New Social Networking Site in Detroit Aims to Cultivate Community Leadership

Wade Solomon is an Information Technology project manager for General Electric, an adjunct faculty member for the University of Phoenix in Information Systems and Technology, and an instructor at Kaplan University. In his spare time, he speaks at conferences teaching teens the fundamentals of video game development and animation using an application called Scratch. He also volunteers his time to teach Web development techniques to teens.

Solomon is also a member of a growing new social networking site for African American men and teens in Detroit called Black Male Engagement, or BME (pronounced “Be me”). There’s just one catch: In order to join the network, you share the story via video or text of what you’re doing as a leader in your community to make it a better place. A pilot program happening in Detroit and Philadelphia, BME’s long-term goal is to attract more than 1,000 members and to replicate in other cities.

“In Detroit, we noticed a vibrant, engaged community of black men and boys, in particular, that were doing big and small things to better their community every day,” says Rishi Jaitly, who directs grant making in Detroit for the John and James L. Knight Foundation, which funds BME. “We thought, what if we created an easy way for people to recognize this city’s assets and self-identify as leaders? Facebook has cultivated our friendship identity. With BME, we’re trying to cultivate leadership identity by making it appealing and socially credible.”

BME came into existence after the Knight Foundation did some research about what motivates community engagement in Detroit. It found that people are driven by recognition and the idea that they’re already part of a community well-stocked with leaders.

“With BME, we’re calling out an atmosphere of shared renewal,” Jaitly says. “The more we democratize the ability to honor people’s leadership in the community, the more people will lead. And once you’re in, you have an incredible chance to connect with others.”

Phase one of the network is the BME Challenge, where members of the community will be able to vote for the stories they find most inspirational. The individuals whose postings garner the most votes will have the opportunity to submit funding proposals for community improvement projects.

Jaitly compares the BME Challenge to the Kiva Detroit initiative. With both projects, Knight Foundation officials recognized what was already happening (community leadership in BME’s case, small-scale entrepreneurship in Kiva’s), concentrated on that existing behavior, and then took it to the next level.

BME is using what Jaitly describes as a “confluence” of methods to gather leadership testimonials. Street teams made up of teenagers are canvassing the city with video cameras and posters, capturing stories as they go; media outlets and other stakeholders are spreading the word though blog posts and email blasts (which is how I learned of the project); and people are going to the BME website and posting videos detailing their own leadership or that of their friends and loved ones.

Jaitly says the BME Challenge is currently in the “spread the word” phase, with submissions accepted until Sept. 30. After that, the BME Challenge will move to the project proposal and grant application phase. Though the Knight Foundation is putting up the money for the grants, it is leaving the decision of which projects get funding entirely to the BME social network.

“What I’m excited about is learning from this pilot project how we can marshal Internet, media, and offline resources toward citywide community engagement,” says Jaitly, who has an extensive background in both nonprofit work and social-media activism.

Before joining the Knight Foundation earlier this year, Jaitly led‘s product partnerships with the United Nations. While in Asia, he successfully convinced the government of Pakistan to end its nationwide block of Blogger and YouTube, and the government of Bangladesh to end its nationwide block of YouTube.

Despite the many accolades he has earned working both in Silicon Valley and abroad, he says he’s impressed and moved by the everyday acts of leadership he sees happening in neighborhoods all across Detroit.

“To be honest,” Jaitly says, “lots of the stories on the BME website make me feel kind of inadequate as a community leader.”

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