How investments in talent and capacity are helping nonprofits transform Detroit

Pop-ups on East Jefferson

Between giant potholes and unobservant motorists, riding a bicycle in Detroit is not without its hazards. While hundreds of miles of painted bike lanes on the edges of streets have appeared in recent years, the struggle for bicyclists and drivers to share the road remains. But along a portion of East Jefferson Avenue, a streetscape improvement project featuring Detroit's first protected bike lanes is creating a new model for the peaceful coexistence of all forms of transportation.

The development was spearheaded by Jefferson East, Inc. (JEI), an organization formed in 2013 from the consolidation of the Jefferson East Business Association and the East Jefferson Corridor Collaborative to foster the economic renewal and physical transformation of five neighborhoods along East Jefferson Avenue: Rivertown, Lafayette Park, the Villages (which includes Indian Village, West Village, the Gold Coast and the Barry Subdivision), the Marina District, and Historic Jefferson-Chalmers. JEI's scope of work focuses on five areas: safety; economic development and investment; keeping public spaces clean and welcoming; promoting opportunities to experience the economic, cultural, and historical assets of the East Jefferson corridor; and beautification of the avenue, including initiatives to transform East Jefferson into multi-modal environment that links neighborhoods to the riverfront.

Many of JEI's initiatives address the same question of the 15x15 Initiative, a strategic vision for greater downtown Detroit that was spearheaded by the Hudson-Webber Foundation in 2008 and adopted by key members of Detroit's philanthropic, nonprofit, and corporate sectors: How do you create a place that enhances current residents' quality of life and attracts new residents from the region and beyond?

Streetscape improvements on East Jefferson

A project like JEI's streetscape is one of many possible answers to that question. By creating bus stop enhancements, safer, bikeable roads, and walkable business districts, JEI is helping make the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood more attractive to current residents and people who otherwise might not look beyond downtown and Midtown when searching for a place to live. In addition to physical improvements, JEI has developed an innovative public safety model by creating the Jefferson East Police Patrol, which is staffed by off-duty Detroit Police officers, and landing the support of the AmeriCorps Urban Safety Program, the first such example in a neighborhood outside of Midtown. Crime in the corridor decreased by 20 percent in 2014 and is expected to decrease another 19 percent this year.

But without philanthropic investment in JEI's organizational capacity, these initiatives would have difficulty gaining traction.

A talent agenda

Philanthropic support of specific programs and projects has always played a critical role in community development in Detroit; however, impactful transformation cannot occur without building talented capacity within neighborhood organizations. The Jefferson Avenue Streetscape project is overseen by JEI's Detroit Revitalization Fellow Justin Fried, a position funded directly by Hudson-Webber and several others.

Started in 2011, Detroit Revitalization Fellows (DRF), a partnership between Wayne State University, the Kresge Foundation, Hudson-Webber Foundation, and the Skillman Foundation, places talented mid-career leaders within organizations for two years to stimulate progress within Detroit's civic, community, and economic development landscape. DRF fellows are expected to increase an organization like JEI's capacity to do impactful work.

Justin Fried"The implementation of the first phase of the streetscape enhancement stems from Hudson-Webber's support of our Revitalization Fellow Justin Fried," says Joshua Elling, JEI's executive director. "His work spearheaded the project and he is now my deputy director…he really manages the whole organization now."

Organizations with limited resources to attract talent struggle to do the work needed to make neighborhoods places that other talented professionals want to call home.

Elling believes JEI has discovered an organizational model that can be replicated in other parts of the city -- one that is big enough to attract talent and make an impact across neighborhoods, yet small enough to remain connected to residents.

"That's the scale you need to maintain that connection," he says. "Seven to 10 high-capacity nonprofits to serve multiple neighborhoods is the next frontier in organizational development."

Current DRF fellow Brittany Sanders was born and raised on the west side of Detroit. She graduated from Renaissance High School in 2002 and calls herself a "proud product of DPS." Like many of her peers, she moved out of state to explore other cities and communities, but always carried her love for Detroit with her. After 10 years of defending Detroit against the negative media portrayals, she decided to bring her life experiences back to the city and be a part of the solution.

"I got really tired of defending Detroit and not actually living here. I needed to put my actions behind my words," says Sanders.

In 2012, she applied and was accepted to Challenge Detroit, a fellowship program that brings tomorrow's leaders together for one year to live, work, and play in Detroit with the goal of attracting and retaining a creative and professional class. Challenge Detroit fellows are funded to work in an organization or company full-time with an additional requirement to spend each month collaborating on a project that supports community initiatives of a local nonprofit.

SBrittany Sandersanders was placed at Focus: HOPE, a storied nonprofit in northwest Detroit, as a business development specialist. She spearheaded the launch and recruitment effort for one of their now signature entrepreneurship education programs in partnership with ProsperUs. Her efforts paid off and ProsperUs saw the highest number of applications ever for one of their classes.

Although Focus: HOPE did not have funding to continue Sanders's position—a common problem in the nonprofit community—the demand for classes continues to grow, and they now have partnered with another entrepreneurship training program, Build Institute, to launch a social entrepreneurship class. Sanders felt fulfilled with the impact she was able to achieve in just one year and committed to continuing to be a part of Detroit's revitalization.

After completing the Challenge fellowship, Sanders did consultation work for various organizations, then applied for the DRF and was hired as the community engagement manager at the Belle Isle Conservancy. There she focuses on formalizing the relationship between the park and park users, making sure Detroiters know they are welcome, especially since the park's transition from city to state management.

Being a part of capacity building programs like Challenge Detroit and DRF, where she has been able to impact communities in an intentionally inclusive way, has given Sanders a sense of purpose .

"Being a part of a program that's dedicated to showing you Detroit's issues but also being intentional about the opportunities is priceless…This place is so rich with opportunity that [people] may not know about. [The programs] give you a different lens to shift your thinking, which is key to this work," says Sanders.

Talent retention

Fellowship programs' abilities to retain the talented individuals they attract attract are critical to building this city's talent base, and both DRF and Challenge Detroit have many fellows they can point to who have used their experiences as fellows to launch a career in the city.

Michael Forsyth, a 2011-13 DRF fellow, returned to Detroit from Seattle to work as the business development manager at the Detroit Economic Development Corporation (DEGC), where he focused on small business retail development. He managed the REVOLVE program, which helped many pop-up retail businesses find permanent spaces, creating commercial corridors in areas where they had long been lacking. Aside from opening his own business, Detroit City Distillery, Forsyth stayed at the DEGC post-fellowship and now manages Motor City Match, a program created through a partnership of the city of Detroit, the DEGC, and the Economic Development Corporation of the city of Detroit that administers grants, loans, and technical services provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to help building and business owners realize their dreams in Detroit.

Other fellows from the first DRF cohort have experienced similar success. Abir Ali returned to her hometown from Chicago to serve as a DRF fellow placed at the Hudson Webber Foundation, bringing Ali Sandifer, a furniture design company she started with her husband, with her. Now she continues to run that business while serving as the NEIdeas program manager for New Economy Initiative. After completing a DRF fellowship at Invest Detroit, Jeanet Kulscar was awarded the Kresge Mayor's Fellowship, joining a special team of DRF fellows who work on Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan's administrative team.

If these fellows' success is any indication, investments in talent and organizational capacity in Detroit's community development nonprofits will be paying dividends for years to come.

This special report is the latest in Model D's "10 Years of Change" series celebrating our decade of publishing in Detroit. Read other stories in the series here. Support for "10 Years of Change" is provided by the Hudson Webber Foundation.