Kevin Ryan (A.B. 1994) traces his entire career back to a single sociology class he took his first year at U-M. “It was with the late, great Professor Donald Deskins,” Ryan says, “and it changed my life and my thinking about how I can contribute to my community.
“That first class opened my mind to different ways of looking and thinking about the world,” he continues. “It moved me away from the narrow-minded thinking that this is the way the world is and the only way it can be.”
The ability to envision change and enact it has powered Ryan’s career. He’s worked as a community organizer, as both a program officer and a program director at the New York Foundation, and now he is the Detroit program officer on the Ford Foundation’s Equitable Development Team. In July, the Ford Foundation opened an office in Detroit – its first permanent presence in the city in 64 years – and put Ryan, a native Detroiter, at its helm.
Right now, listening to Detroiters is Ryan’s primary role. “I’m in learning mode,” he says. “I’m trying to find out what is really happening in neighborhoods, to hear the concerns and ideas from community-based organizations and residents, and to see where the Ford Foundation might be able to support work that ensures these communities are at the table when decisions about their future are made.”
Ryan’s focus in Detroit is broad: affordable housing, community development, the arts, and education. But though the focus might be varied, the governing principle behind it is constant: How can Detroit achieve an equitable recovery?
Ryan is also sharing what he’s learning on the ground with his colleagues back in New York.
“It’s important to talk with the full team about the patience it requires to see incremental change in some of these issues,” Ryan says. “We know we’re in it for the long haul. We expect to see some progress, but these are long-term goals. We’re talking about decades of investment that will contribute to what a just and equitable city looks like.”
When Edsel Ford and his father Henry founded the Ford Foundation in 1936, it sought to support “scientific, educational, and charitable resources, all for the public welfare” in Detroit. When Edsel died in 1943 and Henry died in 1947, the foundation was a major beneficiary. In the 1940s, the Ford Motor Company really began to flourish, and because the foundation was a major shareholder, it flourished right along with it. With a current endowment of $12 billion, it is now the fifth largest foundation in the United States.
The company street of the Ford Motor Company's River Rouge Plant in 1941.
The foundation moved its headquarters from Detroit to New York in 1953, but it remained involved with the city; most notably in 2014 when it committed $125 million to Detroit. The pledge paved the way to creating Detroit’s Grand Bargain: the agreement between foundations, unions, retirees, city officials, and the Michigan Legislature that allowed the city to exit bankruptcy without selling off works from the city-owned Detroit Institute of Arts.
And now, after decades of disinvestment, Detroit is beginning to show signs of a comeback. Despite its historical inequality, financial mismanagement, poor governance, and history of discrimination, Ryan believes Detroit can become a place that offers opportunity to all its residents.
Walking the Walk
In his role at the foundation, Ryan believes he can help his hometown define what an equitable recovery looks like.
“I’m looking at all the components that will make this a people-centered recovery,” he says. “It could be public policy or strategies around land use that preserve affordability and prevent neighborhood displacement.”
As Detroit works to rebuild its tax base and draw people with higher incomes downtown, Ryan says it’s important to keep all of the city’s residents in mind.
“Detroit still has a poverty rate of around 40 percent and a need for quality housing,” he says. “People in these groups have historically been left out of the revitalization process.
“In the 1990s and the early 2000s, I don’t think people ever believed Brooklyn would become like Manhattan in terms of housing affordability,” says Ryan, who lived in Brooklyn for over a decade. “But it happened, and happened quickly.
“If there isn’t a connector that opens up opportunity for people in every income bracket, we’re just going to repeat the same challenges that we’ve seen in places like New York, where working-class people are often paying 50 to 70 percent of their incomes in rent,” he continues. “That is not sustainable. That doesn’t help build community wealth. That doesn’t help to create opportunity for residents.”
Ryan believes Detroit can set a different course.
“With so much available land, Detroit has the opportunity to address affordability,” Ryan says. “Detroit has interesting land use strategies, such as community benefits agreements and community land trust models, to preserve land affordability and ensure there is adequate, safe, quality affordable housing for residents of all income levels.
“The affordability issue will be a challenge for the city if it doesn’t get out in front of it,” Ryan says. “It’s going to require fresh and innovative thinking.”
These are challenges that Ryan is eager to take on.
“We know the outcomes we want to see,” he says. "They need to meet the needs of Detroiters.”