Devil's Night, Detroit, and Culture Change

We’re going to celebrate Halloween together today by exploring a little holiday history, with a lesson on culture change baked in.

You might know that I grew up just outside Detroit, the now beleaguered city that once powered America (a city I love with all of my being). Growing up, while Halloween was a fun time for me, the night before it was anything but fun for people in the city.

Devil’s Night, as it was known, was the Detroit's extreme take on the historically mischievous night. How extreme? In 1984, there were more than 800 fires set in the city. Around the country, people talked about how dangerous Detroit was becoming and for more than a decade, visitors thought twice before heading into the city.

City officials mulled over action plans to reduce Devil’s Night crime for years but couldn’t agree on the best way forward. So they chose to do nothing.

Reflection: What toxic behaviors or patterns do you spot in your company that are going ignored?

Changing the Message

In 1997, a major shift was made. Detroit mayor Dennis Archer rebranded the night Angels’ Night, police tightened teenager curfews, and the city recruited volunteers to patrol for suspicious behavior. His message was clear: Detroit values peace for its people, not violence. Those who would do damage to the city were not welcome.

The result: That year, 35,000 volunteers took up the charge. Fires in the three-day period around Halloween dropped to 142, and Mayor Archer received a City Livability Award in 1999 by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Reflection: As a leader, how can you take action to change this pattern?

Note: Mayor Archer worked on three different levels. He changed the message: Devil —> Angel. He changed policy: Tougher curfews. And he gathered supporters for his cause: Thousands of volunteers. On what levels can you inspire change within your organization?

The Next Step

This year, Mayor Mike Duggan is taking things a step further, removing the Angels’ Night name altogether. Going forward, Detroit will have three nights of Halloween. Their goal is to complete the a perceptual change for the entire holiday, from representing mayhem and violence to that of a celebration for the kids.

The change hasn’t happened quickly — it’s been more than 20 years since the first steps were taken — and there is no guarantee it’ll stick. But the major shift happened when the city’s leadership took decisive action to improve a violent culture and that same charge has been picked up by the mayor today.

Reflection: What does a complete shift of this broken pattern look like? What are you striving to create and how will you know once you get there?

If Detroit Can Do It…

You can, too. I love the city and it still has a host of challenges. We all do — in our workplaces, homes, and in our own minds. But isn’t that why we’re here? To work through those challenges, explore and learn? To create a better tomorrow for the people we love?

I know it can feel overwhelming at times, like what you do doesn’t matter (it does) or won’t change anything (it will). But only if you choose to keep moving.

You got this.