Thompson: Detroit can’t ignore ‘energetic’ population

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

Detroit’s young residents say they want to be at the center of the transformation of the city. And in downtown Detroit, the most recent Census reports found a 59 percent increase in the number of college-educated youth under age 35 have taken residence there in the last decade.

Bankole Thompson, left, hosts a roundtable discussion about Detroit’s comeback with young community leaders including Ben Falik, Rachel Klegon and Eze Ejelonu.

Though the social commitment and levels of engagement of these young people often escape the notice of major media, there is an energy out there. Several young people offered candid perspectives about Detroit’s revitalization.

Here are their thoughts:

“I don’t think there is just one way for young people to be engaged. Rather, we should all be focused on using our unique passions and skills to build the things we need to stay here in Detroit — whether that’s a sense of community, products and services. If you feel like there is something missing, create it. That’s what is so beautiful about this time in Detroit,” said Nicole Stallins, 29, senior policy adviser, Jobs and Economy Team in the Office of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

Stallins, who holds a master’s in business administration from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, said Detroit’s comeback “means the city regains its status as a place where diverse groups of people actively want to live, work, play, and raise their families.”

She added, “I don’t see it as simply the redevelopment of downtown and midtown into a place young people are excited to live for a few years. While that work is critically important to a successful city, we also need vibrant, walkable neighborhoods that will attract and retain residents over the long-term.”

Residential disconnect

For Rachel Klegon, 29, who is director of Green Living Science, a recycling project in Detroit, she is concerned the investments are not directly meeting needs of residents.

“There is a disconnect between the economic/commercial development occurring and an improved quality of life for long-time residents in Detroit,” Klegon said. “Detroit’s comeback will mean we will see trends moving towards a lower crime rate, an increased high school graduation rate and a low foreclosure rate.”

Klegon said she wants to see “more investment in educating youth, specifically in a way that is successful with a diverse set of learners. I think it is important for young people to have a good understanding of Detroit’s rich history and the many diverse neighborhoods.”

Eze Ejelonu, 33, owner of Network Design, a downtown IT consulting firm, and a former linebacker and defensive end at Michigan State University (2001-04), said new investments coming to the city are laudable but Detroit is beset with problems that have to be tackled first.

“I believe many people especially in business use ‘Detroit’s comeback’ very loosely. The ‘comeback’ is without worth unless issues involving the school system and mentorship, violence, institutional racism and economic development and prison re-entry programs are given very special attention and resources,” Ejelonu explained. “If we are not focused on these matters, then being the next major city with a booming business market and lack of positive growth within the areas mentioned above is unacceptable.”

‘A rewriting of the future’

Ben Falik, 33, the Detroit director for Repair the World and co-founder of Summer in the City, a group that works with hundreds of diverse young people each summer to volunteer for different causes in Detroit, said inclusion is important.

“We need to realize a rising tide that nurtures opportunities for everyone in order to sustain the current momentum happening in pockets around the city,” Falik said. “Detroit is definitely changing. There are things happening now that would have been hard to imagine just 10 years ago.”

Alisyn Malek, 28, who founded Corktown Studios and is also an investment manager at GM Ventures LLC, said Detroit is re-writing its future.

“I see Detroit’s comeback less as a comeback, as we will never be what we once were, but rather as a re-envisioning of what Detroit can be and a rewriting of the future,” Malek said. “Looking back, even as recent as 2010 or 2011, people were still very skeptical of Detroit, and the concept that it should just ‘fade away’ seemed pervasive in the region and across the country, but the persistence of the residents and renewed interest have changed that story to the point now where Brooklyn (New York) likes to call itself the ‘Detroit of the East.’ ”

For sustainable growth, Malek said “focusing on pushing forward a few key industries for job creation and education improvement would go much longer.”

Toni Jones, 30, is Dream Director for the Detroit chapter of The Future Project

Toni Jones, 30, who is Dream Director for the Detroit chapter of The Future Project, a national organization which bills itself as “inspiring young Americans to live lives of passion and purpose,” said creating a nexus between the community and the school system is key.

“I would like to see more collaboration efforts of Detroit’s own success stories working together to empower DPS students. A large scale bridge program for high school graduates to train the in 21st-century skills, learn where the economy is going in technology and innovation, adulthood living 101 education to equip them and prepare them in their transition to holistic independence,” Jones said.

While Detroit’s current trajectory means different things to different people, Jones said the opportunity is undeniable.

“It means there is opportunity to create solutions to any perceived or noticeable problems within the city whether it is on a neighborhoods block, starting a business with a social impact component, creating businesses to generate jobs, working with programs that impact the community in tangible ways, networking at events held in Detroit, no matter what it is the comeback is mobilizing people to create, innovate, contribute and stay proactive,” Jones said.


Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” on WDET-101.9FM at 11 a.m. Thursdays. His column appears Thursdays.