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What does a CEO know about poverty? That was the question I was recently asked on Twitter minutes after I shared a flyer about a forum of top business leaders, who convened at the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel last Monday to discuss poverty in the city.

The question wasn’t an isolated one. But at the core of it is the assumption that business leaders are a bunch of people who are disconnected from the realities of everyday living. That they have no idea what poverty means, and because they are making so much money they can’t really relate to the struggles of regular Detroiters who are behind in the economic recovery.

That few business executives are willing to freely and openly discuss issues of poverty and economic inequality without going through the usual company public relations filters or talking points exacerbates this perceived disconnect.

But the March 11 “CEO Forum on Poverty Series” organized by The PuLSE Institute, Detroit’s think tank focused exclusively on poverty of which I serve as editor-in-chief, was “Exhibit A” of why we should not rush to condemn or discount those with senior business leadership titles as individuals who are against poor people.

The forum speakers Jerry Norcia, president and COO of DTE Energy, Cynthia J. Pasky, president and CEO of Strategic Staffing Solutions and Alessandro DiNello, president and CEO of Flagstar Bank, showed no qualms talking about how poverty is the biggest challenge facing the city’s revitalization.

All three industry captains command large portfolios in the city that allows them to sit on numerous boards of institutions connected to the ongoing recovery. For instance, Norcia chairs the board of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, and Pasky co-chairs the Mayor’s Workforce Development Board, of which DiNello is a member.

With a front-row seat to the recovery, the panelists during the 90-minute discussion I moderated spoke about the need to lay down some benchmarks that will show whether the right investments are being made to lift people out of poverty.

The Census ranks Detroit as the largest poverty city. 

Pasky, for example, said the conversation about the city’s recovery needs to move beyond showing headlines of massive investments. She said what Detroit needs now is a poverty reduction benchmark that will show that it is possible to reduce inequality and give people a chance to earn a decent living.

DiNello agreed and said that the progress of the city will also be determined by how Detroit’s population grows or declines five years from now. He said our standing on the national socioeconomic index will demonstrate if enough has been done to reduce income inequality in the city, and called for a coordinated effort among groups that are committed to improving the city.

Norcia emphasized the need to remove barriers and create access and opportunities for Detroit’s disadvantaged families. Understanding the frustration some already have about the recovery, he said it is important for business leaders to show that they care about the people who are at the bottom of the economic scale.

At one point during the forum, Norcia said it is easy for him and other business leaders in the C-Suite to not think about poverty. But he said they have both a moral and business obligation to not turn a blind eye to the fact that Detroit has some serious economic challenges that must be confronted. Business leaders, he said, should not be afraid to join the discussion on poverty.

Too often in the political activist community, there is a tendency to write off business leaders. However, the forum demonstrated how important it is to engage those with the levers of economic power. To the surprise of some, all three speakers grew up in disadvantaged backgrounds and made their way to the top.

In fact, DiNello told the audience it’s often frustrating to watch others try to define him when they don’t know his background and commitment to justice.

The forum, which was attended by Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, Detroit Public Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, Denise Page Hood, chief judge of the U.S. District Court and others, will continue June 10. The confirmed speakers for the second installment include Dan Loepp, president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, and Mark Schlissel, president of the University of Michigan.

bankole@bankolethompson.com

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

Catch “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Superstation 910AM.

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