An Advocate for Giving Residents a Voice
When Sarida Scott started heading up Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD) in September 2012, the organization was facing hard times. Its assets included a cell phone and two crates of files, but not a single computer.
Today, it’s Detroit’s only citywide membership organization advocating for public policies and resources that advance the work of nonprofit, neighborhood-based groups. And it’s thriving. CDAD provides a vehicle to communicate neighborhood needs and interests to city-level decision-makers. At the same time, the organization builds capacity by providing training, peer-to-peer learning events, research and tools for its members to enable them to better engage citywide systems, operate more effectively and improve their knowledge of and access to resources.
According to 2018 research from the University of Michigan and Local Initiatives Support Corp., CDAD members have provided more than $250 million in economic development, including 3,500 new or rehabilitated units of affordable housing and more than 600,000 square feet of new or renovated retail space.
“What she’s done with that organization has been extraordinary,” says Tosha Tabron, senior vice president of Invest Detroit and a member of the CDAD board. “Because of Sarida’s leadership, CDAD has been asked to be that advocacy group that makes sure these neighborhood residents have a voice.”
“Too often the leader of an organization feels so disconnected, because of their aloofness or their inability to connect with core needs. … She leads from the heart.” —Shamyle Dobbs, Michigan Community Resources
Sarida Scott’s journey began in a middle-class Detroit family. Her dad had relocated from Alabama in the 1950s and her mom had grown up in the city’s predominantly African American Black Bottom community. Scott went from Renaissance High School to the University of Michigan to a law degree at University of California, Berkeley, which included an eye-opening summer working for the City of Oakland’s law department.
“I was really excited by how working for the city, you touch on so many aspects of revitalization,” she says. “So I came back here and started working for the City of Detroit law department.”
That was more than a decade ago. Next Scott joined Michigan Community Resources, and also joined the first class of The Kresge Foundation-funded Detroit Revitalization Fellowship (DRF) in 2011. The fellowship provided a number of young professionals with a deep dive into revitalization work in the city, the idea being to promote a cohort of future leaders.
Scott, who moved to CDAD during her association with the fellowship, immediately impressed her peers.
“She took on a kind of natural leadership role out of the gate,” says Michael Forsyth, who was in the original DRF cohort. He’s since worked with city revitalization organizations and is a partner in Detroit City Distillery. “She’s honest and straightforward, and doesn’t pull any punches — and was really good at keeping us on track.”
When DRF came along, many longstanding leaders in funding, nonprofits and community development work were retiring. Thanks to a growing conversation about equity and inclusion, many who replaced them have been people of color and women.
Of course, women have been instrumental in the work of revitalizing the city. For decades, they were the block club leaders — the people who ran after-school programs and food pantries. They seldom, however, rose to lead larger organizations.
“They flew under the radar, were poorly paid, didn’t really get the recognition that was important,” says Robin Boyle, a professor of urban planning at Wayne State University who played a key role in organizing DRF. When the city went through its 2013-2014 bankruptcy crisis, recalls Boyle, “Gradually there was a realization that these women who’d been leading at the community level needed to be given more support.”
At CDAD, Scott saw an opportunity to change the way nonprofits are perceived.
“We always see the nonprofit in this weaker position, and that anyone with the money has the power,” she says. “It should be a mutually beneficial relationship.”
She also recognized that her role as a leader wasn’t just about strengthening CDAD.
“It’s about making our members better so they can better serve the communities,” she says.
Service is central to Scott’s idea of leadership.
“One of the things that really stuck with me through the DRF is that it’s all focused on this idea of servant leadership,” she says. “I do believe in and subscribe to that. It’s in the way you talk to people, the way you treat people.”
Scott coaches her staff, also making sure they receive ongoing training — for their own professional development and to strengthen CDAD’s effectiveness.
“My job isn’t to just have this great small team here,” she says, referring to her staff of eight full-time employees. “Our job is to have a great team helping other organizations cultivate this leadership so that people in neighborhoods are in charge of what’s happening in their neighborhoods.”
It’s a gut-level, instinctive way of leading that longtime friend and CEO of Michigan Community Resources Shamyle Dobbs says sets Scott apart.
“Too often the leader of an organization feels so disconnected, because of their aloofness or their inability to connect with core needs,” Dobbs says. On the other hand, there’s Scott, Dobbs adds. “She can connect to anyone. And she leads from the heart.”