Alexander Hermann: The role of Detroit's fellowship programs

By Alexander Hermann, Columnist
Published February 27, 2014

Speaking on campus earlier this month at the Ross School of Business, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder implored students — a sizable portion of the 300 attendees in Blau Auditorium — to remain in-state after graduation, emphasizing opportunities in Detroit in particular.

Alexander Hermann

It’s a script Snyder has repeated frequently since assuming office — why be just another yuppie in Chicago when you can make a real difference in Detroit?

Further, Snyder contends that many recent graduates and young professionals simply aren’t aware of the opportunities available to them here.

And he’s right.

There are numerous unique opportunities in Detroit meant to attract young professionals seriously considering relocating to the Motor City for the first time or those who might otherwise depart for greener pastures.

Consider, for example, Challenge Detroit, a “leadership and professional development” fellowship that pairs 30 participants from across the country with Detroit-based employers in every industry and sector. Fellows become immersed in Detroit’s social scene, volunteer opportunities, and leadership and networking events. Challenge Detroit is accepting applications through March 9, and is an excellent prospect for graduating students looking to jumpstart a career while making a difference in the city.

The program is only one of several fellowships providing incentives for young professionals to broadly impact Detroit.

The Detroit Revitalization Fellows Program similarly matches development professionals with key economic and community development agencies across the city. The D:hive Residency Program is also specifically tailored to attract recent graduates with limited professional experience to Detroit.

If nothing else, these programs contribute to and accelerate the promising trend in Detroit’s urban core that’s currently witnessing a much-needed talent infusion.

According to “7.2 SQ MI: A Report on Greater Downtown Detroit,” in 2011 nearly 1,000 young professionals — defined as 25- to 34-year-olds with bachelor’s degrees — were selected for three-month to two-year fellowships and internships in Detroit through programs like Challenge Detroit, the D:hive residency, Teach for America and the Detroit Revitalization Fellows. Additionally, the report — commissioned by the Hudson-Webber Foundation and other partners a year ago — claims that over 2,600 young professionals reside in the 7.2-mile area comprising Detroit’s Greater Downtown, including the Central Business District and several adjacent neighborhoods.

Similarly, 95 percent of rentals in Midtown and downtown have remained occupied since 2012 and currently hover near 98 percent, even as prices have risen, due in large part to the interest of young professionals. Improving the population’s education, occupancy and rental rates represents important signs of progress in a city that needs these short-term wins.

But one must caution, of course, that these positive developments are no substitute for a cohesive agenda that strengthens Detroit neighborhoods and simultaneously builds capacity outside the immediate downtown-area to complement urban core revitalization.

As Thomas Sugrue, author of “The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit” — to many, the book on Detroit — recently talked with the Detroit Free Press about the city’s future.

“The future of a city, if it’s going to be successful, the future of Detroit is going to be improving the everyday quality of life for residents who are living a long way from downtown and a long way from Midtown, who probably aren’t ever going to spend much time listening to techno or sipping lattes,” Sugrue said.

But with the right energy and a commitment to social justice, young professionals can certainly make meaningful progress benefitting everyone in the city. For example, 24 of 27 fellows from Challenge Detroit’s inaugural cohort remained in Detroit.

And of all the fellowship programs mentioned above — from Teach for America in Detroit to D:hive to Challenge Detroit to the Detroit Revitalization Fellows — none has been around longer than four years. These impacts will only improve and become more obvious as these programs leave their infancy, and past participants advance even further in their careers.

Alexander Hermann can be reached at aherm@umich.edu.