Global Detroit: We begin series on immigrant talent as economic driver

In May 2010, the Global Detroit study was published making the case that immigrants, international talent, and global connections are and can be key drivers to revitalizing southeast Michigan’s economy.  Funded by the New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan, the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, and the Skillman Foundation, Global Detroit is an initiative tying together a broad range of strategies that seek to capitalize on our region’s international assets to create jobs and economic growth.

Over the past year, welcoming initiatives, an international student retention program, additional research on nearshoring, and Governor Snyder’s Global Michigan initiative have all been launched from the Global Detroit study.  More projects are in the works.  

One key component of the Global Detroit vision has been to foster immigrant and ethnic investment in Detroit neighborhoods. In addition to supporting a Summit on New Americans as part of the Detroit Works Project, a regional Welcome Mat of social services for new immigrants, and exploring microenterprise training and finance in Detroit neighborhoods, Global Detroit has been busy promoting the international flavor that already exists in many Detroit neighborhoods.

In early August, the Detroit City Futbol League held its second annual COPA tournament (otherwise known as a league championship tournament). In case you missed it, the Detroit City Futbol League was created in 2010 out of a desire to bring together Detroit’s distinct neighborhoods for competition and fun and out of an appreciation for the international game of soccer.   In only its second year, the DCFL expanded to 22 teams, each one representing a different historic neighborhood in Detroit. With a rotating league bar night, the DCFL has done an incredible job of bringing together hundreds of Detroit neighbors, while highlighting the unique communities that make up Detroit.

Many DCFL fans, players, and observers professed surprise that the team from the Brightmoor neighborhood (a community in northwest Detroit with significant abandonment and many struggling families) claimed the title of League Champion in its first year by edging out the undefeated Chinatown--a new team but with many returning players--in this year’s COPA championship game.

Brightmoor’s championship season is the subject of a Global Detroit blog because it tells a unique story about how international and diverse our city and region already are. Kirk Mayes, the director of the Brightmoor Alliance, a community-based organization formed 10 years ago and dedicated to serving residents and creating a diverse, economically vibrant, and walkable neighborhood of choice, was approached to help put a DCFL neighborhood soccer team together. What many didn’t know is that Kirk, a lifelong Detroit resident and rising star in community development, is a first generation Jamaican immigrant--his parents were born in Jamaica and his mother emigrated to Detroit from New York City after an initial migration to New York didn’t pan out. (This secondary migration pattern is common for many immigrants living in Detroit, Hamtramck, and other urban areas in the region).

Kirk jumped at the chance to field a Brightmoor team in this year’s league and recruited from the dozens of residents he regularly works with in his job. His efforts yielded local residents from the Congo, Jamaica, and even a young Caucasian who had recently moved to Brightmoor to become part of the neighborhood’s burgeoning urban farming movement. Despite securing these initial Brightmoor residents, Kirk needed more bodies to complete a team, so he tapped into his knowledge that some of his Jamaican cousins played pickup soccer at Rouge Park on the weekends. This outreach proved the magic ingredient and he was able to recruit nearly a dozen soccer players (most of whom were immigrants) who reside in the Grandmount and Cody neighborhoods. In the end, the Brightmoor team fielded a diverse lineup that included Detroit immigrants from Jamaica, Nigeria, and the Congo, as well as whites and African-Americans.

Talking to Kirk about his mother and stepfather’s experience of Detroit as a land of opportunity compared to the opportunities they faced as working class folks in Jamaica can transform your view of Detroit and its neighborhoods. It helps you understand how much we often view the city as broken, troubled, blighted, and poor. Yet, to thousands of new Detroiters, the city is a land of opportunity, where homes can be purchased, rehabilitated, and turned into rental business on a laborer’s salary. It is a city where lending circles spring up and to include hundreds of Detroiters whose only bond is their national identity, but whose practices create a kind of forced savings that enable investment opportunities that can help working families buy cars, save for an education, purchase a home, and even start a business. And it is a city where thousands of immigrants are making significant contributions to neighborhood stabilization and economic growth.

The immigrant “can-do” spirit was a guiding force for the Brightmoor soccer team.  The team rallied around the idea that this often discounted neighborhood could replace the much more identifiable Indian Village team that won the championship in 2010. According to Kirk, the team members couldn’t be prouder to have the COPA trophy displayed at churches, recreation centers, and community centers across their neighborhood. DCFL created lifelong bonds for the more than a dozen new Detroiters (a.k.a., immigrants) who played on Brightmoor’s team.

Brightmoor’s victory in this year’s DCFL reminds us that Detroit is a global city, with the second largest regional foreign born population in the Great Lakes.  We have a diverse wealth of international talent, industriousness, and opportunity. Congratulations Brightmoor!

Steve Tobocman is director of Global Detroit. Follow the group on Twitter here: @GlobalDET 

Photos courtesy of Alan Languirand.
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