Nearly 25 years ago, this paper was established by a newspaper editor, Phil Semas, who had the clear vision that philanthropy was big enough and important enough to deserve the full scrutiny of the press.

Because this is the last edition of The Chronicle of Philanthropy that will carry his name on the masthead as he retires from an illustrious career at The Chronicle of Higher Education, the organization that publishes this newspaper, it’s a good time to acknowledge that serious news coverage of philanthropy wasn’t always that way.
And next week, if you have a chance to catch Detropia on PBS, remember that doing it today is still a challenge.

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