Why I'm Investing in Detroit

Lots of people and jobs are exiting Detroit these days. Some say the final death knell is about to be rung as the life of domestic auto companies hangs in the balance. But now's not the time for any of us to turn away. The city needs our investment and commitment, which is why I've decided to put our Harwood Public Innovators Lab in downtown Detroit, June 2-5. Nothing seems to be going Detroit's way. For decades the city was said to be dying, only to rebound in recent years with pockets of rejuvenation sparked by the rise of new businesses, new construction, and a new attitude. But the emerging signs of progress could not hold off larger economic trends that have engulfed Michigan in an economic tsunami.

To make matters worse, the city had to endure the embarrassment of misdeeds and misfortunes by its former mayor, until finally he was pushed from office. And it continues to suffer the notoriety of its much-maligned football team, the Detroit Lions, which went 0-16 last season, a new National Football League record.

So, why put the Public Innovators Lab there? It's true we're launching this year a Kellogg Foundation-supported initiative in Battle Creek, Santa Fe, and, yes, Detroit, where local groups and organizations will apply our approach to accelerate and deepen their change efforts on issues of vulnerable children and families. But that's not why we're bringing the Lab itself to Detroit.

I originally planned to have the Lab in Atlanta or Las Vegas. But as the economic downturn worsened, I wanted to make a declarative statement about our own values and beliefs.

Too many people are talking about leaving Detroit and other hard-hit communities behind; too many news accounts tell negative stories of what "can't happen" in too many communities. If those of us doing this work do not act to support these communities, who will?

I'm not naive about any of this. I know first-hand just how difficult it is to create hope and change in hard-hit communities. I've spent years in Flint and other economically distressed places. I have failed many times, in public, trying to make good things happen. So, it would be far easier simply to look the other way.

But, like you, I got into this arena because I believe there are breaches in society that must be repaired. Progress, however slow, will only come about if each of us steps forward to do our part, and if we're willing to learn from our past mistakes and emphasize what works.

There are unbelievably talented and public-spirited people working in Detroit. For example,Arise Detroit, which is creating a permanent network of organizations and their volunteers to support children and families, is headed up by two Harwood Public Innovators Lab alumni, Luther Keith and John X. Miller.

Detroit Public Television is part of a growing network of stations adopting the Harwood approach developed in our ongoing collaboration with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for public broadcasters who want to strengthen their communities and deepen their own local significance. Mike Brennan, who heads the local United Way, along with many others is working tirelessly to strengthen the community. We've even located the Lab at the brand newGreektown Hotel which is in the heart of the city and has just hired 300 new employees.

I am choosing to bring our Public Innovators Lab to Detroit. I want to help develop and support a critical mass of local public innovators who seek to fight for hope and change. I want to do our part and make a clear statement: We believe in Detroit, its people, and its future come hell or high water.

Download a copy of Rich's essay: Make Hope Real and learn how you can accelerate change in your community and make hope real.