Donnelly: Being intentional about inclusion

Graig Donnelly

In February, I wrote a piece in The Detroit News (Re: “In Detroit, focus on inclusion,” Feb. 2) to share our perspective at the Detroit Revitalization Fellows that to truly address the disparities we see in and around Detroit, we need to be intentional about ensuring Detroiters and non-Detroiters alike, from a range of backgrounds, have meaningful opportunities to drive progress in our city.

We had just launched applications for the 2015-17 cohort of fellows, our third. Our aims were to ensure that this network of talented leaders be as diverse as possible and to increase the number of Detroiters in our ranks. Over the course of our recruiting process, we learned many valuable lessons.

Being intentional about inclusion started with being willing to admit, publicly, that there was information we didn’t know. Our program has always recruited nationally — our goal is to attract and retain talented, emerging leaders and support their professional growth. But, with over a thousand applications for our first two cohorts in 2011-13 and 2013-15, we had not collected geographic or demographic information on applicants. So, this time we would set the bar for ourselves. We were sure that our past cohorts of fellows weren’t as diverse nor as representative of Detroiters as they could be.

Being intentional about inclusion continued with being willing to ask for critiques of our program, and being open to honest feedback. We met with past fellows, employers, community leaders and critics of our program and programs like ours. These conversations corroborated what we suspected: some well-qualified Detroiters had not applied to previous cohorts because they felt the program favored candidates outside the city and was “not for them.” But we also learned that many other Detroiters simply didn’t know about our program.

Therefore, being intentional about inclusion also meant doing a significant amount of outreach, and starting that outreach early. Potential employers for our fellows were required to attend an in-person informational session. There, we made sure they understood our emphasis on inclusion and the methods we hoped would achieve this, and we confirmed they shared our commitment. Next, we held three informational sessions for would-be fellows, each in a different Detroit neighborhood.

We partnered with numerous individuals and organizations — some with whom we already had relationships, many of whom we did not — to help spread the word and solicit referrals.

Being intentional about inclusion meant conveying a consistent message. All our recruiting materials, every social media post, every news article conveyed, implicitly or explicitly, that the fellowship is an opportunity for Detroiters and non-Detroiters alike, and that a range of backgrounds, work and life experiences were desired. As a result, we received the largest number of applications in the program’s history.

Being intentional about inclusion meant eliminating as much opportunity for bias as we could. In our initial application, we asked would-be fellows to describe both their academic and professional experiences, but to withhold the names of institutions and companies.

This August, we welcomed 23 new Detroit Revitalization Fellows who we are confident represent our most diverse cohort yet. They self-identify as follows: 74 percent are women; 48 percent are black, 38 percent are white, 4 percent each are Asian and Hispanic/Latino; 42 percent are ages 25-34, 25 percent ages 35-44, 17 percent ages 45-plus; and more than 50 percent of our fellows were already living in Detroit.

These results are great but, this is not a numbers game. The point of being intentional about inclusion is to positively impact the leadership of Detroit’s civic, community and economic development organizations. We want our fellows to become the kinds of collaborative leaders who will dismantle institutionalized bias and rebuild something more just in its place.

Our work is not finished. We don’t simply “achieve” inclusion and then move on. We will continue to assess and reflect on our efforts. And we will continue to listen and learn. We are committed to ensuring native Detroiters and newcomers alike are nurtured as leaders and that their myriad ideas and experiences impact our city’s future.

Graig Donnelly is director of the Detroit Revitalization Fellows at Wayne State University.