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Fear and loathing at Mackinac, or How I learned to stop worrying and love the Policy Conference


A powerful local figure is onstage. With a book of typed notes, he is eager to make his next point. It's a raunchy joke about another local leader's genitals. A crowd of hundreds, cocktails in hand, is incredulous with laughter.

Welcome to Mackinac Island.

Over the past week, it's been impossible to miss the news pouring out of the Mackinac Policy Conference (MPC), Michigan's annual convocation of the state's political and business elite. And with good reason: there's been much talk of Detroit's "Grand Bargain," massive funding proposals for Michigan's roads, early odds being shaped on the fall's political races, and much more.

Attracting leaders from across the state, MPC is arguably the biggest news event of the year in Michigan.

I'm not going to talk about any of that.

Because as Michigan's mighty convened for cocktail hours and deal-making, I found myself on the island watching a Gatsby-esque scene play out in real time. As I spent afternoons and evenings rubbing elbows on the porch and snacking on cocktail shrimp, I began to wonder what this strange business-class bacchanal means for the rest of us -- the young, the eager, the slim-rolodexed wannabe change-makers. Can those of us who haven't had years to solidify our professional networks affect change at the premiere gathering of Michigan's leaders?



Lunchtime

I'm eating lunch with a colleague at a restaurant a short walk from the Grand Hotel, where all the daytime Policy Conference action takes place. I spot a candidate for an important political seat with his team at the next table, and, as he finishes his lunch meeting, I say hello and introduce myself.

I ask his opinion on the value of this conference for younger Detroiters like me (I'm 29).

The politician says the benefit is the opportunity of access; the ability to connect and get face time with figures who you could never meet on the mainland.

Cue his winning politician smile.

But I clarify my question: I'm less interested in what the conference means for the few people in my social circle that have made it to the conference. Rather, how is this going to affect the lives of my fellow young Detroiters, most of whom don't have $3,000 to come to the party?

The politician thinks for a disarmingly long time and says simply, "Well…I guess that pause kind of answers it."

When pressed, he saw precious little that young Detroiters -- the "change makers" and "disruptives" that are often celebrated during conference sessions -- can hope to see as real-world outcomes from this conference.

I was struck by his apologetic shrug. While we were in the minority, there were still a good number of young entrepreneurs, journalists, and "emerging leaders" (the conference's language, not mine) mixed in with the established suits. I made it my goal to connect with as many of the conference’s young, hungry attendees as I could find.

Before heading back to the Grand Hotel, I grab a quick beer with an old friend. She's a 30ish entrepreneur who's been amazingly courageous, building a social organization from the ground up. But I find out she's extremely frustrated with her organization's growth. A year ago, her work was being lauded across the state, but those same funders are backing out just at the optimal moment of her business's growth. She feels like, despite the "big ideas" being presented onstage at Mackinac, Michigan is still a Good Ol' Boys club. While major foundations might invest a bit in ventures that they view to be "of the moment," she felt that there's little will to create sustainable funding for truly transformative social ventures in the city. She was here to find the connections to sustain her enterprise, but, over these beers, didn't seem confident she would succeed.

Dinnertime

I'm standing on the longest porch in the world at the Grand Hotel, drinking a clumsily mixed martini (Seriously? In a rocks glass with ice?!), chatting with a Detroiter I've seen around town but never met in person.

We are at the lauded "Grand Event," a multi-hour, high-impact mingling session where aspiring power brokers eagerly try and grab a few words with Michigan's leaders (and those same power brokers deftly try to weave in and out of as many conversations as possible). This is the Heart and Soul of the conference -- a chance for account managers to connect with clients, politicians to share a few ideas across the aisle, and the rest of us to just wait and see who the hell we run into.

You get used to mingling without eye contact. Conversation partners look over your shoulder to find their next target.

I chat with an energy executive about conference style (thesis: Detroiters dress better than Lansingites), an architect about the plight of the Pistons, and a lobbyist about Detroit's 1812 surrender to the British.

But in the wings, I'm starting to witness things getting done. I overhear a young preservationist and a Detroit startup director brainstorming how to ensure that Detroit's Blight Task Force does more good than bad. A State Representative connects with a young journalist who has real insights into his signature issue, regional transportation. A baby-faced account manager nabs a casual follow-up with an elusive client.

While the panels and official business during the day are all well and good, Mackinac tends to be just as much about what happens once the neckties loosen.

I hear this sentiment repeated again and again.

On the porch, a young nonprofit executive says she's been able to hammer out several conversations that would be endlessly delayed back at home. The drinks are flowing, and as people begin to let their hair down, these chance conversations are creating unusual pairings between politicians and journalists, industry veterans and novices.

Latenight

"Where are you headed tonight?" is the "How about this weather?" of Mackinac.

Everyone asks it, and everyone already knows the answer: there are only a handful of bars on the island, and on any given night a few of them are being 'sponsored' (read: some corporation is picking up the tab).

As the official program ends and everyone migrates from the Grand Hotel into town, I start bumping into people I hadn't seen during the day. Big secret of the Mackinac Policy Conference: a lot of people come up to the island but forego the expensive main program, focusing on the free booze and serendipitous connections of the after parties.

Things start to get a bit loose.

I help the nonprofit executive sneak a souvenir rocks glass into her purse. A well-known politician cranks out songs on his guitar with a rock band. An influential newspaperman is dancing with a woman 30 years his junior. The bar is packed elbow to elbow, and the waitstaff seems unamused by the shenanigans of all these down-staters.

But let's look a little bit closer at what's going on here: people are dancing, and drinking, and laughing. Another way to say it: relationships are being solidified. If you know which bars to go in Detroit, you can often stumble across a zygote of this scene: a few reporters or politicians informally hashing out ideas over a cocktail. Isn't that why small towns are great? You really get to know people. And this conference turns the business of a state of ten million people into a small town. You can grab a politician and get a few words. The underdog can, with the right charm, get a small idea into the heads of some big people.

And that talented, frustrated young entrepreneur I mentioned earlier? She finally managed to make a hugely promising connection with Mayor Duggan's staff. At 1 a.m. On the dance floor. That's not an exaggeration.

Perhaps this is the secret to mixing work with play. It's fun, a way to blow off steam, but it also creates an opportunity for people to just be real with each other, away from the decorum of the office. It lets people -- even important, powerful people -- be human for a minute.

During the day, plenty of political luminaries got on stage to talk about the young energy that's enlivening Detroit. But some also found a chance to meet a few of those young Detroiters -- in the flesh -- at night. Ideally, the connection of these moments spill over back home. Maybe our respective groups will be able to see each other more humanely and listen to each other a bit closer the next time we collide in a town hall meeting or around a conference table.

The Hangover

"I've never been so tired of talking," says the man behind me in line.

We're on the dock waiting for the ferry. The crowd is uniformly hung over and miserable as its being swarmed by tens of thousands of midge flies.

"At one point I just had to take a break. I went to a restaurant, ordered a cup of coffee and a piece of chocolate cake, and looked at the water for an hour."

This is the fatigue of Mackinac. As the conference wraps up, we look towards filing away our new stacks of business cards, sending follow-up emails, and returning to the more mundane tasks of work.

I'm sad to report that I impacted no statewide policies at the Mackinac Policy Conference. But some of my peers laid the groundwork to do so.

That's a big deal.

There's a huge amount of opportunity for great work to be done at events like Assemble's Mackinac(ish), where the young and opinionated can get together and forge ideas. But Detroiters of all stripes can't build the future we want to see by solely engaging with the like-minded. We must also assert a presence in the mainstream political world. The Mackinac Policy Conference has a challenge in engaging the next generation of Michiganders. But then again, so does Michigan.

The institutional power brokers need to extend a hand more often and truly listen to new ideas (without looking over our shoulder, searching for the next conversation). And we, as the young, need to speak with confidence, because our ideas truly matter.

But on the last night at Mackinac, someone probably got a slice of pizza with a stranger at 2 a.m. That might be worth more than a year's worth of conference calls.

Bourbon party photo courtesy of WDET. All other photos by the author.

John Notarianni is a Detroit-based writer. This year marked his third Mackinac Policy Conference.
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