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Equipping mid-level talent to lead through a model grown in Detroit

Guest post by Graig Donnelly

Detroit is building a national model for cultivating the next generation of urban and regional leaders. It’s called the Detroit Revitalization Fellows program and, to date, it has produced 48 ambitious doers who are stimulating progress in our civic, community and economic development landscape.

Who are the Detroit Revitalization Fellows and what gives them the potential to influence lasting change within our communities? Revitalization Fellows are accomplished, ambitious and hard-working mid-career professionals, almost all of whom have completed a graduate degree and between five and fifteen years of professional experience. These leaders could be successful anywhere, but they choose to make impact in and around Detroit. They want to grow as leaders. But these are not “one size fits all” folks. Our fellows are diverse and multidisciplinary in their approaches – many are square pegs in round holes, like a lawyer leading a Sunday Street Market or an architect working in philanthropy.

It’s not enough, however, to cultivate a group of transformative leaders. In order to truly affect the kind of change that we need in our cities and metropolitan areas, we need to partner these high-potential changemakers with organizations committed to a collaborative vision of developing leadership. It is, therefore, crucial that Revitalization Fellows are integral and leading staff members of organizations that place a high value on talent, that are aware of their capacity building need, and are willing to let someone else explore it. Our employers are the kinds of places that see the possibilities of Detroit through both hyper-local and regional lenses – these organizations see the value of their work in the context of other work happening around them. They encourage leadership development and want to lead through a heightened understanding of disparities in our city and region. Perhaps most important, employers, like our Revitalization Fellows, want to address the disparities.

Revitalization Fellows are how Detroit has been able to activate innovative work like Motor City Mapping, downtown’s Business Improvement Zone, the REVOLVE Detroit vacant storefront program, the recent wave of local procurement programs by large anchor institutions, and the city’s lighting authority. Many of the 29 leaders from the first cohort (2011-13) have moved into influential roles locally, statewide and across the country. And, Revitalization Fellows are very entrepreneurial both through their own businesses and the ways that they choose to give of their time to benefit others.

The third cohort of the Detroit Revitalization Fellows will begin August 2015. Roughly 20 of these talented doers will bring – and keep – their talent here to work on some of the city’s most pressing needs and opportunities for two years. Some of them will come from the ranks of Detroiters already here making things happen. Some will be entirely new Detroiters. Still others will find this the perfect opportunity to come home and contribute to the place they’ve always loved. All Revitalization Fellows will be part of a group committed to the idea that Detroit is not a clean slate but full of communities that are vibrant and vital to our future.

The search for our next group of Revitalization Fellows starts now (applications will open at the end of January). Help us spread the word. Help us develop our approach to equipping mid-level talent that the rest of the country will look to for inspiration in their communities. And, over the next few months, help us celebrate the accomplishments of the first 48 as we share their stories.

Graig Donnelly, a Detroiter who came back home in 2013, is the Director of the Detroit Revitalization Fellows at Wayne State University.

Kaitlyn Buss
Kaitlyn Buss is editorial page writer for The Detroit News. Prior to joining the News, she lived in Washington, D.C., where she worked in public relations, opinion writing, and ran communications for an association of state legislators. She's a native of Metro Detroit. Follow her @KaitlynBuss.