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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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  • 1

    “We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.”

    If we must contend with "big dragons," I'm hoping that amazing, talented leaders will rise from the ashes here in Detroit. Soon.

  • 2

    Thanks for your consistently useful, thought-provoking postings, Ms. Dybis. You are a true journalist. (Good stuff!)

  • 3

    "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."

    How does this relate to the extensive blogging on this site about the wonderful role that urban gardening has vis a vis the future of Detroit?

    Ms. Dybis: Do you have a more in depth analysis of this issue, and their viewpoints as to urban gardening?

    Should the tractor shipments be halted?

    We were hoping the Obama stimulus money could pay for our farming equipment in Detroit, to be used in some of those open plots around our $100 houses full of artists wanting to till the land of Detroit.

  • 4

    I hate to say but i do not find these quotes very uplifting. I am not from Detroit, but am in the process of writing my graduate thesis about artistic practices in neighborhoods in Detroit, specifically The Heidelberg Project and The Powerhouse Project.

    I think urban gardening is an amazing way of growing your own food and fostering community. I think when people want to draw business into Detroit (which is not a bad thing), they tend to overlook in a sense all the good things that are happening there and this in the long run might just perpetuate the problems. This city shrunk because of capitalism and problems with the 1 industry it housed and racial tension and the building of freeways and the fact that its a driving city. There are so many factors that add to how it is today, but these factors also help foster smaller practices by activists and artists and individuals that make Detroit great. And they can really exist no where else.

    Definitely, it is time to look to the creative class, but in a way that is not reminiscent of artists gentrifying a neighborhood, which I think is how Detroit wants to handle things. It is time to branch out and reuse the TONS of space Detroit has for something greater. Its idealistic, sure, and I don't live there, so I may be off base, but the more I write and read about Detroit, the more I want to live there.

  • 5

    Ms. Dybis: I assume you read the blog earlier this month about "The New Geography" by your colleague,
    Mr. Dawsey, and the article referenced in it (link below), which concerns urban farming. I do have concerns about urban farming in terms of lead and toxins in urban soil. The artists in the $100 houses in Detroit are also referenced in the article. The comments after the actual article from the New Geography magazine are also interesting

  • 6

    As a Chicagoan, an outsider but frequent visitor to Detroit, I've been fascinated in following the story of Detroit reinventing itself. Along with other Chicagoans I've talked to about Detroit, I see urban gardening as one of the city's greatest assets and something that has led some of us to start thinking maybe we'd consider relocating to Detroit some day. I too was shocked to see the comment, “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.”

    On the surface, that comment sounds tragically short-sighted. Whether we admit or even realize it now, environmental scientists have long known that failure to account for the true value of a limited supply of natural resources in all of our business transactions may be the Achilles' heel of capitalism as we know it today. With impending fuel shortages and lack of renewable energy, access to affordable produce from remote places may become a thing of the past.

    Today's Detroit, already a leader in urban farming, is poised (over the long term) to become a leader in a new economy by developing a truly sustainable city- by necessity and by virtue of a large underclass, impoverished & undernourished, but with time on its hands. I suppose few in Detroit today talk about how Mayor Hazen “Potato Patch” Pingree ( saved the city in an economic pinch back in the 1890s by encouraging farming on vacant lots… I look forward to hearing out the opposing point of view.

  • 7

    this is a really interesting article about urban farming in syracuse.

    and again, i agree with rtree about urban farming. it is more than important. look at the catherine ferguson academy. look at all the little farms inside Detroit that are feeding people. urban agriculture practices are happening everywhere, and Detroit is a perfect place for it.

    i am not positing that the city should become completely rural, but there is a lot of empty space, and if by reviving the idea of gardening can start to change how people perceive the city and in fact, make it a more interesting place to live, then by all means, keep farming. it may not be the most creative solution, but it yields results. results that Detroit is very much in need of, by the way.

  • 8

    I personally didn't care for the comment either that, “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.” Oh really?

    Speculators and developers are only interested in looking to profit from flipping or building on vacant parcels of land into "lucrative" investments. They do not have the cities interest at heart, nor for the people living in it either.

    There is something to be said for the defining ability of Detroiters to persist, survive and also thrive in the midst of adversity. Waiting on others to come save us and give us jobs is not the answer.

    The time and opportunity for those of us self-determined enough to provide for their own basic needs is now if not yesterday. We (Detroiters) have too much at stake to allow others to define that timeline for us. The need is too dire and immediate and finding real solutions to education and food security is essential.

    We need to create our own food sources, our own schools and our own communities. The chain grocers have left, the public school system has failed our children and our administrators are cutting city services without any real vision or plan.

    There isn't going to be any true realized growth without recognizing the resourcefulness and creativity of those of us that have managed to survive and are still here. I say, if we have the opportunity to develop vacant land into useful mechanisms to sustain ourselves, build (social) capital and recirculate it amongst ourselves then who is anyone to say otherwise?

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