From the explosion of community gardens, to the founding of many community development-oriented organizations, there are exciting things happening in Detroit. Among them, is Detroit Nation – a “grassroots organization dedicated to improving the flow of funds, ideas and energy between native Detroiters now living elsewhere and their hometown.”
Detroit Nation co-founder, Rachel Jacobs, is one such former Detroiter. She currently lives in New York where she works as a consultant for Fortune 500 organizations, but feels an unbroken connection to and a desire to stay connected with Detroit. Together with volunteers living across the country, she is helping to build a better future for Detroit while strengthening volunteers’ bonds to the city. Jacobs spoke with Repair the World about her family’s service DNA, building Detroit’s human capital, and why it’s important to support a city from both near and far.
What was your background with service and social change work growing up?
My family has always been very involved in the Jewish community and Detroit’s community. In many ways, it feels like a part of our family DNA – and when we think about what it means to be Jewish, it’s very much focused on building community. Going back to high school I was very involved with NIFTY – I was the social action president for the Michigan chapter. And after college I became involved with the New Israel Fund and other organizations.
Tell me a bit more about the inspiration behind Detroit Nation.
We started from a germ of an idea that the Jewish Federation in Detroit initiated. They started hosting parties a few years back to get young former Detroiters in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles together for an evening. The basic idea was just to say, “Hey, we’re still here – don’t forget us.” What we realized is that they successfully brought together hundreds of young people who’d grown up in Detroit and who felt attached enough that they’d come out for an evening. There were the makings of a movement there.
When we kicked off, we did it with the support of the Federation – and it quickly grew beyond the Jewish community. There was this huge diaspora of Detroiters who had grown up with very similar values, and really wanted to maintain a connection to the city whether they lived there or not. When we thought about how to structure the organization, it was informed by the Israel direct diaspora model, where you take a group of people and help them stay engaged and in touch with a place, even when they’re not there.
What have you focused on so far?
We’ve had events in the cities where our members live – and given them opportunities to network and hear where Detroit is now. When you grow up somewhere you develop a crystallized idea of what the city is. But Detroit has changed tremendously in the last ten years – in both positive and negative ways. We’ve helped share these stories with members. The other half of our mission is about helping our members give back to Detroit in constructive, impactful ways.
What sort of impact has the organization had so far?
Our work has translated into a couple of things. When we first started, we thought people and organizations in Detroit just wanted financial support, and we focused on raising money for organizations there. But last November we went there and met with 25 different organizations. Most of them said what they really need help with is human capital. It was a story we heard again and again – they need additional resources and people who can provide pro-bono services.
So now we’re working on extending some of that human capital through our network, and moving the organization towards a crowd source incubation model. We’re not providing physical facility, but are doing things remotely – like helping organizations to better integrate social networking tools, develop marketing materials, or structure the organization and bring in larger donors. People in our network have marketing skills, graphic design skills, art and music skills – so its all about plugging them into the right place.
Does Detroit Nation focus on Detroit the city, or the larger metro Detroit area?
That was a big debate we had a lot of our volunteers. Many of our volunteers, myself included, grew up in the suburbs. On paper, we’re not constraining our work to Detroit proper – but when you think about what really gets people excited these days, it’s Detroit the city. Detroit is starting to have its own gravitas, it’s own brand. There’s so much going on in the city now that wasn’t there 5 years ago, and certainly not 10 years ago. For the people involved with our work, and for the people moving back – Detroit as a city really captures their imagination.
What challenges have you faced so far?
The biggest challenge we’ve had is that we want to do so much, but because we’re entirely volunteer driven right now, we’re resourced constrained. For us the big challenge over the next few months is how do we get the resources we need to put more structures in place and develop a paid staff.
Do you ever hear criticism about doing the work you do from afar (as opposed to moving back to Detroit)?
Yes, we do. But even though life has brought our members elsewhere – when you’re talking about Detroit, you’re talking about people’s homes. Their families are there, their memories are there. In our transient society people are going to move. We want to try to maintain that connection and sense of commitment for people who won’t move back, and also establish new relationships for those who might like to.
Are there people involved with Detroit Nation who are not from Detroit originally?
Yes – actually, our treasurer is from Chicago and Los Angeles! He’s my cousin by marriage, which is how he found out about the organization, but like other non-Detroiters who are involved, he found the mission of the organization to be really compelling. I recently met a woman from Korea who told me she was moving on Detroit to work on an urban farm. Because Detroit has gone through this massive change, it’s attracting the interest from people around the world. What happened in Detroit wasn’t as dramatic as what happened to New Orleans with Katrina, but the end result has been similar.
Where do you see the organization growing in the next few years?
I would love to see a thriving organization with chapters in all the major cities in the US and also the not-so major cities. I would like the organization to be able to provide a suite of services to organizations back in Detroit – including industry introductions, assistance with fundraising, and technology instruction. I’d like Detroit Nation to become a conduit for the organizations in Detroit to become as strong as possible, and for our membership to keep building new relationships with the city – to see it as both past and future.