Fresh out of Florida A&M with an accounting job waiting for her in Chicago, Detroit native Felicia Andrews traveled to South Africa for "a last taste of adventure" before joining the 9-to-5 world. But, as it turned out, adventure became a way of life for Andrews.
In Johannesburg, she paid a visit to the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial and noticed a big KPMG sign on a nearby building. That was the international accounting firm that had just hired her, she recalls, "so I just stopped in to say 'hi.' One thing led to another and they offered me a job, so I went to South Africa instead of Chicago."
Andrews stayed four years, working in both their Johannesburg and London offices, managing accounts for global firms like Diner’s Club, Sasol Oil and others. "I was the only black face in the financial services department when I started, but when I left there were quite a few more."
"The experience transformed me," she adds. "I was different from everybody there and that was stressful, but I learned to focus on the commonality of all people."
Andrews came home for law school at the University of Michigan, where she concentrated on international trade law, then returned to Johannesburg to work for the African Union--a coalition of 54 nations promoting continent-wide cooperation to promote peace and prosperity. She became project manager for the organization’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development working on regional planning initiatives. Her position took her to all corners of the continent where she partnered with the World Bank, United States Agency for International Development, various United Nations agencies, national governments and the Rockefeller Foundation.
One project was the Pan Africa Cassava Initiative, which promotes new markets for a crop commonly grown across the continent. Andrews organized farmers in Nigeria and Malawi into cooperatives and promoted wider commercial use -- flour, starch, ethanol -- for a crop that until then was grown primarily for household consumption. She supported efforts to introduce cassava as a new ingredient in making cookies and chips. "We wanted to leverage Africa’s competitive advantage in cassava production," she says, "making it an economic driver that could directly translate to rural families being better able to support their children."
In 2008, she decided to come back to Detroit for a while -- a place she had not spent much time since growing up on the Northwest side and graduating from Renaissance High School when she was 17.
Andrews admits she was shocked. "Driving around, seeing all the derelict houses, it was heartbreaking. It was worse than when I left. I realized that I needed to do something. I couldn’t just walk away from Detroit. Detroit is where my family is. It's my home."
So instead of returning to Africa, she founded Team 313
, a nonprofit group dedicated to strengthening community life in the city. "It started out as a way to help young people get active and get ahead, but we soon realized there are a lot of people in the community who need better life skills."
Andrews succinctly defines 313’s mission as Take CHARGE of your life:
C for Can-do attitude; H for Hard-working; A for Achiever; R for Respect yourself and others; G for Goals; E for Excellence.
313 recruits young people from low-income neighborhoods to take part in activities such as after-school programs, literacy tutoring, GED classes, fitness bootcamps and community gardens. "Life is a process a lot like gardening," she says. "Every single thing in life you need to work toward. You can’t just go out and grab what you want. You need patience. Even after the harvest you need seed for the next year."
Another component of 313's work is the Explorers program for younger kids. "There are a lot of opportunities in Detroit, the things I did as a kid, that many people are cut-off from. The Explorers exposes them to all that we have in Detroit--the history, the culture, so much to be proud of. We take bike tours, we pick up litter."
While continuing to run Team 313, Andrews has also been named a Detroit Revitalization Fellow--a Wayne State University project (funded by the Kresge Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Hudson-Webber Foundation, the Skillman Foundation and Wayne State) that matches rising professionals with organizations working at the forefront of Detroit revitalization efforts.
Andrews was hired by the City of Detroit Purchasing department, which saw her legal, accounting and international development experience as valuable to its mission of cutting costs, improving efficiency and maximizing the positive impact of municipal purchases.
"This works gives me a lens into the whole city," she says. "I have worked for African countries, now here’s a chance to work for Detroit, to work in my own community."
Jay Walljasper, author of
The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, is a Senior Associate with Citiscope and Senior Fellow with Project for Public Spaces.