Who Shall Lead?

We need young leaders. As the city's core gets "cooler" and redevelopment heats up, so does the pressure to keep young professionals around and engaged. If the kids don't stick around, who is all of this new stuff being built for? And if they don't get opportunities to lead, why will they stick around?

More and more organizations and programs are pushing to build up the leadership base in Detroit.

Matt Clayson, 26, promotion manager for ePrize in Pleasant Ridge, is involved in a couple of efforts aimed at doing just that.

"I want to see my community grow and transition into the 21st century," Clayson says. "I don't want to see us squander opportunities because of pettiness or economy or lack of leadership."

He and a number of other young professionals feel that the metro Detroit area is home to a tremendous amount of untapped talent, people who want to contribute to a regional renaissance and believe in the central city's comeback. Moreover, he and many like him are willing to invest their time and talent into getting more of their colleagues involved in making the area a better place to live and work, and making these parts more attractive to people like them.

"We've reached the realization that we need to step up and lead, and we're now finding vehicles to get people to lead and to get people connected to opportunities. But I think we have yet to define those meaningful civic engagement opportunities that will actually move our region forward," Clayson says.

Creating leaders, synergy

He is chair of the leadership committee for Leadership Next, an initiative of United Way for Southeastern Michigan dedicated to building a stronger future for the region by supporting emerging leaders in their efforts to improve the region.

Clayson is also quite active in Detroit Synergy, a volunteer-led organization founded in 2002 with a mission to generate positive perceptions and opinions about Detroit. Synergy brings together a diverse group of people who work to build upon the city's strengths to create a greater community, improve quality of life and contribute to city revitalization.

Clayson says that a growing number of metro Detroiters are realizing that what is vital to the region is a central city core, and that you cannot have flourishing suburbs and a deteriorating city, nor a successful city with struggling suburbs.

"You have got to have both to be attractive to talent in this economy," Clayson says. "What's really empowering is seeing a lot of initiatives focused on examining issues and needs for emerging talent in the 21st century."

Other new initiatives include:
• Detroit Fusion, a project launched by the Detroit Regional Chamber, aimed at engaging up-and-comers in the business sector;
• A new networking and leadership-building group called Detroit Young Professionals, which is hosting a Leadership Summit this week;
and the Urban Leadership programs at Marygrove College, which has dedicated itself to growing the city's next crop of leaders.

Hit the streets

Young leaders of the groups say established organizations and legacy leadership historically have taken a top-down or "ivory tower" approach to solving issues that affect metro Detroit communities.

"In addressing the brain drain for instance – a hot topic these days – the tendency for some is to throw money and maybe some fancy marketing at the problem instead of hitting the streets of the communities and genuinely engaging the young people they seek to attract and retain," says Eddie Lee, chairman of Detroit Young Professionals, a group dedicated to getting more newer members of the workforce involved in community activities.

Lee says to gain traction, groups like his need credibility, authenticity and energy to get things done in the real world.

Along the same line, Clayson says that Leadership Next, Detroit Synergy and other groups bring a fresh approach to some of the region's issues.

"I think with what we're doing, especially with the United Way, is we're really trying to look into new ways to address and solve old problems — new ways to address issues around educational preparedness, new ways to address issues around financial stability and basic needs. And it's good to see stakeholder organizations such as the United Way think, 'Hmmm … maybe the way we've been doing things the last 50 years (could be changed),'" says Clayson.

He says that traditionally, service groups, for lack of a better term, haven't been satisfying the needs of the region — particularly in Detroit — and suggests that a more user-generated community-based approach to solving vital issues would be more effective. Lee agrees.

"As a community, I think one of the biggest obstacles hindering progress in Detroit is a general disconnect between the business and civic institutions and the community at large," Lee says.

For instance, he says, giving neighborhood residents the tools necessary to communicate, to chart a vision and determine needs and then find solutions is key to wooing young volunteers into the fray.
Synergy has been especially effective at rallying young professionals around civic engagement. The group allows volunteers to choose quality of life, neighborhood improvement and other projects in which they have a keen interest, and then marshals its volunteer base around supporting these efforts.

"It can be really empowering if you're a citizen on the street who wants to make an impact to have kind of this infrastructure at your hands to be able to do that," says Clayson.

Marygrove College President David Fike is optimistic about what he sees in those who are likely to lead. The college has made leadership development an increasingly more prominent part of its work, and he says young people have a unique opportunity here.

“The people who are here want to be here. Young professionals want to be part of a community rich in history and importance, that is diverse and cosmopolitan, and they see that in Detroit,” Fike says. “They have an opportunity to take a leadership position in the renaissance of the city.

The fact that so many twentysomethings have little recollection of Hudson’s department store or other vanquished landmarks is a blessing, he says. In the blight and abandonment is opportunity. Vacant lots in city neighborhoods present urban farming opportunities. Shuttered storefronts in commercial corridors offer trendy retailers and restaurateurs a place to set up shop, and piece by piece, they all represent progress.

“Their efforts are changing the way the region views itself,” says Fike.

Moving beyond card swaps

Perpetually searching for new ways of doing things is what defines the current crop young leaders, and their fresh ideas about what needs to be done to improve communities will be key to the region’s future.

They groups are getting creative, too, moving beyond traditional networking business card swaps and happy hours.

Leadership Next, for instance, is trying to mobilize young accountants to volunteer this tax season to help low-income individuals access the Earned Income Tax Credit, a federal rebate of up to $4,700 that puts many people across the country on the road to financial stability each year. 

"I think the collective whole of what Synergy is doing, what Fusion Detroit is doing, what Leadership Next is doing, what the (community development corporations) around the city and other community activists are doing, will collectively start pushing the needle further than could be pushed by the old way," says Clayson.

Another group contributing to the momentum is Open City. Founded by Detroit entrepreneurs Liz Blondy of Canine to Five and Claire Nelson,  of the Bureau of Urban Living, the group meets at various venues around the city each month, tackling topics related to doing business here, like the perception of crime or city hall red tape.

"My ultimate goal for Open City is to encourage people to open small businesses in the city of Detroit," says Blondy. She lives and works in the city, and says increasing the number of businesses in the city to give residents greater shopping and service choices is key to getting more people to live and work here. "The more people move here, the more business I get," Blondy says.

Jen Ruud, a Detroit Synergy organizer says she has considerable confidence in the ability of the area's young professionals to lead region forward. What she and her fellow volunteers worry about, though, is that other other city's may ultimately prove more enticing. Ruud says she's talked to several talented young professionals who were committed to the region but who were made an offer that they could not refuse. Ultimately, they left.
On the flipside, she knows others have returned to the area but did not intend on coming back. They "now realize that they are needed here to help make changes happen," says Ruud.
The fact that so many young professionals are supporting multiples of these efforts is a major plus. The respective groups will, and already are, collaborating. As Lee says, they need each other.

"There are a lot of young leaders that have stepped up and are doing amazing things. What better group than us to blaze the trail?" says Lee. "With the next generation of power players and change-makers gearing up to take the reigns, I think Detroit will definitely be in good hands."


Eddie Lee, chairman of Detroit Young Professionals

Matt Clayson, chair of the leadership committee for Leadership Next

A Detroit Synergy Event

Liz Isakson, the Red Cube Gallery at a Create Detroit event

Claire Nelson, the Bureau of Urban Living and a Co-founder of Open City

Liz Blondy, Canine to Five and a Co-founder of Open City

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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