From left, Abdulla Alhassani, Ryan Covert, Garrett Arwa, Al Williams II and Josh Pugh from the Michigan Democratic Party. BTL photo: AJ Trager

Progressive Detroit Talks On The National Level: Netroots Closeup

By AJ Trager

DETROIT - Last week, Netroots Nation brought thousands of liberals and progressives to downtown Detroit. They took to the city at night, protested the water shutoff Friday afternoon, watched Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren speak on equality and bettering the future for upcoming generations and attended caucuses and panels surrounding LGBT concerns. National issues were also in focus, such as the student debt levels, voting rights, environmental concerns, sexuality and public school reform. But most of the attendees were from outside of Michigan, along with the organizational representation in the exhibition hall of the conference. So how did those from Michigan feel the state and city were received on the national level? Every local organization that spoke to BTL believed the state and the city were well-received. Extremely well, in fact.

"It's wonderful that we can have a group of progressives meet in Detroit; I didn't think that would be possible. And it is so great to see the diversity in age groups, even. It's great to see the swarm of folks who have one common goal and that is to better the world that we live in," Liz Kranz, the creative director of the Michigan House Democrats, said.

This was the first year that the Netroots Nation was brought to Detroit. In previous years, the convention was held in larger cities like Las Vegas or San Jose, Calif. Most of this year's exhibitors were from out of town, many of which are located in Washington D.C.

Kranz was there with Joe Clark, a writer in the communications office of the Michigan House Democrats. They were volunteering their time, making connections with national organizations to work at engaging on the national level.

"We have had people from different states come to us and talk about what is going on in Michigan and with our candidates. We have people signing up for emails and newsletters from Las Vegas and California," Clark said. "They are interested. We have had several people spend a good amount of time talking to us because they are interested in what we are doing. "

With Detroit slowly moving past possible bankruptcy and a big protest march to Hart plaza happening on the same day as the convention, attendees were able to see that Detroit is fighting and improving on a daily basis. That the city and its people stand up to inequality and are pushing forward for a better Detroit could really be felt in every room throughout the conference.

"Detroit is a fighting city and the city gets kicked around in the media, sometimes in local media, but people around here don't care about that. They know that the city has been through so much and people are going to keep fighting," Clark said. "It's going to be a better place because people care about it. That's what the convention is about. We have these causes, and we're up against similar issues."

It comes at no surprise that an event like Netroots Nation is mainly Democratic in its alignment. Executive Director of the Michigan Democratic Party, Garrett Arwa, was there with other staff members and said that the traffic flow at his organization's table was steady and had a good mixture of Michigan attendees and those from outside the state, too.

"I think it's good to engage folks in Michigan who might not be engaged with the party but are engaged with progressive movements and progressive principals. It's also good to see people from other states who are aware of some of the horrible things that have happened over the past four years with Republican control of both the legislatures and also in Washington D.C. It reminds us that some of the things we are doing here is more than just Michigan. People are watching," Arwa said.

For a lot of people who have never been to Detroit, Arwa believes them to be impressed. There is a part of Detroit that some will take away, he said, like what the average Detroiter is going through.

"They are things like the water crisis, wanting to make sure that they have proper city services, how big the city is, areas that the city needs to condense itself. Those are some of the real problems that Detroiters deal with on a daily basis. And it is a lot of the same problems that a lot of these organizations here are fighting on behalf of," Arwa said. "They will take with them that this is a city on the comeback."

"I think, personally, Netroots is a wonderful blend of both the ideals that we espouse whether they are progressive, democratic or ideals of the LGBT and African American communities and so on and so forth," Arwa smiled.

"I think it is good for us to be able to celebrate those and also for us to discuss how we progress on these issues," Arwa said. "And part of the progression is how to we engage people through different tactics and different levels. And there are a lot of great tech companies here who are on the cutting edge of how we get that message out to people. It has got to be that combination. We agree that we stand for this and that we want to do something. How do we get the people who are not paying attention to start on that engagement ladder?"

That question is what conventions like Netroots Nation are trying to approach. This year, it was Detroit who was on the front lines of making connections and furthering representation.

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