Telling Detroit’s stories

Photo courtesy of Aaron Foley

Earlier this year, I visited Detroit for the first time, spending a quick 48 hours in downtown and areas such as the Artist Village, and local businesses Motorcity Java House, Good Cakes and Bakes and Artesian Farms.

I quickly fell in love with Detroit, the energy and sense of local pride, but felt I didn’t get the full story, and left wanting to spend more time taking it all in, hearing more about its history and people and future.

Aaron Foley is Detroit’s first chief storyteller, appointed by Mayor Mike Duggan in April 2017, to help the city go beyond formalized bureaucratic communications and public relations and share the stories that don’t always get heard.

A Detroit native, he is the author of “How To Live In Detroit Without Being A Jackass” and former editor of BLAC Detroit magazine.

Aaron shares his personal story, Detroit’s and why a role such as his is important for the city.

Let’s start with your personal Detroit story.

It really doesn’t start with me, it starts with my elders. I come from a very Southern family who migrated to Detroit like thousands of other black southerners who came to the Midwest and northern cities to work in the factories. My great-grandmother raised three children in the city’s North End and later the east side of the city. My grandfather grew up to get his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and worked in health-care management in various capacities in Lansing, the state’s capital, and here in Detroit. My mother was a longtime reporter and editor at the Michigan Chronicle, a Detroit-based black weekly newspaper. They (and countless others, to be sure) were of greatest influence to me, because of their passion for Detroit and Detroiters. I grew up on the west side being proud of who I am and where I’m from, but when I went to college at Michigan State University, I found myself having to constantly defend critics of the city who were misunderstood about what Detroit was about. I heard all the stereotypes you could ever hear about an urban environment, but no one knew about the Detroit many of us know and love. So I’ve made it my mission to educate people about what it’s like here, something I’ve done as a journalist for many years.

What is your role as the city’s first chief storyteller?

I oversee a multi-platform initiative where we gather stories and information from all across the city under an umbrella we’re calling The Neighborhoods. We believe the neighborhoods — there are more than 200 spread out across 140-ish square miles — are the spirit of Detroit, and we’re committed to telling the stories of who lives here. There’s definitely an information gap about what people know about what’s happening in downtown Detroit and what people don’t know about what’s happening in the more residential areas. It’s my task to fill in that gap with news and feature stories on our website, TheNeighborhoods.org, and our cable channel for which I produce content.

How did this role transpire?

It’s something Mayor Duggan had been thinking about for a few years but didn’t fully realize until now. It’s something new for our city government, where we can utilize one of our cable channels and maximize it to its full potential, but also deliver content in a new way through our website.

Why is this important, for Detroit and other cities who might need a role like yours?

It’s important because I think there’s an opportunity here for people across to Detroit to see that not only can their voices be heard, but that the City of Detroit is making sure that their voices are heard. It’s another form of validation, but it’s a different form of validation beyond providing basic city services. All Cities have an opportunity like this, to really show that residents matter.

When you announced your new role, you said Detroit’s narrative is getting lost in translation? What’s the Detroit story we typically don’t hear?

We typically don’t always hear about residents who stayed in Detroit over the last decade or so. It’s no secret that the city has suffered a massive population loss, but for those of us that love the city so much, when do we ever hear from them? This is a way (but to be clear, not the only way) of showing “hey, thank you for loving Detroit enough. We’re going to do our best in return.”

Who is your local hero, the one person that is the embodiment of Detroit and why?

I’d have to say my late grandfather, Dr. Harvey Day. He beat all the odds — coming up from rural, segregated Alabama up here to the North End. When he was in high school, he helped charter the school’s first National Honor Society at (now-defunct) Northern High. He graduated early, went to the Army, came back and decided he wanted to be a nurse, but Wayne State University at the time didn’t believe a black man could be one. He broke that barrier, and then went on to co-found a scholarship for nursing students a year later. And he didn’t stop there. He got his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, and went on to turn around a troubled health system, then went on to work for the State of Michigan’s health department. After leaving the State, he co-founded a pharmacy benefit management corporation, and one of his last major career accomplishments before his passing was protecting the benefits of retired Detroit police officers that would have been lost after the city’s bankruptcy. It’s his level of commitment to Detroiters that I hope to aspire to.

I’m in Detroit for 24 hours. What’s the ‘Aaron Foley Tour?’

Where to begin? I love Mexican food, so I would start at Taqueria el Rey or El Camino Real. Then I’d hit up the Detroit Institute of Arts (there’s a massive local hip-hop exhibit on display there now), and maybe a quick tour of some of Detroit’s most architecturally distinct neighborhoods like Indian Village or Palmer Woods. Some of the best food for dinner is takeout; maybe hit up Uptown BBQ or Asian Corned Beef, and take it with you to Belle Isle and watch the sun set over the river. If you don’t want to get it to go, I suggest Chartreuse for dinner and cocktails.

How can others connect with you, what you’re doing and the city of Detroit?

Pretty easy. I’m all over Twitter (@aaronkfoley), or you can email me at FoleyA@detroitmi.gov. To see the stories we’ve been telling, visit TheNeighborhoods.org.

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About Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh and co-founder/CEO of ProudCity. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn or email at luke@govfresh.com.

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