Meet The Young People Trying To Make Sure Detroit's Rebirth Works For Everybody

It all started with an online contest.

DETROIT ― Recovery for Detroit was difficult to imagine as recently as a few years ago, when the forced bankruptcy of General Motors and Chrysler ― and then the city government itself ― seemed to provide the epitaph for a collapse roughly half a century in the making. On most days downtown was a ghost town.

Today Woodward Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare, is usually full of people ― whether it’s young professionals trekking from their offices to food carts during the day, or hipsters jumping between bars and restaurants at night. A just-opened basketball arena has lured the NBA’s Pistons back from the suburbs, and a new streetcar runs along Woodward, linking the nearby medical center and Wayne State University.

Unemployment in Detroit is down to roughly one-third of what it was at the peak of the recession. Residential and commercial vacancies have shrunk too, sending property values are up to “insane” levels, as the Detroit Free Press called them recently. Response times to medical emergencies, long a frightening symbol of the city’s dysfunction, have finally improved and are now better than the national average for large cities.

But the improvement is relative ― and uneven. The public schools remain a mess. The rate of violent crime is still the nation’s worst, according to FBI statistics. And the growth that has transformed downtown hasn’t gotten that far past the Woodward corridor. Go just a few blocks in any direction and the scene looks depressingly familiar: vacant homes, empty storefronts and large tracts of nearly empty land.

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In response, the Detroit-based Skillman Foundation last year set aside a half-million dollars for an unconventional effort to make sure the city’s resurgence includes the entire population, and not just all those newcomers buying up the new downtown lofts.

“Detroit’s at a very interesting moment now ― some would call it an inflection point,” says Kumar Raj, a native Michigander who is now program officer at Skillman. “There’s been a lot of investment in the downtown, midtown corridors. One of the things a lot of us are thinking about is how do we activate the underutilized resources in our neighborhoods, our people.”

Working with the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, Kumar and his colleagues organized a competition they called “My Brother’s Keeper Detroit Innovation Challenge” ― with the promise of $5,000 seed grants for 20 pilot projects and then much larger grants, worth tens of thousands of dollars, for a half-dozen winners.

A major goal was to reach beyond the usual organizations that work in low-income communities, in the hope of incubating a new generation of local leaders while finding novel approaches to reach young people. To cast the widest possible net, foundation officials kept the first step of the application simple: just a short online form with questions about applicants’ background and idea. A more thorough application and vetting process followed, with a panel of local residents working to narrow the initial field of 500 applicants.

This is actually how I found about it. My son, then a high school junior, applied and made it to a pool of 20 finalists (but not beyond). When they all presented their work at a downtown event a year ago, the projects ran the gamut from the familiar (a program that taught music) to the exotic (a program that taught kids to raise and farm grasshoppers).

But most of the projects, including the eventual winners, had one trait in common. They all focused on “soft skills” ― the type of communication and problem-solving habits that, studies have repeatedly shown, kids growing up in low-income households are far less likely to pick up, making it more difficult for them to get ahead later in life.

One of those winners was a project called Journi ― which, at first blush, looks like a fairly ordinary effort to train young people for future jobs in high tech. But while the program has a heavy emphasis on coding and software development, Richard Grundi, its co-founder, said the program strives to teach the kids skills they could use in any line of work ― by, among other things, introducing the participants to mentors and giving them experience on real-life projects for clients.

“We’re teaching them hopefully to have the confidence to create and to provide for themselves, and to think for themselves and just be successful,” Grundi says.

Another project, called “We Are Culture Creators,” is literally a house full of audio and video equipment where musicians, videographers, photographers and other artists can collaborate on projects and then learn to market them. Some of the artists actually live in the house and, with everything from recording to cooking taking place at all hours, it can feel like “organized chaos,” co-founder Elizabeth Stone admits. But, she says, the improvisational atmosphere makes for better art. And, in the meantime, young men are picking up knowledge and developing habits that will serve them well later in life, even if they don’t end up as full- or even part-time artists.

“They’re coming away with all of these hard and soft skills,” says Stone. “Learning those business entrepreneurial techniques, being able to communicate value, being able to command an audience, these are things that will help them in absolutely any industry, any sector, and any position in life.”

A third project, called “Our Town,” seeks to introduce the kids of Detroit to their own hometown ― on the theory that most of them haven’t really ventured outside their neighborhoods. Detroit is a sprawling city with notoriously limited public transit, and about one-third of households don’t have their own transportation, says Anise Hayes, Our Town’s founder. “A lot of kids are just not having a chance to explore Detroit, which is ironic because Detroit is the motor city,” Hayes says.

Taking kids on tours of Detroit can expose them to some of the city’s more venerable institutions, like the ornate Fox Theater or the Detroit Institute of Art. No less important, Hayes says, it shows the kids all the activity taking place around the city ― hopefully, giving them ideas for where they might apply their talents and find work.

But the real key to Our Town, which is under the umbrella of a larger organization called Atlantic Impact, is that it’s kids leading kids. The tour leaders are all young people who have been on previous tours and then gone through some special training ― once again, as with the other programs in the Detroit Innovation Challenge, picking up skills that can serve them later in life when they enter the job market.

“Our kids are amazing people already and we’re just trying to help them understand the skills and talents they already have ― and how those talents connect to the progress and innovation that’s happening in the city.”

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