Knight Foundation vice president Trabian Shorters, who is from the Detroit area, recently began looking for a new Program Director to base there. This post is from his trip there the week of October 18th.
The thing about Detroit is a bunch of people see it as a derelict symbol of a bygone era and a lesser-known bunch of people see it as a place to begin anew. In one 18-hour period I met exemplars of both perspectives, and I could see in stark contrast a choice that this city must make.
My flight landed at Detroit Metro Airport around 11pm and an elderly gentleman named Stephen drove me the 26 miles from the airport to my hotel at the Renaissance Center. On this journey the long-time autoworker-turned-retiree and part-time chauffer explained that he had been an optimistic person for his whole life.
"But 3 years ago, something changed. I just couldn't keep telling myself that it would get better," he said. "Detroit is a joke to the rest of the country. We have a million people out of work in this state too."
I peppered him with encouraging stats from a three year study that Knight Foundation has paid for called Soul of the Community, which shows that young people are optimistic about Detroit and that many Detroiters maintain a strong personal commitment to the city.
But as he drove us through the dead of night on this empty highway, it was clear that no amount of fresh air from 'the visitor' was going to clear out the old smoke smell that had settled in the cushions of his car. That ride with Stephen was long and informative. He knows Detroit. He's been there.
Then this afternoon, I met with Margarita and Mike, the co-publishers of IAMYoungDetroit. One grew up outside Detroit, one grew up in Detroit. Both Love the city. They say that Detroit has a low cost of living, tons of community activities, and a culture that befits young, creative class, entrepreneurs like them.
And they have organized their web media activities FOR people like them. Their participants, interestingly enough, are young, 2/3rd female from the Detroit area, Chicago and New York.
They do online activities designed to lead to offline activities but told me that they don't use tools like Meetup that often because they're a little "old school" to them.
"Our participants are more mobile, so we look at a lot of Tweetups and maybe use EventBrite to connect."
They are interesting people. Mike is of Korean descent, and he is a painter who is really attracted to graffiti art and shows up to a dozen or more community events a month. Margarita identifies as mixed race, and she's been a computer graphic designer since she was 12. She won her first grant in her teens from Ashoka's YouthVenture program.
They are contradictions. They are complements to each other. But the two of them and Stephen quickly illustrated the types of choices that Detroit must make in its identity.
Is it a picture of blight or a clean slate?
Dark clouds or bright spots?
Waiting for Superman or doing it yourself?
Knight Foundation is looking, learning and betting on Detroit's future'as an informed and engaged community.