(WJBK) - She has been a champion for race relations throughout our region as the head of new Detroit for nearly 20 years.
Shirley Stancato is now being honored with a Shining Light Award - and as she prepares for a new journey, she is sharing what she's learned along the way.
"Race is always the elephant in the room in southeast Michigan and often times people don't want to talk about it," she said.
But Shirley Stancato wants to talk about it - she has made having that conversation her mission, as president and CEO of New Detroit for the past 18 years...
"Having these conversations and getting to know each other - that's the first step," she said.
The first step toward getting to a place of understanding and progress on race relations, and racial equity in metro Detroit.
"Detroit - the region continues to be one of the most segregated regions in the united states," Stancato said.
New Detroit's regional race equity reports show the gaps are very real - in income, education, home ownership.
"The gap in income between African-Americans and whites has been the same for 50 years," she said. "The gap hasn't closed. The unemployment rate for African-Americans is at an all-time low - it's still twice as high as it is for whites."
It's those disparities that New Detroit has quietly been working behind the scenes to address - with young people and adults alike - crossing lines of color, creed and income.
"We always say sit next to somebody who doesn't look like you," she said. "We say that at New Detroit - listen to somebody who perhaps doesn't look like you.
"Listening to other people's perspective really is what helps us move forward and I think more people need to do that."
New Detroit was formed in the wake of what some call the rebellion and others call the riots of 1967. Then-Gov. George Romney, Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh and businessman J.L. Hudson knew the region needed a race relations coalition - to help it heal.
Fifty-one years later, Stancato says we've made progress - but have a long way to go.
"I do think we know each better than we have in the past," she said. "We're willing to have conversations around race that we weren't willing to have in the past - some good some not so good."
But it's clear Stancato's efforts have been for the better. Thursday she'll be honored with the prestigious Neal Shine Award for exemplary regional leadership. Shine is the former Free Press publisher was not only a champion of regional cooperation - he was also a friend.
"I really looked up to him in so many ways so to get an award that's named after someone like this is really humbling and I couldn't be more proud," she said.
Proud, and still as passionate as ever - but now this Detroiter - born and bred and educated right here, is getting ready for a new journey as she looks to retire from New Detroit by the end of the year.
"This work for me is a mission," she said. "When you have a mission it doesn't stop because of some date on the calendar or because of some time. It continues to be a part of what I know I’m going to do for the rest of my life in one way or another."