Detroit’s Young People Wrestle with their Place in a Changing City

The day is Friday, August, 9, and Wayne State’s Mike Ilitch School of Business is teeming with young people. 

In the school’s Lear auditorium, where a massive screen stretches across the main wall and two others blast out the campus logo in technicolor, a panel featuring a handful of both the city and state’s most influential institutional voices — Jeff Donofrio, Director of the State of Michigan’s Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, Anika Goss-Foster, Executive Director at Detroit Future City and Rico Razo, Deputy Director of Bridging Neighborhoods at the City of Detroit, to name a few — is holding court before a full house. 

Dubbed the Youth Summit Conference, the inaugural affair was produced by student participants in the summer program of L!FE Leaders Inc., a “leadership and career development program” that supports young people as they navigate the often stormy journey of “finding your voice, articulating what you care about, establishing goals and the paths to achieve them,” says Amy Nederlander, one of the organization’s co-founders and current president. The conference, which spotlighted the opportunities available to young people amid Detroit’s uncertain economic landscape and the role they can play in its equally uncertain future, fits squarely under that umbrella. 

L!FE Leaders’ aim for the day was intentionally ambitious. After realizing “that too few people know about the existing opportunities for careers, training and education,” Nederlander says, they decided to bring “the professionals together” so that the high-schoolers could “hear directly from” those tasked with overseeing the city’s development. 

And at the same time, to hear how those officials plan to address mounting pressure to “keep Detroit, Detroit” amid wide public frustration in the city’s poor and working-class communities over what researchers at the Urban Institute have called “a tale of two cities.” Though the tale can be complicated in its details, it’s simple in its overall arc: as Peter Moskowitz describes in his book How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood, capital has overwhelmingly flowed to Detroit’s downtown core, while the neighborhoods continue to face a swarm of social crises, creating a situation in which “the chasm between rich and poor is growing.” 

Students weren’t shy about questioning how their city’s leaders plan to address the multiple challenges this situation presents, drilling them on everything from the rising cost of living to the opportunity-snatching clutches of the criminal justice system. Each of the panelists made sure to acknowledge the legitimacy and seriousness of those concerns. Donofrio spoke about the potential size and scope of revitalization, while Razzo, Goss, and others, shared their perspectives on what the Detroit of next 20 to 50 years will require to flourish while avoiding the potential pitfalls of gentrification.

This deep curiosity and hunger for answers, Nederlander adds, is one of the benchmarks by which L!FE Leaders measures its success. She’s observed students who “sit quietly by themselves” at the start of the program soon “become robust contributors to the conversation” and “find their voice.”

Composed of a web of students representing organizations across the city, the Youth Summit Leadership Council plans to meet throughout the year with two objectives in mind: building on the goals they’ve established for themselves during the conference as well as providing support to other young people and community leaders whose missions overlap with their own. 

Ultimately, Nederlander and her organization hope to see these young people carve out their own unique lanes, from “owning small or large businesses” and joining local government to growing into “great parents and mentors” who “lead Detroit in the future.” 

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