• Denzel McCampbell. Courtesy photo.

Denzel McCampbell Wants to Transform Civic Engagement in the City of Detroit

By |2021-05-28T12:34:04-04:00May 28th, 2021|Michigan, News|

Detroit City Clerk candidate Denzel McCampbell said he had a profound experience as a Victory Institute Congressional Intern in 2013. Working in then-Congressman Gary Peters’ office, McCampbell was housed with interns from across the country.

“That’s really the place that I really was steeped in the intersectionality of race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation,” said McCampbell, who is a queer gay man. “And that’s where I really developed a politic of all of these issues that impact us and all of these issues that we really need to have a deep analysis of, again, race, gender, gender identity and sexual orientation.”

McCampbell wants to bring that mindset to the Detroit city clerk’s office. He said in order for citizens to be engaged, it’s necessary to recognize how various issues impact different communities within the city.

McCampbell stressed that he wants to ensure “that we are delivering services in the city clerk’s office that are recognizing folks as their full selves, making sure that we’re not erasing folks and that we’re lifting up communities around the city.”

It’s time for the blanket approach to offering city services to end, he added.

“As a city clerk, I want to make sure that folks have the tools that they can say, ‘No, you have to be more intentional about this,’” McCampbell said. “We are engaged around this and we want intentionality. We want you to say that we see you, and we’re gonna act on your behalf and take action in that way.”

Championing transparency

With a longtime passion for voter rights and election administration, McCampbell said he’s looking forward to the recordkeeping duties of the city clerk’s office, too.

“I’m a community organizer, a community advocate working on issues such as water affordability, reimagining public safety … and that work goes hand in hand with having a transparent and successful city,” McCampbell said.

Transparency means information regarding voting records of city council members, a schedule of when boards and commissions meet and the like should be easily accessible to residents.

“I’m running to increase access to the ballot, to fight back against the voter rights attacks that we see in Lansing and across the country that target Black and Brown voters, but also to increase access and transparency in the city,” McCampbell said.

The administration of the primary and general elections in Detroit in 2020 was hampered in many respects, but McCampbell isn’t pointing fingers. He began by acknowledging that running elections in the largest city in the state is a huge task.

“What you hear from folks is there’s just really a lot of information — and lack of robust information around our elections, around voting mechanisms,” McCampbell said. “Last year you had both the pandemic and the changes from the 2018 Promote the Vote effort. And you had a lot of folks call the campaign — I was on Congresswoman Tlaib’s campaign then — asking, ‘How do I vote safely? Where am I voting?’ Constantly we hear on the day of elections that ‘My polling location closed.’ It’s about making sure that folks know that they have the information they need to make their voices heard at the ballot box.”

As a currently serving elected Detroit City Charter Commissioner, McCampbell is tasked with, among other things, determining and answering the needs of city residents. And that clearly aligns with his vision to create what he calls a civic education corp. He explained what that would look like.

“We’ll have people that are with the city clerk’s office … in every district and every community, going door to door, holding community forums, asking folks what issues are important to them, connecting those issues to the functions of government and really walking folks through on how to engage government and take action at the ballot and beyond,” McCampbell said.

Education is key to addressing low voter turnout, in McCampbell’s estimation, and the civic education corp will help remedy that.

“One of the things that really frustrates me is folks will say, ‘We have low voter participation because people don’t care,’” McCampbell said. “And it frustrates me because it’s so far from the truth. If you go to anyone in the city of Detroit, they will be upfront with you about the issues that they are facing, the problems that they are having.”

Building resiliency and empowerment

McCampbell believes equipping residents with the tools and information they need will empower them, whether that means going to the ballot box, or attending meetings for city council or the many boards and commissions. For example, if a resident is dissatisfied with the recreation options for their child, they should be aware of what actions they can take.

“There is the city council here; you have a city council member; there’s the parks and rec department,’” McCampbell said he would tell them. “Here’s how you take action. And then, if you’re not satisfied with those actions they’re taking, here’s how you take action at the ballot box to find someone who will. It’s really connecting the dots and meeting people where they are.”

In the same way, McCampbell said civic education can help solve the puzzle of low voter participation among the LGBTQ+ community.

“When we’re able to go to folks and say, ‘You care about LGBTQ issues? Here are the folks who have a role in those decisions. Here’s how you can engage them.’ And that’s the way that folks can say, ‘Wow … this person doesn’t want my whole self to be recognized by our own government. I’m gonna take action to hold them accountable.’”

Part of McCampbell’s experience working directly with the public is in his current job as Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib’s communication director. He’s served in that role since 2017. Tlaib, who endorsed McCampbell, gave him some political advice he took to heart.

“She constantly tells me, ‘Make sure you’re just talking to people. Make sure you’re meeting folks where they are,’” McCampbell said. “[Have] that direct contact with folks, because that’s how folks learn about you, but also how you learn more about what the community needs. If you’re [knocking] on doors, people will tell you what they care about.”

Because “Detroiters have the solutions.”

“The solutions are in the community,” he said. “And that’s something she tells me all the time: to really stay rooted in the community and keep talking to folks about the issues that they care about.”

Election Day is Tuesday, Aug. 3. Learn more about McCampbell’s campaign online at denzelfordetroit.com.

About the Author:

Ellen Shanna Knoppow
Ellen Knoppow is a writer, editor and activist.