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Reflections on community, change, and commitment from a departing Detroiter


Record-setting rainfall in Detroit caused a lot of problems last week, but it also kept me off the roads and gave me some time to reflect on my experience in Detroit these last few years given an impending move to the East Coast to begin a graduate program.

It might sound cliché, but there's no denying my time in Detroit has played a big role in shaping the person I am today. It has fundamentally altered my conceptions surrounding community, change, and commitment.

I believe Detroit is on the brink of breakthrough. Not just because of changes in real estate, governance, transit, or population (of course these are all important factors worthy of deep examination), but because of the questions people are starting to ask. We are slowly getting comfortable with posing hard questions, admitting failure, and challenging long-held assumptions. It may be one of the hardest forms of change for us humans to endure -- to learn how to continuously be open to thinking differently.

In places like Detroit, we easily get overwhelmed with the myriad opportunities to make a difference that we forget to examine the ways in which we are clinging to anecdotal assumptions about ourselves and our surroundings. Our city is undergoing rapid transformation. We can't afford to lose a critical flair and readiness to ask hard questions and challenge our own notions about what Detroit is and should be.

Over the last three years, I've been involved in launching programs in Detroit that support entrepreneurs building business models that intentionally consider impact on the community, the environment, and their own financial sustainability. From building Kiva Detroit to the Michigan Social Entrepreneurship Challenge, I've picked up some insights along the way that I share here with the hope that they might spark constructive dialogue to help our city move forward in extraordinary ways.
I mentioned that Detroit has challenged my notions around community, change, and commitment. Let's start with community.

"There is a distinct blurring between personal and professional in Detroit, which allows us to emerge and becomes a part of a community as our true authentic selves."If there's one word I imagine will capture the essence of my time in Detroit when reflecting back six months from now, it's community. My mind races to a cold January evening in the Jam Handy, where hundreds of individuals huddled together for a Kiva Soup event designed to showcase and fund local doers. The outcomes of such events are always inspiring to me, but they are about much more than the dollars exchanged. On such occasions, I often have an opportunity to greet familiar faces -- people with whom I've likely shared both a work meeting and a beer in the last week. There is a distinct blurring between personal and professional in Detroit, which allows us to emerge and becomes a part of a community as our true authentic selves.

Detroit has so much to offer the world, and we're getting better at telling our story -- but we should give due credence to reflecting on what stories we really want to tell, and build a strategy around them. What are we learning that will offer important -- not just lessons -- but constructive insights for the world?

"It's not everywhere that you have a chance to sit at a table with a banker, a DJ, a technologist, a philanthropist, and an entrepreneur to work together toward a common goal."One Detroit-ism I have been exceptionally influenced by during my time here is our ability to convene in unconventional ways. We pull people out of silos, across sectors and ideas, and work on problems together. In my mind, it's become the only way to work on the complex challenges we have to tackle. But I also believe it's the only way the world will effectively solve problems in the future. It's not everywhere that you have a chance to sit at a table with a banker, a DJ, a technologist, a philanthropist, and an entrepreneur to work together toward a common goal. Detroit should start to export our stories of collaboration.

Regarding change…I've never lived in a place that suffers from such fatigue of the "re" prefix. You know what I mean -- the words rebirth and renewal show up in more than a few conversations many Detroit "changemakers" have on a daily basis. The prefix has two meanings. One is to do again and again -- as in reiterate. The other is to go backwards as in retreat. Detroit needs the "again and again." And to get there, we need to become comfortable with admitting failure. The start-up community has embraced this notion. The social sector -- non-profits, social entrepreneurs, philanthropists -- are not
there…yet.

Those of us running social impact organizations in Detroit are so conditioned to tout successes for the funder community that we miss out on a lot of shared learning and opportunities for growth or evolution. Furthermore, the philanthropic community's standards and expectations are molded by disinclination toward failure. With all the work that lies ahead, it's going to take both sectors -- groups working to advance impact in Detroit and the philanthropic community -- courage to step outside of feeling like the stakes around failure are too high to embrace it, talk about it, and grow from it.

Another thing I've learned about making change is that we should always welcome new perspectives – especially ideas and people that might make us uncomfortable. I see a big opportunity for Detroit to be more welcoming of models for change from elsewhere. They may have a very different application in and relevance for Detroit, but that doesn't mean we can't learn from them. Let's expand our minds, try new things, and build connections in unusual places. The results and learning could be extraordinary.

"The complexities of Detroit are like icebergs -- we see the tip and dive in to chip away at it, but there's always a massive piece of ice beneath."My ideas about commitment have also changed while in Detroit. I now believe that those who intelligently commit to whatever they love to pursue do so with a healthy balance of life interests and activities. In Detroit, it's easy to let the city be your identity and the work you do here define who you are. It's just all-consuming. How many times have I gathered at a bar or restaurant with friends for casual socializing and our conversation turns to the realities of Detroit? I love the depth of engagement we all bring to the work we do here, and I think Detroit has attracted people eager to live with purpose and passion. However, what I've learned is that the complexities of Detroit are like icebergs -- we see the tip and dive in to chip away at it, but there's always a massive piece of ice beneath. To be committed to something long-term, as is often needed, is tough. It requires a special combination of perseverance, joy, and mental clarity. Sometimes, taking a step back and engaging in other activities seemingly unrelated to the great adventure of Detroit are exactly what may be needed to ensure we all reach our potential in contributing to the vitality of this city we love.

I'm leaving for school and I hope to return home to a place that has capitalized on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to think about and do things differently. I hope to see the same gritty spirit of community present in all settings, personal and professional. I hope to see Detroit's creative force reflected in new spaces built or reconstructed. I hope it's a place where people are eager to ask the hard questions and dive into them with a readiness to reflect and act on what 's found. And finally, I hope our city can be a place that welcomes new people and their ideas with grace, intelligence, and a spirit of partnership. Detroit, and each of us, will be enriched and better for it.

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Elizabeth Garlow is the former executive director of Michigan Corps and the founder of the Michigan Social Entrepreneurship Challenge. This fall she is moving to Princeton University to begin a graduate program in Economics and Public Policy. Follow her on Twitter @eligarlow.
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