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Fellowships draw young talent to Detroit, with hopes they will stay

From: Detroit Free Press

By John Gallagher

May 15, 2014

When the Detroit Regional Chamber hosted its Detroit policy conference earlier this year, it turned to 26-year-old Evette Hollins to line up and manage the complex run of speakers, panels, and supporting materials.

It was a substantial responsibility for a young person, but it’s par for what dozens of talented young people working through a variety of special fellowship programs have been accomplishing in Detroit lately.

Name almost any group making an impact in Detroit — Focus: HOPE, Eastern Market, Rock Ventures and dozens more — and all these groups participate in one of a variety of fellowship programs aimed at attracting and nurturing talented young people in Detroit.

These programs — the Detroit Revitalization Fellows, Venture for America, Challenge Detroit and others — over the past three years have matched more than 100 young people with companies and nonprofit organizations that put their talents and energy to use.

These fellowship programs have two goals: to inject new capacity into public agencies and city departments depleted by years of underfunding, and, second, to boost interest in Detroit among educated young adults.

Judging by the first goal, the fellowships have proven their worth. Melissa Smiley, Mayor Mike Duggan’s deputy chief of staff, is a former Detroit Revitalization fellow. At the Detroit Regional Chamber, Hollins is a current Detroit Revitalization fellow. At the Downtown Detroit Partnership civic group, Eric Wilson, 42, an urban planner and yet another Revitalization fellow, helped shepherd the successful campaign to persuade downtown property owners to create a businessimprovement zone.

Tyson Gersh, president of a small nonprofit in Detroit called the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative that has benefited from fellows’ aid, said recently, “We really appreciate groups like Challenge Detroit because it helps us not, like, go insane.”

And the fellowships have likewise succeeded in enticing a lot of smart young people to give Detroit a second look.

“It’s connecting a lot of the dots,” said Anna Balzer, 24, a University of Colorado graduate in environmental studies and a Challenge Detroit fellow. “I didn’t have really any connection to Detroit, I had never really been here before, and now I feel I have this great backing. There’s no reason for me to move anywhere else because I have such a strong network here and such a strong future here. Of course I’m going to stay.”

“Our fellows are driven, accomplished early-to-mid-career professionals on their ways to leading Detroit,” said Detroit Revitalization Fellows program director Graig Donnelly. “They are the talented doers that make things happen.”

Success is building on success. Challenge Detroit, which has 31 young people working with metro Detroit companies, has received more than 800 applications for the next annual class of fellows that will start in September.

“Our greatest goal is to change perceptions,” said Deirdre Greene Groves, executive director of Challenge Detroit. “And that means to tell a more positive and balanced story about what’s happening here in Detroit.”

Todd Nelson is one of a dozen Venture for America fellows working in Detroit for such groups as the Detroit Institute of Arts and Detroit Venture Partners. Nelson works with green energy entrepreneurs at Next Energy in Detroit’s Midtown district.

“It’s been an experience where I’ve got to see how start-ups grow and develop outside of start-up hubs like New York and San Francisco,” Nelson said. “Understanding how the eco-system developed here has been a great experience for me.”

Darin McLeskey, 23, a Challenge Detroit fellow who grew up in Pinckney, said the biggest benefit for him has been the links forged with so many other people.

“For me the value has been the connections,” he said. “It’s been a great way to connect with leaders in the city and surrounding communities. It’s been a great way to connect with people who are actually on the ground doing a lot of work. The other fellows are extremely passionate, and it’s just a direct connection to other like-minded people here in the city.”

All the fellowship programs, which operate independently of each other, pay a generous stipend and offer lots of group activities and chances for socializing. But the programs are organized somewhat differently.

Detroit Revitalization offers two-year working fellowships, but requires some post-college experience, so their fellows tend to run a bit older and more experienced than Challenge Detroit, which requires a bachelor’s degree and runs for one year. Detroit Revitalization pays a stipend of $50,000-$80,000 a year depending on the job placement, while Challenge Detroit pays a combined stipend and living allowance of $36,000.

Foundations and other donors cover the cost of Detroit Revitalization, whose fellows work mainly at nonprofits like the Downtown Partnership, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, the Detroit Regional Chamber, Eastern Market and Focus: Hope. Challenge Detroit places almost all its fellows with private employers who pay much of the cost of the program.

Robin Boyle, chair of the department of urban planning at Wayne State University, and a founder of Detroit Revitalization, said the Revitalization program was tweaked for the second batch of fellows. The number was reduced from 29 in the first two-year group to 22 this time, a change that allows for a more focused group. “I think we’ve learned a number of things and we’re doing it better today than when we started,” Boyle said.

Venture for America, meanwhile, recruits recent college grads to work for two years at emerging start-ups and early-stage companies in lower-cost cities such as Detroit and New Orleans. Modeled after the popular Teach for America program, Venture for America aims at providing a path for entrepreneurship to college grads who want to learn how to build companies and create jobs.