Opinion: Detroit's leadership must engage emerging leaders and their vision of a new American Dream

Though Detroit is on the other side of bankruptcy, many questions about the future of the city remain: Which organizations and groups will be included? What neighborhoods and businesses will be developed? How should Detroit's entrepreneurs and small businesses be supported?
This article is an exhortation to Detroit's leaders to engage with a specific group of Millennials, its emerging leaders, and their vision of the new American Dream. Why? Because they are convinced Detroit is in a unique, once-in-a-lifetime position to help define the future of American cities.
My motivation comes from an event I attended this past May, ASSEMBLE@Mackinac(ish). It was held concurrently with the 2014 Mackinac Policy Conference, its goal to "create a space where the young and the young-at-heart can have as serious a conversation about policy as our counterparts at Mackinac."
ASSEMBLE@Mackinac(ish) was created in reaction to Millennials feeling marginalized by the Mackinac Policy Conference. As we live-streamed Mackinac Policy Conference sessions, several of the Boomer speakers reinforced those feelings by misrepresenting the values and ambitions of Millennials.
As a Boomer who grew up in Detroit, I care deeply about its future and its future leaders. For the past three years, my branding and marketing firm has worked with a wide range of Millennial-founded startups and social enterprises in the city. That's why I was invited to attend ASSEMBLE@Mackinac(ish).
To help my generation of leaders understand the importance of this intergenerational issue, I developed a custom research study. While we were together at ASSEMBLE@Mackinac(ish), I conducted 10-minute interviews with 39 of the attendees. (For those counting, that's six and a half hours of structured research conversations.)
The goals of the research were to identify the group's motivations for living and working in Detroit, their experiences in and with the city, and importantly, their aspirations for themselves and the city.
The outcomes of the research are both clear and consistent. Here are the key findings that Detroit's current leaders – and everyone who's interested in the future of our city – need to know about our emerging leaders:

About half of those surveyed were native Detroiters. Many are from multi-generational Detroit families. Some left for a while, but decided to come home.

The other half were transplants who moved to Detroit in the past two or so years. Importantly, these transplants reminded me they're here by choice.

They want to help redefine the American Dream and the future of American cities. For themselves, their families, and their hometown.

Their new American Dream includes values such as a retreat from materialism and towards environmentalism, collaboration, and inclusion. (Note these findings are consistent with similar research studies like A Millennial's version of the American Dream.)

They want Detroit to embody the new American Dream and see Detroit as the prefect role model for defining cities of the future.

They honestly believe this dream is achievable if we all work together, but they recognize the dream comes with a host of risks we must overcome.

There is a striking dissonance in how emerging leaders perceive living and working in Detroit. Through a set of open-ended descriptions of Detroit, they used words like:
  • Deep, meaningful, and worthwhile
  • Creative, innovative, and collaborative
  • Authentic, real and honest
  • Hands-on and hard working
  • Hard, decay and dirty
  • Siloed, divided, segregated and mistrust
  • Frustration, melancholy and heartache
  • Dangerous, fear and scared
When asked to describe Detroit in a single word, three distinct themes emerged. Note how these themes and words reinforce the dissonance described above:
  • Optimism - This includes words like awesome, budding, hope, reborn/birth, opportunity, alive, and pride.
  • Confidence - This includes words like resilient, grit, authentic, rock, dynamic, power/powerful and strong.
  • Conflicted - This includes words like complicated/complex, anomaly, circular, eccentric and crazy.
The most powerful finding of the research is its refutation of simplistic, false assumptions and assertions about our emerging leaders like some of those proffered by Boomer speakers at the Mackinac Policy Conference.
That's why I'm encouraging our current leaders to engage with our emerging leaders. We cannot risk further alienating them, as they will soon be responsible for Detroit's transformation. I invite action based on the findings of this research.
Here's a direct quote from the research that I hope will become an inspiration for an ongoing discussion about the new American Dream. Along with the future of American cities, starting here in Detroit:
"We're a city full of quiet heroes. We're not strong warriors, but diligent, fragile doers. It's hard to see our contributions. But we need to be recognized."
Chris Grindem is the executive director of the Utmost Group, a boutique branding, marketing and communications firm focused on serving the greater good. The Utmost Group works with a variety of nonprofits, social innovators, entrepreneurs, startups and small businesses in Detroit and throughout the country. Connect with Chris on LinkedIn.
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