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Millennials making a difference in Detroit

What do you get when you mix 60 Millennials, a dozen of Detroit's brightest thinkers and lots of coffee?

The potential to solve some of the city's policy problems.

This past weekend, I attended a conference that sparked some incredible discussions about Detroit, the region's significant challenges and what they both need to do to create lasting change.

The Roosevelt Institute Campus Network sponsored the event, which was held at the sparking new Michigan State University Detroit Center.

The regional workshop is part of a year-long initiative, in which Roosevelt Institute members from across the Midwest will focus on creating actual public policy proposals for Detroit and the surrounding cities.

About 60 MSU students came together in suits, ties and dresses to talk about Detroit. What will it take to avoid a “Brain Drain” of students leaving the region after graduation? How can cities cope with massive unemployment? What jobs will replace those lost to manufacturing?

Most importantly, how can the Midwest become a place young adults want – and are financially able – to live in?

The whole day reminded me of Detroit's motto: Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus, or “We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.”

In case you (like me) have never heard of it before, The Roosevelt Institute Campus Network is a student policy organization founded in 2004. Its goal is to promote “progressive activism.” More than 70 campuses, including UM and MSU, have a chapter.

Here are some highlights of what I heard:

Ed Clemente, state representative for the 14th District, told students:

* The region cannot allow Detroit to become a hole in the middle of Southeast Michigan; its demise is unacceptable.

* We must get companies and individuals to invest in Detroit and the surrounding area, even if they don't necessarily live here. For example, the two men who started Google were University of Michigan students. Although they are not state residents, their loyalty to Michigan is part of the reason there is a Google office in Ann Arbor.

* Urban gardening is not necessarily the best use of the city's land. Rather, we need to gather it together to make lucrative plots that businesses and investors want to buy.

Brenda G. Price is program director of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for Detroit and Gary, Ind. She gave students a rundown of the Foundation's research on how people feel about Detroit and the region. She said:

* Detroit as the core must be stabilized for the state and region to move forward. (Notice a theme here?)

* Michigan ranks in the Top 10 for its concentration of designers – automotive and otherwise – because of great colleges like the UM, MSU and the College for Creative Studies. That means there is a base for a “Creative Class” in Detroit.

* Banks, foundations and other charitable organization around the region are now meeting together monthly to organize their donations and actions; they no longer want to operate as silos independent of one another.

The keynote speaker was Rob Johnson, director of the Economic Policy Initiative for the parent group, The Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute. His thoughts:

* Detroit was a “magnificent middle-class society. Detroit has been devastated. People did this. It was not an act of God.”

* People, especially the young Millennial or Gen Yers attending the event, need to take on the city, the government and anyone else who gets in their way to help the middle class thrive again within Detroit. “You're going to have to fight big dragons,” he warned.

* The television media is selling Detroit out. He is especially worried when he sees stories that seem to blame Detroit and the automakers for the country's larger economic recession. He also noted that it seems like these stories have a racist tinge. Johnson encouraged students to call or protest by calling the television stations when they see these sorts of images.

My favorite comment of the day came from Ms. Price:

“There were bumps in the road before. This (current economy) is a mountain. Yet the region keeps bouncing back and I think that makes people optimistic.”

Organizers are looking forward to see what kinds of ideas the students have after attending the weekend event.

“In planning the event, youth and students' unique and enthusiastic commitment to Detroit, Michigan and the Midwest has become overwhelmingly obvious and inspiring,” said Monika Johnson, the Midwest regional coordinator (and the one who invited me; thanks!)

I asked Monika and Hillary Doe, the national director, to keep Assignment Detroit informed as to whether any discussion from Saturday's event or beyond turns into real policies. Doe tells me that other events like this have created real change; one in Chicago resulted in two bills written by students becoming law in that fine city. So there is hope that Saturday will produce something major for Detroit.

As an aside, the conference was one of the MSU Detroit Center's first major events since its opening Oct. 1. The facility is fantastic: a huge space located on Woodward Avenue just a few blocks from major centers like the Detroit Institute of Arts and Wayne State University. It will be exciting to see what develops in this area, which also has a University of Michigan building on a nearby corner.

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