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Building cathedrals: Model D Speaker series on urban innovation


Wearing a t-shirt fresh off the rack from D:pop, Detroit’s newest local goods retailer, he said the words we need to hear:
 
"We are building cathedrals. We are building things we might never see in our lifetime. But it takes one step, one stone at a time."
 
The "we" was a crowded room of "cathedral-builders" – a mix of artists, activists, entrepreneurs and community leaders engaged in creative work to rebuild Detroit’s neighborhoods. A hundred or so had gathered on a beautiful summer evening downtown at D:hive to learn about urban innovation and get some new strategies for leadership.
 
The "he" was Christopher Gergen, author of Life Entrepreneurs, fellow at the Center for Creative Leadership, and a social innovator himself. He came all the way from North Carolina to meet local changemakers and share some of his research and thinking on the subject of “doing better at doing good.”
 
"Detroit is one of the most interesting cities right now for this kind of work," Gergen confessed after the program. "Most of my lectures are in classrooms, to university students -- so to talk with people on the ground, actually doing it, is really cool."
 


Indeed, as with most Model D Speaker Series events, any number of guests at D:hive on June 27 could have been featured presenters. The "hive" was buzzing with ambitious doers leading everything from youth programs to community art projects to startup businesses and micro-lending programs. Impressive crowd.
 
So we kicked off the program by asking a few of them to introduce other innovators we ought to know. They did so generously, in true Detroit style. Gina Reichert of Power House Productions introduced Liza Bielby & Richard Newman of The Hinterlands; Wayne Ramocan of Osborn Neighborhood Alliance passed the mic to friend and colleague Ron Lee of The Yuinon; and Delphia Simmons of Thrive Detroit gave a nod to Jenile Brooks of Harvest Express, who told us about returning to Detroit to start her fresh food delivery service.
 
In every case, their passion was palpable. Whether building new businesses, rehabbing old houses, or mentoring future leaders, they were all driven by something greater than personal profit or reward. This is why we call them "social entrepreneurs" – their primary motivation is not to make money, but to do meaningful work for the betterment of their community.
 
And sometimes this work takes time.
 
As Mr. Gergen’s cathedral metaphor reminded us, social innovation requires a longer view, a shared vision and a collaborative approach. In other words: Patience and partnership.
 
"Lead WITH others," Gergen advised. "Bring more people to the conversation."
 
This advice came on the heels of a cautionary word about "burn-out," which Gergen described as a serious hazard for social entrepreneurs and innovators. This is something we’ve been hearing in our interviews for the Urban Innovation Exchange (UIX), so our ears perked up.
 
"Change can't just happen in the private sector. We need policymakers," Gergen continued. "If we're going to scale a grassroots movement, we need to bring more stakeholders to the table."
 
This and, just simply, take care of yourself: "Don’t forget to breathe, meditate, pray, renew."
 
From his work on Bull City Forward in Durham to his teaching at Duke University, Gergen had lots of other bons mots to share with folks in the business of civic change:
 
On empathy:
"Empathy is one of the core ingredients of social entrepreneurship. We can't move the needle unless we have an understanding of other people's experience."
 
On identifying leaders:
"Be careful about identifying a leader 'persona.' Not all changemakers look alike."
 
On creating the right conditions:
"The question is not just 'How do we get great seeds?' but 'How do we make sure they're planting in fertile soil?"
 
On measuring impact:
"Let's be sophisticated. If we're going to change the world, we can't be soft. We can all hug each other, but let's be rigorous. Let's get information. We need data."
 
On the economy:
"We're not going to borrow our way out of this. We're not going to steal our way out of this. We're going to innovate our way out of this."
 
On personal reward:
"The good life is living in a place that you love, with people you love, doing something you love."
 
After Mr. Gergen’s talk, the robust Q&A covered everything from improving inter-generational understanding to having more dialogue about the "collective impact" we seek.
 
"We have different visions," suggested Courtney Hurtt. "There's going to be conflict. But we have an opportunity to redefine urban development here in Detroit. Any project or opportunity to have a democratized process should be prioritized."
 
Following the program, guests lingered to continue talking over refreshments from local faves McClure’s Pickles and Motor City Wine. Some perused the racks at D:pop; others moved on to Green Dot Stables for sliders. All were invited to continue using UIX and D:hive as points of engagement to learn, share and exchange ideas.
 
For more information about the Urban Innovation Exchange, follow us on Facebook and Twitter @UIXDetroit.com.
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