Power Brokers Listen Up: Invest in Families
Detroit, Michigan 48221
Heaster Wheeler speaks up for people when the promise of equal opportunity rings hollow. Renewed investment in Detroit means little if people in the neighborhoods don't benefit.
Heaster Wheeler has been on the front lines of defending Detroit for his entire career, from his beginnings as a city firefighter to his long tenure with the NAACP and now in his work with Wayne County as assistant CEO, managing a team of outreach specialists connecting with communities countywide.
His focus has always been on making sure the waves of development and decay that are whipsawing the city don’t sweep the most vulnerable residents under in the process, and that includes children. Development in the showplace Downtown, Midtown, Eastern Market and Corktown corridors is all well and good, he says, but “people in the neighborhoods haven’t
Development in the showplace Downtown, Midtown, Eastern Market and Corktown corridors is all well and good, Wheeler says, but "people in the neighborhoods haven’t seen a help wanted sign."
seen a help wanted sign.”
While it’s important to attract new residents to Detroit, explains Wheeler, those who have been here for years – people raising their families in Detroit neighborhoods – are not seeing the benefits of the downtown tech boom or the enormous demand for apartments in Midtown, for example. In a city where 50 percent of working age adults are functionally unemployed, power brokers need to think about how those folks can benefit from increased investment in the city. “It’s one thing to say ‘go out and start your own business, or go back to school.’ That’s easier said than done. A lot of that has to do with motivation, inspiration and resources.”
And it’s those resources that are lacking. Wheeler believes that advocacy must be research-based, and the numbers here are enough to make the case. For example, people of color are more able to get a $400,000 home loan than a $40,000 small business loan, he says. And Wheeler believes that business ownership is one of the more important metrics to judge how well society is performing in creating equal opportunities for all.
Others include educational accomplishment, home ownership, and family stability, he says. All are intimately connected to helping people lift themselves out of poverty and create a better future for everyone. “If there is a pathway out of poverty, it is directly connected to educational achievement; if there is a pathway to prosperity, it’s directly connected to business ownership; and if there is a pathway forward for any of us, we have to embrace family stability in some significant ways,” he says.
There are some encouraging signs of progress in the numbers that track those metrics, he says, but that story isn’t being told.
"...if there is a pathway forward for any of us, we have to embrace family stability in some significant ways," Wheeler says.
“There is another Detroit that is really doing OK, but nobody talks about it,” he says. “The pain is so prevalent, we don’t celebrate the progress.”
On a personal level, he’s most proud of his 20-plus year marriage to his wife Jennifer and their three children, Khari, Jeneva and Jeremaih. Professionally, the overarching thread of all his work has been service, which is also what informs his leadership style. Rather than viewing leadership as a way to gather power for himself or his causes, Wheeler believes that leadership comes from being willing to serve others and transform their circumstances. “I wasn’t really motivated by the power, as much as the ability to help usher in change,” he says.
He draws the parallel between his work as a firefighter, pulling people from burning buildings to safety, to his work now helping change the structures that keep children, families, and individuals trapped in poverty and despair. “I still believe I can change the world,” he says. “I’m still putting out fires and helping people find their way to safety.
It gets no better than that.”