Overheard — “But I hate Detroit”

I’m sitting in Chapelure, an adorable coffee and Asian-inspired pastry shop in East Lansing not far from MSU’s campus. It’s one of the places I often camp out on Tuesdays to do work. The coffee’s good, the staff is friendly, the music is not too distracting, the background chatter is soothing since it’s usually in Korean or Chinese, and the green tea madeleines, quiche, and egg sandwiches are scrumptious.  It’s always too hot in here, and I have a sort of irrational dislike of their grey cafe hard-cornered tables,  but I’m willing to endure those very minor points for the overall effect.

Today though, I was sitting next to a pretty blond girl dressed in professional clothes, hair tied back in a sleek ponytail. She looked like an upperclassman — too fresh-faced to be an overworked grad student, but with a certain measure of confidence. After a bit, her beau came in and sat down at the table with her. They started talking about the places where she was planning to apply for jobs.

After talking through a few other options, Beau suggested that she look into the Detroit Athletic Club — he’d heard they were hiring for a food and beverage service manager and said it was one of the top-rated clubs in the States. Her response: “Oh really, interesting… But I hate Detroit.”

His response to this: “Well you don’t have to live there. You could live outside the city.”

I know this is how many people think. I know many many people downtown and live in the suburbs — it’s impossible to ignore the very clear traffic patterns — folks coming in to the city in the morning and rushing out in the evenings – but I guess I tend to hang out with so many Detroit-die-hards and am constantly contacted by folks who are dreaming about moving into the city that I forget what this attitude looks and sounds like — the texture and color and reality of people like this…

I wanted to keep my mouth shut. I was busy and I didn’t really want to get into it with this girl who I didn’t know from Methusalah, and I wasn’t sure if I even cared to engage with someone who would say something so … silly? careless? uninformed? But I couldn’t keep quiet. I told her what I loved about living in Detroit. I told her how it was hard sometimes, but that it was a place unlike anywhere else, where creative people are engaged and participating in building the kind of city they want to see, where young adults can step up and make an impact in a way they can’t necessarily in other places…

She was open. She listened. I don’t know what she took away from the very very short interaction, but I know it made me wonder if there are parts of my life where I’m similarly blinded by perception and make statements or decisions based on flawed and incomplete assumptions. Is it possible to avoid this? Perhaps it’s all a matter of degree.

November 1, 2011   No Comments


So I’ve been struggling for the past few months with what it is that I’m actually going to study in my dissertation.

We have some pretty awesome plans in the works with the Metro Detroit Good Food Entrepreneurs. I’m excited about the business plan bootcamp we’re putting on in January, February and March… and website development and the idea of developing training/resource modules around starting a good food business in Detroit, and a mentorship program, and networking together commercial kitchens, and all kinds of other good stuff. And supposedly I have IRB approval to start my research with the group and approved consent forms and all that, but my questions are still murky (or perhaps myriad is a better “m” word to describe where I’m at… myriad, multitudinous…)

So I’d tried talking it out and I’d tried writing it out in a linear fashion and neither of those things were working very well, so I decided to make a little mindmap. This is still a bit confusing. As you can see, lines cross each other every which-way, but I think it’s helping me come to some sort of peace about how different elements are connected, and what needs to be put to one side or demoted to a secondary or tertiary focus.

click it to make it bigger!

September 26, 2011   4 Comments


For those of you who read this and aren’t in Detroit, you can get some background on the situation here or here. Basically, a random bloke from Massachusetts suggested to the Mayor that the city erect a statue of RoboCop. The mayor said ‘no thanks,’ some crazy kids threw up a facebook page, a website and a kickstarter campaign, and $50K later, Detroit’s  citizenry are in an uproar.

I don’t care if Robocop gets built or not, I watched the movie for the first time just last week and mostly felt confused.

But after some contemplation, I realize I’m solidly a fan of the campaign and less of a fan of Captain Complainers who whine that the money should/could be spent some other way. If you think the statue will be ugly, or you hate it as a symbol, I can feel you. Argue on aesthetic merits. But getting upset that a few people raised money for something crazy and whimsical (but not harmful), when in some ideal world, they could have raised that money for something more worthy, seems silly.

I understand the frustration of seeing money go towards something you don’t think is worthwhile when there’s so much that needs doing. I guess I’ve dealt with a different, but related situation in Cambodia and in other nonprofit work since. In Cambodes, specifically, upstart grads from fancy schools in the states with connections, marketing abilities, and good intentions tended to raise all kinds of money (much much more than $50K) from angel investors and individuals and foundations back home mostly because they called their work “social entrepreneurship” and had fancy websites and made it seem cutting-edge and innovative. They would then use this money to do projects that came out of ideas they learned at school, but didn’t always align with what was actually needed, and sometimes forced the people they were trying to help to take a step backwards. Sometimes these organizations would be on the right track, but wouldn’t know how to do the work themselves, so they’d take a big cut of the money and then pay local organizations (like the one I worked with) to do the real work (or in egregious cases, ask us to do it for free). They weren’t building statues, but sometimes they were doing more expensive things like creating new facilities that were used a handful of times. Obviously it would have been much more awesome if local organizations doing the “real,” “important,” “effective,” unsexy work could get the money directly, but it wasn’t the way things worked.

Yes, this was annoying, but I eventually realized that these folks were raising awareness among people who might never have even considered entering a conversation about Cambodia and its problems. Same deal with Robo & Detroit — look at all the people it’s riled and mobilized. Also, these masterful marketers (like the RoboTeam) were explicitly in the game of finding ways to circumvent & invent alternatives to traditional funding streams with all their requisite bureaucracy and strings and power dynamics and look for ways to tap into a more democratic, values-based sense kind of money (for others thinking about this, check out the Future of Money).

In this case, instead of complaining, we went and cultivated relationships with these folks and started to educate them about how they could help my organization do our work better and how they could use the resources they were able to garner  more effectively. These people had connections and skills we could use, and while their lack of humility and often frightening disconnectedness from reality could be galling, in the end, they shared a lot of our values. If we weren’t quite teammates, we were at least rooting for the same side to win.

This doesn’t always work when egos can’t be tamed and people have personal agendas they aren’t willing to give up, but it worked in our case, and it seems like the RoboCrew is pretty aware and very involved in the community and pretty committed to using the momentum from this for good in Detroit. It wouldn’t be my choice to build a statue of RoboCop, and maybe it wouldn’t have been theirs either (it wasn’t really their idea, after all), but they took advantage of an opportunity. And I’m not totally sure I see anything wrong per se with being opportunistic. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to hurt anyone to put up a statue, and it’s not as if the money would have existed at all had it not been for this campaign.

I think a lot about this too in relationship to my work in food. There is this foodie scene — folks who care a lot about specialty foods and sometimes about the environmental stuff, but tend to be pretty separate from conversations about food justice as it relates to access or structural racism or farmworkers rights. This scene is trendy, it is growing, it’s sophisticated in its use of Twitter, it shops at the same Whole Foods with rich VCs in Palo Alto and Seattle. People who work on less trendy issues can get their panties in a bunch talking about elitism and greenwashing, and while I think it’s an important conversation to have, as long as no one’s getting hurt by fancy food and expensive organics (it’s important to acknowledge that sometimes people do get hurt), I’m more interested in figuring out how to take advantage of and channel this momentum (both its people and its financial power) to promote other related issues that may be less sexy, but related and within the same range of values.

Anyway, others have said it (more than once) and I agree that more than anything, this RoboBusiness seems like a kick in the pants (or maybe a lesson in genius marketing) for those who care about doing good work in Detroit. Get out and DO IT (and maybe enlist the help of RoboPosse on your marketing & fundraising committee).

February 17, 2011   5 Comments

Food Desert & Grocery Buzz

Some talk about grocery stores buzzing around the social media space in Detroit this week got me to thinking about urban food security is such a hot topic, but it seems like we tend to ignore some of the severe issues with food access in rural areas.
Thanks Center for Rural Affairs for reminding me of the bigger picture in your oh-so-awesome newsletter. This article was especially interesting. Appreciated the commentary on grocery stores as “more” than just food access points and especially love the example of the high schoolers starting a grocery.
May be meeting with the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation’s Green Grocer project folks soon to talk about how they can tie into the conference I’m working on organizing around local and regional food distribution. Very much looking forward to hearing their take on the recent buzz in the blogggggggosphere.

January 26, 2011   No Comments


This guy is a rockstar. Everything he says resonates.

What inspires you to do your work? “Problem solving… Creating interesting, innovative, and efficient solutions”

“I think we miss opportunities to connect food advocacy and other fields of interest because the nature of the work (and the method of funding) breeds specialization rather than integration.”

“I don’t know one initiative in any field of interest that has been able to create sustainable, game-changing outcomes within 12 months… But in the food movement, we overpromise and underfund, then get mad when we don’t change the world after a year.”

“Investing in communities to create things. Be a part of the creation movement.”

And yet another reason to move to Detroit:

“In two weeks Detroit will launch its Green Grocer Project, which is a grocery expansion and attraction program to help with operations, financing and giving them a direct liaison housed in the City for anything they need. To create a space in the city for a grocer at any level to get involved and give them a contact for anything they need: bookkeeping, accounting, store design, product handling, you name it.… the Mayor will make an announcement on May 17th and it’ll be like watching my baby be born.”

May 11, 2010   No Comments