Urban Innovator of the Week: Karla Henderson

By Nicole Rupersburg

Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer and editor who covers business development & entrepreneurship, arts & culture, and food & travel for national audiences. She is the project editor and lead writer of Urban Innovation Exchange and Creative Exchange.

This profile was originally published by Urban Innovation Exchange in partnership with Meeting of the Minds and Kresge Foundation. For more stories of people changing cities, visit UIXCities.com and follow @UIXCities.

Karla-HendersonKarla Henderson spent most of her career working for city governments around metro Detroit, culminating in what she calls her “biggest job” – Director of Buildings & Safety Engineering Department, and later Group Executive of Planning and Facilities – with the city of Detroit under the administration of former Mayor Dave Bing.

This was a time of turmoil in the city’s history. It was before Detroit declared the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. It was in the aftermath of the Kwame Kilpatrick administration, when the former mayor was still being investigated by the FBI on corruption charges. Governor Snyder brought in an emergency manager while Bing was in office. And in the midst of all of this, Detroiters had to face the aftermath of the housing collapse, the auto industry collapse and bailout, and staggering unemployment rates.

In many ways, the wheels of city government had ground to a standstill. But it was when the city was “on pause,” as Henderson says, that some of the most innovative work was being done – the activities of those early social entrepreneurs, policy activists, and community builders who went to work to be the change they wanted to see, charting the course for much of the determined community development to come.

The same sorts of efforts were also happening inside Bing’s office.

“We were able to do a lot of very innovative things,” Henderson says. “Once I got there I really saw how the department could have an impact on the community,” with Detroit’s notorious blight and the ambitious efforts of the Blight Removal Task Force yet to get underway. “We were able to lay the groundwork for the current administration, which has additional resources and not as much debt to take the city and put it on steroids.”

Coming in after Kilpatrick and Interim Mayor Kenneth Cockrel, she says, city residents and various resident-led community development and nonprofit organizations had picked up and carried on while the city was in transition.

“There wasn’t anybody steering the ship in 2008 when the Kilpatrick administration was going through everything,” Henderson recalls. “It was the perfect storm with the city in gridlock and the foreclosure crisis. Then community groups and organizers started doing things while city was on pause – they were doing incredible things. When Bing came into office, people were thirsty to share what they had done while government was on break, and they really wanted us to hear what they had to say.”

So the administration listened. They launched the Detroit Works Project, which became Detroit Future City, a long-term strategic planning framework and implementation office. For the first Detroit Works community meeting, they planned on 200-300 people in attendance. One thousand showed up.

“Detroiters cared about their city and wanted to have a voice in how it was shaped,” says Henderson. “Each meeting it improved. They got a chance to speak their minds. It was very therapeutic – people needed to have a voice in what was happening and what had happened in the past. The city had been through so much.”

When Code for America opened applications for its fellowship program in 2012, Phil Cooley – one of redeveloping Detroit’s earliest ambassadors to find favor in national media – “bugged” her for months to apply. But the program required time and energy, a staff to support it, and a financial match. The cash-strapped city had none of those things. So, in true Detroit DIY style – a way of getting things done through community relationships and sheer force of will that has been themodus operandi of engaged city residents for decades – Cooley called on the Knight Foundation.

As quickly as that, Henderson had her financial support and no more excuses. Detroit became one of the eight cities selected for the 2012 cohort of technologist fellows working to address the widening gap between the public and private sectors in their effective use of technology and design.

“These fellows came in and introduced me to this whole underground network of people doing data work and writing code to create solutions to city problems,” recalls Henderson. One of the things they implemented during their visit was a code that would text people arrival times of buses based on real-time GPS data. The buses might not run any more on time for it, but at least riders were better informed.

“For us it was these little wins that were significant,” she says.

Other projects that Henderson was involved with included the Ford Fund’s “Operation Brighter Future – Detroit.” The Ford Motor Company’s philanthropic foundation made a $10 million grant to Southwest Detroit to address needs like job training, youth employment and education, public safety, cultural development, food access and education, and more. The City worked with Ford to help them activate the abandoned Mercado in Southwest Detroit, built as part of the “Gateway Project” but mostly vacant since opening in 2007. This became the Ford Resource and Engagement Center at the Mexicantown Mercado.

Mayor’s Office to Makerspace

As it turned out, the work she had been doing as part of Bing’s administration dovetailed nicely with the socially-conscious work she then oversaw at Ponyride, the community makerspace she joined as Executive Director after her term with the City.

The work she had been doing as part of Bing’s administration actually dovetailed nicely with the socially conscious work she oversaw at Ponyride.

“Being at Ponyride taught me about this incredible group of talented, passionate makers and the work they put into the craft of their product,” she says. But there was also a disconnect between the folks being served by Ponyride and the larger Detroit community. She remembers she and Cooley being at a Focus: HOPEevent in 2015 for which they were the keynote speakers. They assumed everyone knew about Ponyride and their focus on social entrepreneurship, but being at the Focus: HOPE Information Technologies Center, not eight miles from Ponyride’s Corktown location and still in the city, the mature African-American crowd had never even heard of it.

“It showed me the need for us to look beyond our walls outside of Ponyride and look at ways to support this whole entrepreneurial system,” Henderson says. “It was a very humbling experience. All of the resources were there to support this creative class, but we needed some organization. We really spent a lot of time putting some structure in, getting financial statements audited, expanding the board, and instituting an advisory council.”

Henderson remains on the board for Ponyride, as well as ProsperUs Detroit, a nonprofit organization in Southwest Detroit that works to build neighborhood economies that utilize the talent and leadership of minority and immigrant communities.

Makerspace to Museum

This led Henderson to her current role. While at a business training workshop at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, she was approached by Wright Museum CEO and President Juanita Moore, who saw in Henderson someone with local and national connections in municipal, philanthropic, and business sectors who could ensure that the Wright had a seat at the table when city’s leaders discussed Detroit’s future.

Moore told Henderson she would be perfect to fill the position of Chief Operating Officer, and within two weeks she was offered the job. “I just felt that it was what I was supposed to do,” she says.

The Wright Museum is one of the preeminent cultural institutions in the city, opened in 1965 and located in what is now the Cultural Center Historic District in Midtown. It is the largest institution dedicated to the African American experience in the world.

“We’re building on 50 years of the museum’s history, and we’re focused on what can we do to keep the museum moving forward and keep people interested. We want to focus on the importance of what this institution means to the City of Detroit, which is primarily African American, by being open to sharing the story with all Detroiters and across the world.”

Since Henderson took over in October 2015, the Wright has hosted Kathleen Neal Cleaver, the former communications secretary of the Black Panther Party, with a film screening and book signing for the 50th anniversary of the Party. Detroit author and criminal justice activist Shaka Senghor also did a book signing for a standing-room-only crowd, just before appearing on Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday. Earlier this month, Henderson got a call from a certain presidential hopeful to host an event at the museum within 48 hours.

Henderson is leveraging some of her old city government ties in her new role as COO. The Wright recently worked with Dave Bing to honor Spencer Haywood, who single-handedly changed the rules of the NBA to include the hardship exception for athletes without a college degree. In January, the Wright honored the one-time University of Detroit Mercy Titan and recently-inducted Hall of Famer in a tribute event.

Another project the Wright has in the works is a 25-foot steel sculpture from revered Detroit artist Charles McGee called “United We Stand,” commemorating the 1967 race rebellion. McGee, who was named the first-ever Kresge Eminent Artist in 2008, is 92 years old, and this massive piece will serve as a capstone to his long and acclaimed career. The sculpture will be on permanent display outside the Wright – one effort Henderson is currently leading to “open up” the museum to the public.

Henderson says the Wright also plans to open a café attached to its courtyard, taking advantage of the commercial kitchen and other assets already available. “We have this very formal relationship with community. We want to open up the museum so it’s not just for family reunions or weddings or formal events. We know that the café will change the community’s relationship with the institution, so it’s not just a matter of, ‘Come look at art,’ but, ‘Come experience the Wright.”

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