Detroit City Councilman Gabe Leland Works To Engage Citizens
It’s all about getting local citizens involved in decisions that affect their community.
“I’m excited about this engagement process,” said Detroit City Councilman Gabe Leland who represents District 7 in Northwest Detroit. “If I can create a community engagement process where there’s a win on either side on every development that comes to my district and to Detroit, it would be the biggest accomplishment — not just in my career, but probably in my life.”
On April 28, Leland hosted the final of three initial visioning sessions to spur dialogue between residents and the city on the future of the former O’Shea Playground, located at Greenfield Road and I-96. The gathering was held at Faith Redemption Center, Church of God in Christ in Detroit.
O’Shea is in Detroit’s Grandale neighborhood, an area that borders I-96 to the north, Joy Road to the south, Greenfield Road to the east and M-39 to the west.
The park was dedicated in 1951 and decommissioned in 2011. It was then transferred to the city’s planning and development department.
A recreation center on the property also closed five years ago.
In March, the city entered into a lease agreement with DTE Energy for a 10-acre solar panel installation at O’Shea. Construction is to begin in late July or early August. The installation is expected to generate enough energy to power 450 homes in the neighborhood. Leland said it would be the second largest solar project of its kind in a U.S. urban area.
The park is 20 acres in all and this leaves 10 acres available for public use. Leland and his staff and the city’s planning and development department are now determining, with the help of residents, what will be done with the additional space.
“For these visioning sessions, we really dug deep to decide the best use for the vacant land in this community and how we can make it all work together in the larger plan of a walkable community, a better-looking community,” Leland said. “I think we’re going to prove that a project like this can be inclusive of community benefits. It’s my job to meditate that.”
Giving Citizens A Voice
In addition to the visioning sessions, the engagement process has included a SWOT (Strengths-Weaknesses-Opportunities-Threats) analysis. Residents were asked, “What do we do better than any other communities?” Some of the responses were touching: “survive and persevere” and “look out for each other.” In addition, plans are under way to organize three teams of residents to focus on the areas of research, outreach and park design.
Leland is particularly impressed that residents took ownership of O’Shea after it closed by mowing the grass on the entire 20-acre site at their own expense and without prompting by the city. For that reason, he feels they are “owed” something of value at the park.
“This community has residents who are incredible human beings, helping each other and stepping up to make life better for their community and for the city,” Leland said.
He hopes the solar array can be the start of something bigger for the community — more funding, more infrastructure and more employment opportunities.
“When I heard about this project, that DTE was thinking about looking at vacant land to do a project like this, I said, ‘Wow, maybe we can use this as leverage to bring about other opportunities for funding from nonprofits, from governments, from different venues,” Leland said.
“I think this thing could be a catalyst for this area where you create a new identity and say, ‘Can Grandale be the next green community? Can Grandale take an asset like this and turn it into something in such a positive way where you now have this community that’s known for green infrastructure, green technology, green jobs?’” he added.
Leland said engaging with residents was a “learning process.” He wanted to encourage people living in the neighborhood to come to the visioning sessions and talk about the O’Shea project as well as other quality-of-life issues. His concern is that if there isn’t an open dialogue between residents and the city, this lack of communication will turn to anger and impede progress.
“It’s a whole dynamic that a lot of communities struggle with when it comes to this new level of development,” Leland said, “because it’s happening before our city, it’s happening before our eyes, and it’s very exciting. But residents need to be at the table, and we need to know how to get them there.”
Willie Johnson is a Grandale resident who lives a block away from O’Shea. He said he hasn’t been involved in local politics before, but he came to two of the visioning sessions as the development affected him personally given its proximity to his home. Johnson was quite engaged at the meeting, directing several questions to Leland, his staff, DTE Energy, and representatives from the city’s planning and development department.
Now that city council members are elected by district rather than solely at large, he expects it will make these officials more accountable to their constituents. Johnson said the visioning sessions are a positive first step, and the meetings are, to his knowledge, the first that have been held in this neighborhood.
Johnson was particularly impressed that Leland started the meeting on time and then stayed after to talk to residents.
“He’s extending himself to the community,” Johnson said. “I appreciate that.”
“We have to do a lot more of these engagement sessions — it’s my tikkun olam for Grandale,” Leland said, referring to the concept in Judaism of acts of kindness to perfect or repair the world.
“The role of an elected official gives me the opportunity to listen and assist in making people’s lives better.”
Leland “absolutely” connects his Jewish background with his decision to go into public service as well as his level of dedication to his work.
He and his family attended Kehillat Israel Congregation in Lansing while he was growing up, and his summers were spent at Habonim Camp Tavor in Three Rivers, Mich. He currently belongs to the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue in Detroit.
Leland’s parents are Burton and Rosanne Leland. Burton is a former Michigan state representative and Michigan state senator who represented Northwest Detroit. He now serves on the Wayne County Commission representing District 6.
Both of Leland’s parents have masters’ of social work degrees, and this also influences his strategy when it comes to public service. He said his father incorporated social work into his role as an elected official by helping people with small issues that affected their quality of life and, as councilman, he makes a point to do the same.
“Leadership has always been a big part of my upbringing,” he said. “My parents and Jewish leaders throughout my life have made me who I am.”
Leland pairs his parents’ guidance with his own education and training, having earned a bachelor’s degree in public administration with a focus in community development from Central Michigan University.
“City council is the most basic level of government — that’s not just in the city of Detroit, but everywhere,” he said. “You’re in the trenches. Everything you do is impacting people’s lives, and I take that very seriously.”
Joyell Lewis is a community coordinator on Leland’s staff. She’s been with the councilman for two years. They have known one another for more than 10 years, since they both worked for the Michigan House of Representatives. He was a state representative while another house member employed her.
Lewis is one of seven people who work for Leland and one of three who work in a community engagement capacity. She’s closely involved with neighborhood block clubs and local nonprofits as well as Detroit’s Department of Neighborhoods. She acts as the councilman’s “eyes and ears,” conveying constituent concerns to him.
Lewis describes Leland as “laid back” with a “lot of energy” and a “big heart for the community.”
She particularly enjoys walking the neighborhood with the councilman and talking to residents. This is something Leland and Lewis first did together when she worked on his campaign for city council three years ago. She refers to it as “knocking on doors,” and it helps ensure people receive information “more organically.”
“He’s a great person, a great joy to work with,” Lewis said. “He makes sure we don’t miss a beat as far as keeping the community engaged with our office.”
By Eli Natinsky | Special to the Jewish News