Challenge Detroit and Detroit Revitalization Fellows Seek New Participants

Two fellowship programs that bring talented young professionals to Detroit in the hopes that they’ll make a permanent home here are accepting applications through Sunday for a new cohort of participants.

Both the Challenge Detroit and the Detroit Revitalization Fellows programs have succeeded in luring some of the country’s most passionate young entrepreneurs and community builders to town for (hopefully) the once-in-a-lifetime chance to be a part of Detroit’s rebirth.

Challenge Detroit, which was started last year, is a leadership and professional development program that takes 30 fellows from around the country and places them at a partner company for a year. The Challenge Detroit fellows participate in monthly team challenges, where they work to develop solutions to pressing community problems as submitted by local nonprofits. For instance, in a food access challenge, Challenge Detroit fellows partnered with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s Community Ventures program to identify projects and partners that could help spark entrepreneurial endeavors surrounding food accessibility.

Wayne State University’s Detroit Revitalization Fellows program launched in 2011 with a similar goal: Send 30 young professionals to two-year placements with organizations focused on Detroit’s revitalization efforts and teach them about leadership, urban planning, community and economic development, and residential and commercial real estate development.

Dierdre Greene Groves, the executive director of Challenge Detroit, says not only does her program attract and retain entrepreneurial individuals to Detroit, but it also helps the companies that host her fellows diversify and take advantage of the participants’ “fresh eyes” and innovative way of thinking. “In many instances, our fellows are in new or never-done-before roles,” Groves explains. “Even if it’s a social worker working at a tech company, it’s all about how can we best use a person’s skill set.”

In January 2012, Challenge Detroit received 900 applications and worked with local tech startup HiredMyWay to sort through them. The Detroit Revitalization Fellows received 650 applications for their 30 open slots, demonstrating that the idea of parachuting into Detroit for a year or two of in-the-trenches community development work was vastly appealing to young people just beginning to embark on a career path. That they will be persuaded, through their experiences, to establish roots in Detroit is the goal of both programs’ organizers. “Our hope is that most stay and, while they’re here, they’ll act as ambassadors to others that want to move to the city,” Grove adds.

Ian Studders, an Ohio native and Detroit Revitalization Fellow, believes that the majority of his cohort will stay in Detroit after their fellowship is over. He and his fiancee just bought a co-op unit in the Lafayette Park neighborhood. Asked why Detroit, Studders says that the city always interested him because it was a place that had fallen on hard times and he didn’t quite understand why, given its historical significance and the number of people who felt passionate about the Motor City. “Detroit has a very strong and kind of hard-to-decipher identity,” he explains. “I came from Columbus, which is kind of like Anywhere, USA—it’s special because it’s not special. People [in Detroit] have really strong feelings about the culture, which can both unite and divide.”

Groves agrees that the city has a certain allure for what she calls “grustlers,” a combination of the words grind and hustler. “Lots of them want to start a company or a nonprofit,” she notes. “They see an opportunity here to do that.”

Studders has spent the past year working to oversee the university’s retail spaces, including a new initiative that certifies food trucks that want to set up shop on campus.  He considers it his mission to make sure students have good “lifestyle amenities” that enhance Detroit’s attractiveness as a place to settle after college. He says the professional development and mentoring he’s received as part of his fellowship have been invaluable, adding there’s nothing quite like being embedded in the community you hope to join. “Everybody that I first met asked me how much I knew about Detroit,” he says. “I think it would be hard for an outsider to come in and try to use best practices from the field without understanding the context of Detroit.”

Studders says he’s looking forward to the challenge of trying to raise a family in Detroit when child-rearing is often the reason young professionals ultimately flee the city, citing crime and failing schools. “To see what issues there are here with taxes, education, public safety—as a renter, you don’t pay as much attention,” he adds. “But we’re choosing to invest here. For us, it’s kind of a no-brainer.”

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