How does DXF stay relevant in today’s Detroit?

This article is the second in a two part series launching our new strategic plan.  Read the first part here. You can learn more about the author - DXF’s Executive Director, paul hudson mack - on his LinkedIn page and read about DXF’s leadership transition in this Crain’s article.

In our previous post we shared some of the findings from our recently launched strategic plan.  The Executive Summary gives a two-page, quick read overview on how we will move into the future; the full Strategic Plan shares more detailed insights on DXF’s path forward.  I’d like to pivot from the topics of that first post - how we built the plan and what we learned about DXF’s assets - to think about the adaptations and changes we need to make.  Detroit is evolving faster than most of us can keep up with - to stay true to our mission, DXF needs to grow with our city.

There’s a lot of potential here and I’m excited to have your input on our future.  Did we identify the right opportunities? What else can we be thinking about and what guidance would you give us as we pursue these growing edges?  What practical ideas do you have for how we can move into action on these opportunities? Read on and leave us a comment with your thoughts.


Taking a step back on what’s happening in Detroit

In the thrilling changes and serious challenges of the last few years in Detroit, DXF’s assets have continued to be extremely valuable in connecting people with different backgrounds and ideas and educating countless tour participants on Detroit’s complex history and its relationship to our current context.  At the same time, Detroit is not the same city we started advocating for in 2006 - and we can’t be the same DXF to continue pursuing our mission. Detroit’s needs are changing and our work has to evolve and grow to continue achieving our mission.

No one story can capture Detroit’s story - but I think it will be helpful to provide some context before we talk about opportunities.  I’ll do my best to share my perspective on what’s happened since DXF started in 2006 - and look forward to learning your perspective on this history, as well.  Thirteen years ago some of the nicest things I saw about Detroit were the ‘humorous’ T-shirts advertising “Detroit, where the weak are killed and eaten” or “Sorry we missed you,” with cartoon bullets holes.  In 2010, right after I came to Detroit, I heard many people repeating what then Governor Granholm told CNN: that Detroit was like New Orleans after Katrina, but suffering from an economic hurricane.  In 2013, 60 Minutes described Detroit as a burned out, war-torn shell of a city.  Back then, DXF’s role was often combating the negativity by sharing about the best parts of Detroit.  The primary goal was getting people out in the city - reactivating Detroit ’s public spaces and local economy.

Today it feels hard to believe these were the dominant Detroit narratives, as the new reel often makes Detroit seem like the hottest city in America.  I see constant announcements of multi-million dollar real estate and economic development investments. Our public spaces, major venues, and cultural institutions are praised as world class and continue launching exciting new exhibits and events.  It’s impossible to keep up with new food, drink, arts, and entertainment offerings. It’s easier to find an exciting event and busy crowds than a sparsely filled place to grab a drink or meal.

At the same time, many Detroiters feel (and are) left behind.   Long-time residents who have invested their lives in Detroit see their work and stories go unappreciated - passed over for the glitzy, new happenings.  Poverty is still pervasive - Detroit’s median household income ranks behind every other major US city. Many neighborhoods see significantly less investment and municipal attention in their communities than other parts of the city.  Racial tensions continue to be palpable - in an 80% Black city many inspiring people of color have come to the forefront, but they are still underrepresented among Detroit’s affluent, the young professionals flooding downtown, and civic and business leadership.

Pursuing opportunities, adapting to change

The strategic planning process helped us see four ways to increase better achieve our mission and meet the needs of Detroit’s changing ecosystem.  First, because of our unique network, we need to play a key role in bringing people together across Detroit’s communities, from leadership to grass roots.  One key way we will do that is our first annual DXF Summit - a day of ideas and knowledge-sharing that will bring together subject matter experts and civic, business, and community leaders from across DXF’s network to talk about the major issues in Detroit around inclusive economic development, community integration, and Detroit arts, culture, and history.  We will also look for ways to host regular, smaller gatherings for our diverse stakeholders. Our recent strategic plan launch demonstrated the power of such gatherings as 40 people from major funders, cultural and entertainment leaders, community- and youth-focused non-profits, and neighborhood activists gathered to discuss DXF’s future and engaged in one of the more lively networking sessions I’ve seen.  By helping diverse people connect with others and on topics they usually don’t, DXF can create and maintain relationships across Detroit’s quickly growing social and economic ecosystems and help people find more opportunities for collaboration and inclusion.

Second, DXF’s growing group of paying clients are too seldom from communities that can benefit most from our content.  Because of this, DXF needs to increase intentional, programmatic engagement with Detroit youth, long-time residents, people of color, and immigrant communities.  We will serve these groups by launching programs to share current DXF tour content, developing new content celebrating their stories, and increasing their inclusion in our own team.  And we see powerful impacts with each group. With youth, we will challenge the myth that success means leaving the city and help young people (half of whom grow up in poverty) to discover their heritage as Detroit natives and see the opportunities for them here.  Our work with long-time residents and people of color will lift up more stories of their contributions to Detroit and increase opportunities for sharing their stories across lines of difference. Immigrants have long fueled Detroit’s economic and cultural riches - we can do more to celebrate their role in the city and help them engage them in our broader history, current context, and the work to build the future.

Third, we will engage corporate and civic leadership in more in-depth experiences.  DXF’s workshops and retreats will provide leadership teams and boards with an experience and outcomes they can’t find elsewhere - combining DXF tour content with expert facilitation in unique Detroit spaces.  In these customized sessions, leaders will discover what makes Detroit’s entrepreneurs and innovators so special, develop clarity and pride in their own role in Detroit’s thriving, and find inspiration in the city as the laboratory for building the team’s best ideas.  Because of the complex and diverse perspectives offered in DXF tours, leaders will also be able to create business, political, and philanthropic strategies that are more in touch with the needs of all Detroiters and more able to support inclusive and equitable growth. This work will also be an opportunity for collaboration with DXF’s new independently branded program, The City Institute, led by DXF Founder Jeanette Pierce.

Finally, DXF will increase our role in early stages of development.  DXF can deliver customized tours that help business leaders and investors see the potential for Detroit - both downtown and across the city’s neighborhoods - as the best place for their work and money. The mix of entertainment, education, and exploration on our tours is exactly what decision-makers need to to see to know that Detroit’s talent pool, real estate market, and many other opportunities  are what they are looking for - helping attract investments that create new jobs and fuel ongoing growth across the city.

Extending our role as a thought leader in Detroit

In closing, I’d like to highlight one more big goal we have set for ourselves.  In our vision, we identify that DXF will be a thought leader in our work, continuing to grow our reputation and brand.  We will seek to not only do the work outlined above, but also be more intentional in sharing lessons learned, providing perspective on inclusive and equitable pathways for development, and highlighting models and examples that can be built on in Detroit and beyond.  Practically, this means publishing articles on our own blog and in other venues, joining panels and interviews on relevant topics, creating photos, videos, and more about what’s happening in Detroit, and sharing this content on social media, other online media outlets, and traditional channels.

Thirteen years ago DXF launched as a champion for getting our region to recognize the value of our city’s history, culture and community.  In pursuing the opportunities outlined above, I think we continue to serve our mission in innovative ways. By sharing our thought leadership in the process, we also champion what Detroit can teach the rest of the world about how to thrive as a modern city - expanding our advocacy for Detroit to the global audiences that need to hear about the great things happening here.

In conclusion

We’re excited for what the future holds - and we need your help, starting by sharing your ideas here.  Thanks in advance for sharing your thoughts on how we make the most of the opportunities in front of us and how you think DXF’s role is changing as Detroit evolves.

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