Let’s get real and talk honestly about urban challenges and what we can do to make things better. That’s what we did this past week at the Points of Light 2016 Conference on Volunteering and Service, which brought together thousands of community volunteers to Detroit on June 27-29 at the Cobo Center. It is the largest service-related convening of nonprofit, government, business and civic leaders in the world. They gathered to learn, share and get inspired — to increase the number of volunteers in the world and the impact of the work they do. I’m SO thrilled this program was held in Detroit this year, as Detroit reminds us it is the strength of people uniting in service that can change communities. It is out of challenging times that we demonstrate the determination and unfailing spirit of Detroit — a remarkable city and extraordinary example of community resiliency and citizen leadership.
I’d first like to thank our dear friend and colleague Megan Christenson, who is the Director of the Points of Light Civic Accelerator (@civicacceleratr). Megan was one of the leads for the Social Entrepreneurship and Innovator Track, which focused on helping the attendees to learn how disruptive technologies and innovation change the way people mobilize to meet their social mission. I had the honor to moderate a distinguished (and energetic!) panel, “Spotlight on Detroit” — Take a peek under the hood of one of America’s fastest evolving cities. We discussed with government, private and nonprofit stakeholders, how people in Detroit come together to build an unstoppable culture of social innovation.
Our session was designed to “lift up and spotlight” the great energy going on in Detroit and especially how collaboration and public/private partnerships can accelerate innovation. We also wanted to clear up any mis-perceptions about the “old Detroit narrative” and highlight innovation and creativity as best practices to expand within Detroit and beyond Detroit. We started with some level setting on recent Detroit history.
- In 2013, the city of Detroit became the largest US city to declare bankruptcy. Once one of the fastest growing and most prosperous metro areas in the US, the media quickly painted Detroit as the poster child for America’s slow recovery from the economic recession.
- Through public-private partnerships, there has been nearly $3 Billion in investment and community-led redevelopment efforts in recent years.
- There is still work to be done, especially when it comes to employment. The region has not been able to reach 2001 levels for jobs in automobile manufacturing, largely due to increased automation and improved technology that make it easier to manufacture goods with fewer workers.
- Technological shifts encourage growth in more highly skilled occupations, such as engineering and IT. In fact, architecture and engineering jobs grew 28% between 2009 and 2013, computer and mathematical jobs grew 14%, and management jobs grew 9% — demonstrating that the quality of jobs in Detroit is improving, even if the region has not caught up to pre-recession job counts.
- Unfortunately, the really bad news is the 30 percent unemployment rate for Detroit Metro youth (ages 16-21) — the highest among large metropolitan areas in the country (Source: Social Science Research Council).
- The numbers are more staggering when looking at the City of Detroit itself. It is estimated that more than 60 percent of youth ages 16-19 who are in the labor force are unemployed. (Source: American Community Survey 2011)
Our panel really tackled these issues head on. We focused on the “3 C’s: Culture, Challenges and Community.” Here’s a sampling of some of the discussion points.
- Culture: Detroit has long been a city of innovators. How does this culture affect or inspire your work and your investments in Detroit? What is different about the Detroit culture of innovation from other cities?
- Challenges: Many say that the greatest innovations arise from within great constraints. How have recent constraints in Detroit (economic, social, political, etc.) allowed for new solutions or insights? The role of talent in innovation has been highlighted as probably the biggest challenge: What is/isn’t being done to address the talent pipeline in Detroit? What gaps / opportunities exist? How does this affect the long viability of Detroit? Does Detroit need a breakthrough for more investments in Detroit? What will be the “signal” to drive investments? What types of capital markets exist (or need to exist) to ensure that great startups are bred and remain in Detroit?
- Community: As a rapidly evolving city, what community trends do you see (or expect to see) and how will this affect the city moving forward? Role of Civic Engagement – how do community and citizens play a role in innovation in the city of Detroit? Who are the key NGO leaders? How does public Education (DPS) need to play a role to sustain economic viability?
- Our summary discussion focused on the future: What is the “New Narrative of Detroit” and how is it changing in the city’s recovery?
Our panelists pointed out that while Detroit has had some special challenges that have been highlighted in the media, the basic urban challenges of transportation, strong public schools, fixing urban blight and delivering City services apply to nearly all large urban metropolitan areas. Public education, unfortunately, is a countrywide problem. Transportation was singled out as a key, long term challenge for the Motor City — incredibly ironic that the birthplace of motorized transportation has been a lagging adopter. But, we had a lively discussion about how transportation is a changing/diminishing requirement for Goofy Goobers … one panelist said “if a car is necessary to do the basic things I need to do in my daily life, I won’t live there.” Witness self-driving cars and the rise of ride sharing.
There was a strong, mutual feeling that native Detroiters like to “come home” and be part of the rebirth and reinvention of Detroit. Sometimes it’s accomplished through investment and money, sometimes it’s supporting social enterprise growth, and perhaps most importantly, sometimes it’s making the deliberate choice to raise your family and educate your children in the City.
So, how do we all help write the new narrative for Detroit? Here are some great ideas:
- Invest in Detroit. Support NGO’s and certified Community Development Financial Institutions like Invest Detroit to fund economic and community development in underserved communities.
- Embrace Changemakers. Partner and support those who define the central mission of their lives around issues of social justice and artistic activism. Our closing plenary showcased stories of young people around the world who positively impacted our world through creativity, entrepreneurialism and sheer talent. Detroit has tremendous local talent and can do the same.
- Become a model of reinvention. Use all kinds of media (traditional, social, human narrative, etc.) to tell the stories of local Detroiters who are impacting the vector of the City.
- Increase storytelling capacity. Detroit can redefine its story through the Internet—by providing universal access and digital skills, we can multiply the positive storytelling exponentially.
- Understand this takes some time, is complicated and messy. But if we do it “right,” we’ll recognize the results and learn and grow.