He is a wordsmith for the ages.
As the Chief Storyteller for the City of Detroit, Eric S. Thomas is sharing the stories of everyday Detroiters and changing the narrative of how the City is perceived. He’s using this platform to highlight issues of racism, privilege, oppression, and equity and the impact it has on his community.
EXP: Why was it important for the City of Detroit to have a Chief Storyteller on staff, how did you land the gig, and what do you hope your legacy will be?
EST: The City of Detroit is an incredibly complex city, where many things can be true at the same time. You can absolutely love this place and still admit it can be better. Unfortunately, the story of Detroit has been more bifurcated than layered. It’s usually of trauma or triumph. But it’s more than that. Those things exist, but they’re interwoven with everyday folks living fulfilling lives who are just happy to see their kids in the evening.
Detroit deserves that nuance, and it deserves to have its complexities celebrated. Additionally, Detroit is a cultural hub known externally for a few significant exports that feel historical. But for the people that live here, it’s an active and thriving cultural nexus. Every day Detroiters show up, show out, and turn up. It’s in our DNA to be our most true selves.
I believe it’s a Chief Storytellers’ job to capture those things honestly and put them to work for the residents.
“If I had to be remembered for anything in this job, I’d want it to be using culture and storytelling as a fulcrum to build trust, access, and opportunity. To create a systemized way of preserving the identity of cities, even as they evolve and grow.”
Honestly, I landed this job in a strange way, but it’s a strange job. After writing an article about the importance of preserving Black Space in Detroit, I was approached by the City. The primary thesis is that living in a place where Blackness isn’t othered is incredibly powerful for our community. I think that might have been the catalyst for the conversation. But honestly, I don’t know. I’ve been working in the City for years to tell stories, do marketing, and support local equity efforts. I guess it sort of paid off.
EXP: Through your marketing company SAGA, you’ve helped hundreds of businesses and organizations develop their brands and find their voice. What’s the one thing 99% of them initially get wrong?
EST: I think the number one thing people get wrong is focusing on the how and not the why. Technicians value craft, and so they spend time on the details, data, and process when trying to pitch their vision. They often forget about why they’re solving the problem or the emotional burden that problem might be taking on the potential customer or audience. If you can tap into the primal source of tension, extrapolate how to ease that tension, and wrap it in a compelling narrative, you can sell almost anything.
EXP: If you had to be shipwrecked on a deserted island, but all your human needs—such as food and water—were taken care of, what two items would you want to have with you?
EST: Maybe my iPad so that I could listen to music, create, and still have a window into creative expression. (Granted, if it even worked and I had some internet reception). And maybe, a piano. Playing the piano really helps me shut off my thoughts and focus on the sensory experience.
EXP: An out of town friend has time for one meal in Detroit – where do you send them and what do you recommend they order from the menu?
EST: A hood Coney Island. Just so we can settle this once and for all. Coney Islands in the hood are infinitely better than Lafeyette or American. I said what I said. As for what they get? Anything. Somehow those places have a billion things on the menu. Haha. You can try the coney dogs if you want.
EXP: This summer New Detroit Inc. declared a war on racism. As a board member, how are you holding your colleagues and peers accountable to ending systemic racism.
EST: I’ve been confronting people about race in America for as long as I can remember. I like to engage in dialogues about privilege, oppression, and equity through my social media platforms and public speaking. The most important thing I do is bring it up when it isn’t asked for. Why only talk about race during conversations about race, in rooms full of people who agree with me?
I talk about race and racism’s impact on our society during public speaking engagements on UX design, PR, and Social Media. I bring it up in conversations about business and hiring policies or during debates about economics and social structure.
“I feel like racism’s Dr. Suess. I would confront bias in a meeting. I will confront bias while I’m eating.”
Racism is often sprung upon those of us who would rather not deal with it whenever it wants. So I confront racism in much the same way. I believe if you’re not actively against racism, you’re letting it happen, and I’m not OK with that. I feel the same way about homophobia, misogyny, and ableism.
EXP: What’s the one Detroit story you’ll never forget.
EST: I like to remind people that the story of Detroit’s racial composition and economic position started when in the 40’s when automotive plants began to leave for the suburbs. The exodus of those jobs started the population drain long before the uprising in ’67. But most importantly, the Uprising of 1967 was a reaction to unfair policing, redlining (housing discrimination), and brutal racism again the Black Community at almost every level. Then I like to remind people that from that point onward, there has been an almost concerted effort to punish Detroit by the state and federal government at every step leading to disinvestment in education, housing, and infrastructure until fairly recently.
The reason I like to remind people of that story is that it provides context. Some people have a strange, almost gapped understanding of the City that goes like this.
“OK, so boom, there were some French people. They named it Detroit. Then bloop, Ford made some cars. Folks came from the South to make cars. That was cool. Then Motown appears, and there was awesome music. Then like, for absolutely no reason there was a riot and Black people broke everything. Then 50 years passed, and no one was here, and then Dan Gilbert rebuilt downtown, and everything was lit again.”
And I’m like, nah son, that’s not how it went down, nor is that how it is. Context is the key to empathy. If we know what the source of our ailments are, we can treat them with more sophistication and preserve what is healthy.
EXP: What do you wish everyone knew about Detroit?
EST: I wish people would look at Detroit through the lens of its cultural identity and what we have to offer now. Detroit is so much more than Motown and Motor vehicles. Even today, Detroit’s Hip hop community is influencing the sound of music.
“Detroit’s primary export for years has been culture and the people molded by it.”
I wish people understood that organizations would be infinitely improved by some genuine Detroit identity, driven by people who have been steeped in its richness and vibrancy. If you really love “Detroit” you’ve gotta make room for the people. Loving a couple of buildings and a sports team doesn’t begin to gesture at what Detroit really has to offer.