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Rishi S. Jaitly Headshot

It's the People, Stupid: A Perspective on What Hasn't Yet Been Written About Detroit

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What hasn't yet been written about Detroit?

Essays and articles abound about our city these days (go ahead, add this one to the pile). We pontificate and celebrate with an eye on business activity, an artistic renaissance, and land-use challenges.

But how often do we take a human perspective? I'm not talking about human-interest stories a la the Today Show. I'm wondering, how often do we consider Detroit as a collection of people, a set of human stories and social networks that collide and connect with one another? In my experience, not often enough.

Take a few minutes and look across town with this in mind. What do you see?

I see a town where everybody's running for mayor (note the lowercase "m").

It's a beautiful thing, actually. Detroiters everywhere are ideating, creating, and doing -- without permission and with unprecedented ambition.

A couple with a young child buys homes and uses public art to create a new sense of place near Hamtramck; a group of citizens come together to form Detroit 300, a city-wide community safety network; a lawyer finds time to build I-SEE Detroit, a web platform where Detroiters can report problems and progress across the city; and marketing executives who support the auto industry open Signal Return, a non-profit art and print shop in Eastern Market.

Just as the rise of the Internet compelled millions worldwide to move from passive consumers of culture to active producers of it, real-world dynamics of opportunity and identity are compelling many thousands of Detroiters to engage in the vitality of our community in ways few other cities can claim.

"Detroit is flat," I've been saying of late. Not just topographically but -- more importantly -- as it relates to the barriers to entry in our "public square."

In 2004, Tom Friedman made an eloquent case in The World Is Flat regarding how and why the Internet has "flattened" global business dynamics. In 2011, the Internet has joined forces with human dynamics of opportunity and identity to truly flatten Detroit's social change sector.

What do we do about it?

Well, if you're reading this piece, there aren't too many excuses about why you shouldn't be an active participant in this movement. Detroit presents an unparalleled opportunity for each one of us to unlock our inherent creativity and potential.

See a problem, ideate against it, buy a URL, and go.

Then what? Do we sit back and assume that this human activity will endure and affirm Detroit's limitless future?

In a word, no.

In addition to actively participating in Detroit's surge of human engagement, my own view is that we all need to do our part to recognize existing citizen leadership and create easy opportunities for the existing work to grow.

All of the initiatives that I've launched and overseen in Detroit, including Michigan Corps, Kiva Detroit, and the BME Challenge, present opportunities for existing citizen leadership to feel honored, connected, and amplified.

Kiva Detroit, for instance, is a citizen network that empowers all Detroiters to source, lend to, and champion small businesses in our own community. We launched this first-of-its-kind effort after noting this kind of behavior was already happening across our city; all Kiva Detroit does is call it out and lift it up.

Does all of this sound a little too simple? Well, it's an unabashedly human approach.

I recently had the chance to interact with Egyptian activists who played a role in the uprising in Cairo last winter. Yes, social media was a helpful organizing tool. But it was more important, they say, that the rest of the world was "Tweeting back." Connection and recognition.

All of this is why it's especially exciting to lead the Knight Foundation's grant-making across Detroit. Here in Detroit, we pursue our national mission of informed and engaged communities by investing in initiatives that make it easy for Detroiters to lead and see themselves as leaders.

In addition to supporting Kiva Detroit and the BME Challenge, we're investing in Citizen Effect's Detroit4Detroit, Hatch Detroit, Model D's The Next Big Thing, and more. All of these initiatives put leadership, with a lowercase "l," within the reach of many more Detroiters.

Sometimes, when articulating this people-centric approach around the country, I get the sense that my audience hears "cute" and not "great"... "fun" and not "sophisticated."

The business models of the future demand that big institutions, too, engage individual human beings not just as customers but as agents of organizational mission and productivity.

I later pause my audience and ask them to share their own stories and how they've gotten where they have.

Their answers? It's the people, stupid.