Despite Detroit's troubles, a number of programs bring recent graduates to the city

Jul 25, 2013

There seem to be two types of stories emerging from Detroit these days: one bleak and one optimistic.

Both can be spun wildly out of proportion, but the two – seemingly contradictory – narratives paint the same city in a very different light.

Detroit’s bankruptcy has garnered attention from around the world – from the U.K. to India. The bankruptcy, the underperforming school system, the lack of public services, the high crime, the dysfunctional local governments: they all contribute to the bleak narrative.

At the same time, there have been a number of reports that have highlighted a more optimistic narrative in the city.

A recent boom in population and economic activity in Midtown and downtown has completely changed those areas of the city over the last several years.

There is a spirit of entrepreneurialism downtown and several business leaders are investing heavily in the city, namely Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans.

At the same time, beyond the Midtown and downtown, there are community groups that are very active – and have been for the past few decades. They have helped fuel the urban gardening movement throughout the city and have often fostered a “do-it-yourself” attitude – especially when it comes to making up for a lack of city services.   

Grads moving to Detroit

More in line with the second narrative, the number of college graduates moving to Detroit has greatly contributed to the population increase in Midtown and downtown.

Despite the things that might deter college graduates from moving to Detroit, a number are turning down more lucrative and/or prestigious opportunities to come live and work in Detroit.

For starters, there are a number of graduates coming to the city to work with nonprofits or in the schools. AmeriCorps, City Year, and Teach for America all offer opportunities for recent graduates to work and serve in the city.

But an increasing number of entrepreneurs are flocking to Detroit as well.

The New York Times recently ran a story about college graduates in Detroit with a nonprofit called Venture for America.

Hannah Seligson interviewed one of the Venture for America fellows, Brentt Baltimore, for the New York Times article. Baltimore is a recent graduate of Claremont McKenna College in California.

“I wanted to be in a position where I could have a huge impact on the community,” Mr. Baltimore said.

Part of his job at Detroit Venture Partners is to scout potential investments and lure companies to Detroit. He has also started the nonprofit Startup Effect, which teaches local eighth-graders entrepreneurship principles.

“Smart people should be building things,” said Andrew Yang, 38, who started Venture for America in 2011. (Although it has ground operations in all eight cities, the program’s headquarters are in a different one: New York.) “Instead, they become bankers and consultants. We need to do something about talent allocation that pulls our top minds toward these fields.”

Another fellowship program, Challenge Detroit, has 33 fellows. According to Dustin Block for MLive, the program had more than 700 applicants to choose from.

The 2013-2015 cohort has two international fellows, and fellows representing 10 U.S. states. Even after news of the city’s filing for bankruptcy, none of the fellows backed out of their one-year commitment.

The executive director of Challenge Detroit, Deirdre Green Groves, told Block that:

"I think the mindset is we recognize that, together, that Detroit has faced hardship for a long time," Groves said. "We know there will be suffering from bankruptcy, but from hardship comes great opportunity. We still have work to do and we can be part of it."

The Challenge Detroit fellows work for a variety of companies, nonprofits, and media outlets. 

There are number of other fellowship programs and initiatives meant to attract young professionals and recent graduates to Detroit, several run by state universities. For example, Detroit Revitalization Fellows is a Wayne State University project that matches economic development professionals with revitalization efforts and organizations.

But while the trend is hot right now, who knows how long this new crop of young people will stay in the city.

The educational opportunities in Detroit certainly do not entice families to stay or move into the city. And as of now, it is uncertain how a bankruptcy will impact the business community and other sectors of the city. This could impact the recently launched entrepreneurial start-ups and pop-ups seen in downtown and Midtown. 

So while young people continue to move to the city, the longevity and impact of the movement is uncertain.

-Julia Field, Michigan Radio Newsroom

*We've made corrections to this story: the Challenge Detroit program is a one-year program and they don't have a fellow from Japan.