Challenge Detroit Leadership Program’s New Cohort is Largest Yet

Challenge Detroit kicked off its fifth year this week, announcing the selection of 42 fellows—its largest cohort ever—for the 2016-2017 class, which will spend the next year building leadership skills and connecting with the community.

Challenge Detroit is a professional development program aimed at attracting and retaining millennial talent to the city. Each cohort is expected to “work, live, play, give, and lead” in Detroit, said executive director Deirdre Groves, and to that end, they work Mondays through Thursdays at jobs with some of the city’s leading companies, which have agreed to host and pay a fellow.

On Fridays, the fellows meet to work on five-week community projects that are meant to teach them about the city in a well-rounded way, while also helping to solve challenges faced by local nonprofits. Along the way, fellows are expected to regularly blog about their experiences and maintain a social media presence. The ultimate goal is to cultivate talented young professionals dedicated to the city and encourage them to settle in Detroit after their time in the program ends.

Groves said this year, she saw more applicants than ever, which she believes speaks to the changing economy. When the program started in 2011, the recession was still fresh and people were looking for any work they could get. Now, she said, fellows seem to be more concerned about having a meaningful learning experience.

“This year, we saw a lot of candidates with a background in social work and urban planning—a lot of people who had just graduated or had one or two years on the job,” she said. “We also have a nice balance of people from the city and region, and people who come from outside Michigan with unique perspectives.”

Groves thinks this year, Challenge Detroit mounted its best effort yet to recruit to the program those who were born and raised in Detroit, calling on former and current fellows to tap their networks. “It’s a very important effort,” she explained. “Sometimes, people from Detroit think the program isn’t for them, but we value and absolutely need their perspective.”

The reason for the increased number of participants selected, about 10 more than usual,  she said, was because there were more companies that wanted to host a fellow this time around. She also mentioned an interesting dynamic that has evolved since the program started.

“Five years ago, people were desperate for jobs,” she said. “Now, companies are desperate for talent.”

This year, an “internal track” has been added to the program to accommodate those who are eager to participate in the community-building challenges, but don’t want to quit their jobs. Plus, it brings their employers into the mix without requiring them to have the resources to host additional fellows, which has brought more diversity to the group of participating companies, she said.

Fellows will be assigned to work on five to six challenge projects over the course of the year, and Groves said planning for what the challenges will address will occur over the summer.

“One of the most important topics is the neighborhoods,” she added. “It’s learning by doing, and I want fellows to be aware of the disparities between the neighborhoods and downtown. It’s about growing the next generation of leaders and, at the same time, fostering a better connection with the city.”

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