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How the Ghana ThinkTank Challenges the White Savior Complex

A nonprofit enlists thinkers from so-called “third world” countries to build a new arts hub in Detroit.

A party in the first installation of The American Riad (images by and courtesy of Oakland Avenue Artist Coalition and Ghana ThinkTank, except where noted)

DETROIT—Many of us have joked at least once about having “first world problems,” with the implication being that people in places with weaker infrastructure have more serious worries. But this phrase ultimately reflects a certain kind of classism: it subtly reinforces notions of a global hierarchy in which developed nations provide outreach and aid to so-called “third world” countries, implying that the latter have little to offer in return.

In Detroit’s ever-changing North End neighborhood, a new artist-run development project is challenging this unbalanced power dynamic. Ghana ThinkTank is a radical international art collective that identifies so-called “first-world” problems in American communities, then submits these problems to think tanks it establishes in third-world locations. These remote think tanks then propose solutions, seeking to “develop the first world.”

In Detroit, Ghana ThinkTank connected several local organizations — the Oakland Avenue Artist Coalition, the North End Woodward Community Organization, Central Detroit Christian CDC, and Affirming Love Ministries Church — to a think tank in Morocco, which is now helping to rebuild a corner on Oakland Avenue that is central to an ambitious community-led redevelopment plan.

A plan for The American Riad, picking up on a classic feature of Moroccan architecture.
Visualization of plans for the finished courtyard, part of an ambitious, community-led redevelopment effort in the North End

According to Ghana ThinkTank, the Moroccan think tank, made up of a donkey-pulled cart that toured villages looking for participants, suggested that many US problems stem from architecture that exacerbates social isolation. The American dream of the single-family home, for example, encourages separation between neighbors. As a potential solution, they provided examples of architecture that helps strengthen community — specifically, the Moroccan riad, an interior courtyard that joins disparate areas of a single dwelling, or fills in spaces between structures with a communal gathering place.

The Oakland Avenue project, titled “The American Riad,” seeks to create eight to ten units of affordable housing and six businesses that serve the needs of the North End, with proprietors interested in preserving the area’s history as a Black creative corridor. The courtyard will unify the corner with a public space for gatherings, workshops, gardening, performances, and displays of local and international art.

The build site for The American Riad, which will bridge the area between the residences and businesses.
Work in progress on the Riad site this summer (image by the author)

Ulysses Newkirk, of OAAC, and Roger Robinson, of NEWCO, who are longtime residents and visionaries within the North End of Detroit, formed the energetic and ideological foundation for this land trust project, which is a departure from Ghana ThinkTank’s more typical short-term exercises. The project also features a skill-share component, soliciting skilled local tradespeople to train community members helping to build the riad.

North End neighbors working on The American Riad project.

“People in my neighborhood are learning construction skills,” said Newkirk, in an interview that took place at Red Door Studios, a neighborhood institution where he and Robinson work. “How do we live in a country where we have one of the most necessary segments of people — [those who know how to do skilled labor] — aging out of service and dying? How stupid are we? The skill-share and training is doing a lot to bring together a really diverse group of people.”

Newkirk sees potential not only for empowering community members to spearhead their own projects, but also for launching a cottage industry around the installation of similar riads in other locations around Detroit — for example, a project to redevelop an abandoned west side high school, which has asked the riad team in the North End to submit a letter for interest.

One might argue that, though it’s part of the United States, Detroit no longer embodies the upper echelon of first-world aesthetics — Anthony Bourdain once said (among other, nicer, things): “Only place I’ve ever been that looks anything like Detroit does now, Chernobyl.” One might further argue that the USA’s grasp on first-world status is tenuous at best, and slipping away by the hour under the regime of a retrograde wannabe dictator. These technicalities aside, The American Riad carries a deeper lesson, along with the tangible benefits of community-led development — to reevaluate preconceived notions of global hierarchy, and to remember that, though someone may come at problems from a world away, they do not come lacking in valuable perspective.

Work on The American Riad is in progress at 8346 Oakland Ave, Detroit, MI 48211.

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