Global Detroit expands efforts to retain and attract immigrant talent

Steve Tobocman is the director of Global Detroit, which Knight Foundation supports to accelerate talent and advance opportunity in Detroit, one of 26 Knight communities. Photo: A Detroit neighborhood soccer team reflects and benefits from the diversity of the community. Credit: Global Detroit

Southwest Detroit is frequently discussed as the one working-class neighborhood in Detroit that is revitalizing. It’s blessed by some of the most innovative and sophisticated nonprofit arts and community development corporations in the nation.  While the community (as defined by the new Detroit City Council districts) is 39 percent African-American, 39 percent Latino and 18 percent white, it accounts for about half of the 35,000 foreign-born residents in the city. The neighborhood’s emerging success and its demographic makeup are not a coincidence. Related Link

I first started working on neighborhood revitalization issues in Southwest Detroit—the neighborhood where my immigrant grandfather once lived—through the AmeriCorps national service program in 1995. Eight years later—after helping to start campaigns against illegal dumping and graffiti, leading local zoning battles as a lawyer, serving as a volunteer hockey coach and devoting my life to the neighborhood’s revitalization—I was elected to represent Southwest Detroit in the Michigan House, where I served for three terms—the maximum allowed.

After nearly two decades of leadership in community development and elected office, I have been gripped by a growing realization of the power that immigrants possess to revitalize and stabilize urban neighborhoods, especially in Rust Belt cities suffering industrial, economic and population loss. 

Detroit—the poster child for blight, poverty and decline and home to the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history—provides only further evidence.  Despite this past decade’s pummeling, Detroit is still the 18th most populous city in America with approximately 700,000 residents. Yet, it is the 135th largest when ranked by immigrant population: 35,000 foreign-born residents. Among the nation’s 25 largest cities, Detroit ranks outside the top 100 for the size of its foreign-born population. Only one other top 25 city ranks even outside the top 50. In fact, if Detroit were home to the 18th largest foreign-born population, it would have 108,586 more residents.

Global Detroit was conceived at the nadir of Detroit’s crash in 2009.  After 15 months of research, discussions and planning, a Global Detroit study chronicled the positive contributions that immigrants have made to the city and regional economies and outlined a number of innovative strategies to help foster and build upon the opportunities immigrants present.  To date, Global Detroit has helped launch five distinct programs with third-party partners to make Detroit and the region a leader in immigrant attraction, retention and integration. 

Collectively, the Global Detroit work represents over $7 million in philanthropic, government and corporate investment.  The work includes the nation’s first international student retention program (Michigan Global Talent Retention Initiative), efforts to integrate skilled immigrants and refugees (Upwardly Global), an ambitious micro-enterprise development program (ProsperUS Detroit), a network of integration services (Welcome Mat Detroit), and welcoming efforts (Welcoming Michigan – Michigan Immigrant Rights Center).  Based upon these programs, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder created a Michigan Office for New Americans this past February.  And Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is poised to launch an office to attract and retain immigrants. 

New support from Knight Foundation has provided Global Detroit the ability to raise additional funds, as well as to launch innovative programs with the city of Detroit and a Cultural Ambassadors program that will connect volunteers with immigrant professionals, international students and potential investors, as well as with the many programs that Global Detroit has helped launch.  It also has focused us to ask the question whether these important investments in an immigrant-friendly city and region will have collective impact.

This week, the city of Detroit will join Welcoming America’s Welcoming Cities campaign.  The announcement is the product of the Detroit City Council’s Immigration Task Force and years of advocacy by Global Detroit. Welcoming Michigan has played a critical role in securing this commitment, as it has in getting Hamtramck, Sterling Heights and Macomb County to join the list of Welcoming Cities and Counties. 

The work in Detroit and across southeast Michigan is part of a growing movement of local, immigrant-focused economic development and urban revitalization efforts.  Similar programs now are underway in Cleveland, Columbus and Dayton, Ohio; Indianapolis; St. Louis; Philadelphia; and Pittsburgh, and more are being planned in Buffalo, N.Y., and Cincinnati and Toledo, Ohio. Knight’s investment in Global Detroit enables us to test the thesis that launching immigrant welcoming programs and initiatives can revitalize urban neighborhoods, as well as spark regional economic growth. And it allows us to collaborate with the other cities and metros that are embracing immigration as an economic development opportunity.