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Part 2: When Talent Returns to Detroit

By Sarah Craft

I introduced my friend Bryan Lewis in my last post. He’s from Southfield, left the region for school and came back just a few years ago.

When he graduated from Carnegie Melon University with a Master of Science degree in energy science, technology and policy in 2014, he was set on moving to Washington, DC or New York and had no plans to return to Detroit.

But things happened differently.

Bryan was finishing a fellowship with his university and was hunting for long-term employment within his field. Out of the blue, an old friend from home contacted him to say he was starting a sustainable clothing company in Detroit and he wanted his help. Bryan brushed it off and kept looking for jobs in Washington, DC and New York.

A few days later, his best friend from college with no attachment to Detroit contacted him and said he was considering a position in the city. With two calls in a week, he realized that something was clearly happening back at home.

Wanting to show his friend all that Detroit had to offer, Bryan coordinated a visit. Over the short trip, the two went to community events, met with other professionals, and had a blast enjoying the city’s nightlife and cultural activities.

“I had never seen Detroit in such a light,” Bryan said. “Everything was building and people had optimism. It was a vibe I personally hadn’t seen or felt from the city in my entire time living here. My friend and I left feeling excited about the opportunity. We felt welcome in the city.”

His friend decided to take the job and move from New York City to Detroit. And two weeks after the trip, Bryan found out about the position with Youth Energy Squad.

“The rest is really history,” he said. “One week after my job term at Carnegie Mellon ended in August of 2015, I signed the dotted line and became director of the Youth Energy Squad, my literal dream job.”

Like Bryan, many survey respondents said they came back for a short list of reasons: family, an interest in Detroit, and an opportunity to make an impact.

“California is too far from family and I was missing out on too many births, birthdays,” etc.

“I’ve always wanted to return and try and bring back my experience in other cities to try and progress Detroit.”

 “I was working in education reform and school turnaround while living Chicago. I wanted to invest in the efforts around education reform in Detroit.”

Even with a desire to return home, the transition back isn’t always easy.

Of the survey respondents, 30 percent said it was difficult (selected one or two on a five-point scale) to find housing, 38 percent said it was difficult to find a job, and 24 percent said it was difficult to make connections to new friends or professionals.

“It took two years and several bids to get a home in our dream neighborhood, North Rosedale Park, but when we found the match, we received assistance from the city. It was difficult to come from a metropolitan with major stores everywhere, to home where everything is in the suburbs. It was also difficult because we wanted a family and knew there were no consistently successful, diverse schools in the city.”

“I did not return to Michigan with a job in 2011 and it took many months to identify employment (resulted in creating my own job / starting a nonprofit).”

“Returned for an internship then turned down a job to do Challenge Detroit. I loved moving to Detroit and living here, but professionally it was unfulfilling and difficult to find like-minded people and organizations in public health.”

When Bryan came home, he returned to a place that was very different from the place he had left. He needed a new network of friends and professionals to help with his career and his social life. Like others expressed in the survey, finding one “in” was all it took to get reconnected.

“The crowd is the crowd and once you get in with one, you get in with others,” he said. “I found somebody I trusted, and who trusted me back, who was well plugged in. She helped me really accelerate my professional contact development.”

Transit is one of the biggest adjustments to many returning home.

“Car insurance was one of the biggest shocks I had coming back,” Bryan said. “It nearly doubled. I investigated ways of getting around without a car and none were really available that met my needs. I sucked it up, but I recognize that many others might not have that privilege.”

Because many left for opportunities in larger metropolitan areas with more sophisticated regional transit, they got used to the lifestyle. Coming home to our system was not a pleasant surprise:

“A lack of regional transit makes it difficult for my partner and I. We both work in cities other than the one in which we live. Light rail would greatly ease this burden but it failed.”

I got used to using public transit and not having it here has been a serious adjustment.”

 “Returning from another city to the car-centric Detroit area was expected but still somewhat jarring.”

Detroit has a lot to learn from these experiences.

Not only is transit a high priority for talent, but improving diversity in housing options, walkability, equity and  K-12 schools were all cited over and over again as ways the region needs to improve.

If we want to keep people like Bryan, we’ll have to do better as a region. And although he loves so much about his life at home, it’s not a guarantee he’ll stay long-term – his girlfriend still lives in New York so, of course, that’s a move he sometimes thinks about.

The Detroit Drives Degrees talent working group and its partners are brainstorming ways we can use this talent platform to improve state and regionwide strategies in these areas and others. If we can lift talent voices around initiatives like these, we may be able to improve regional cooperation and statewide policy so everyone’s quality of life improves.

Despite the struggles, many of the “boomerang” respondents are passionate about the region: They’re often happy to be home and they want to see their cities improve. They also want to see others have positive experiences  if they decide to make the move. For those considering coming home, here is some advice from the experts:

“Be patient – it takes time to build a community.”

“Follow people in the region or from the region via social media and start to read up on current events and news in the area.”

“Know what you are passionate about and connect with like-minded people/groups. Keep an open mind and be persistent.”

“Get plugged into a network as soon as possible.”

“Be open minded and ready to make an effort to fit in. It doesn’t happen on accident.”

“Have a car.”

Bryan shared his advice the most eloquently:

“Detroit is filled with amazing and talented leaders who have been doing it together for decades. My role is but a small one and it is part of a much bigger picture – a picture that should better highlight the incredible work that black and latinx community organizers and developers have been painting since before my time. My advice is to, when you’re ready, come back and work hard – but work to stand on the shoulders of the giants we have already and build further.”

More to come next week. Don’t hesitate to reach out to share your story or your ideas:

Sarah Craft is a program associate for Detroit Drives Degrees.