Tell us about living in Detroit. What neighborhood do you live in and what makes your neighborhood unique?

I live in a small apartment about two blocks outside the eastern city limit, just off of Jefferson Ave. in Grosse Pointe Park. I’ve been told by locals that the area is known as the “cabbage patch.” Here’s an interesting article about how it got that name.

There are a few things that make this area unique. This neighborhood represents the sort of socioeconomic buffer zone between the city of Detroit and the Grosse Pointe communities. Nowhere else in this country have I seen such a stark economic divide in such close proximity (outside of maybe some elite universities in Connecticut). Mack and Alter Rd are the physical boundaries and no signs are necessary to see that. A handful of businesses are just starting to return along east Jefferson Ave in Detroit, a coffee shop, a record store, and a salon. They remain surrounded by many neglected structures, empty homes, and vacant lots. But change is coming and there are many people who live in the Jefferson-Chalmers area, so the outlook is promising.

Meanwhile, less than two blocks over the imaginary line in Grosse Pointe Park, there is a thriving local business district, complete with a brewery, restaurants, a bakery, farmer’s market, bookstore, yoga studio, and other small shops, a nice library, all the homes are occupied and there are no vacant lots. Two blocks further into Grosse Pointe Park and there is extreme wealth with million-dollar- plus mansions each sitting on wooded acre lots. It’s like nowhere else I’ve ever lived and leaves me with more questions than answers.

What have you learned from Challenge Detroit so far?

The situations Challenge Detroit has presented in my life have taught or reinforced a number of valuable things. The first is a reinforcement of the willingness to be open to learning and trying new things (this does not extend to ice breakers. I still believe those are awful.). This has paid dividends at my host company and has allowed me to work in a wide variety of areas in a short time. The second is to not judge a book by its cover.

Depending on where you are in the city, Detroit can appear all kinds of ways, not many of them positive. However, anytime I’ve been granted access into someone’s world and seen the incredible work being done all around the city, I’m reminded that there are amazing people working all the time to solve problems, inspire future generations, and challenge the here and now. I’ve learned how important balance is in life and that I’m far from achieving it. I’ve learned that I miss my family in NW Wisconsin and Minnesota and for the first time since leaving home for college years ago, I feel the distance. I’ve also learned that I can pretty much make anywhere “home” and Detroit is no exception. And that’s in large part thanks to the friends I’ve made through this program.

Tell us about your host company and your role in the organization.

I am a Project Coordinator at Rock Ventures, the servicing entity for Quickenloans founder Dan Gilbert’s entire portfolio of companies (the FoC). So what does Rock Ventures do? The answer is that they do a little bit of everything, but the parts of the company that interests me most are the Special Projects team (my team and a division of Operations) and the Community Investments and Activation team (fellow Fellow Gabby’s and alumni Fellow Kayleigh’s team).

The CIA team, as they’ve dubbed themselves, focuses on all of the philanthropic, placemaking, and volunteer efforts of the FoC. In 2016 this took the form of over 100,000 volunteer hours coordinated in the city. The other core part of their mission is constantly working toward progress in seven strategic areas: Neighborhood Stabilization, Support of Human Services, Activating and Animating the city, Support of Local Entrepreneurs, Improving Education for All, Developing Transformational Sites, and Improving Public Safety.

The Special Projects team focuses on long-term, kind of oddball projects that don’t always fit in other departments. The nature of the projects are often confidential, at least while they’re happening, so unfortunately, I can’t say too much about what I’m doing. However I can say that I’m working with local high-speed internet provider Rocket Fiber on some very exciting community initiatives as well as with the City of Detroit to hopefully make life easier for aspiring entrepreneurs.

We asking Ryan’s team to share what he is working on and the value it provides to Rock Ventures and Josh McManus, Chief Operating Officer at Rock Ventures shared:

“In his relatively short time at Rock Ventures, Ryan has already proven that he can effectively work as part of a team to implement major projects. With an educational background in economic development and significant experience working across sectors, Ryan has been able to lead an effort to increase internet access across Detroit neighborhoods and has informed Rock Ventures’ work with small business and the Detroit housing market. He readily accepts new tasks, no matter the scale, and is always aiming to learn as much as he can.” 

What kind of impact do you hope to have with your host company and within the city?

It’s my hope that I can at least play a small part in leveraging the resources of the FoC to support sustainable community development projects around the city. I have an interest in sustainable housing that I’d like to find a way to engage with here. Within the city on a personal level, I hope to take part in more regular and meaningful volunteer activities. I’m about to start volunteer teaching weightlifting to students at the Downtown Youth Boxing Gym. There’s also an urban farm I want to get back in touch with in the spring to volunteer at some more.

What are you most looking forward to for the second half of your year as a Fellow?

I still have a lot to learn about the city. I’m looking forward to seeing what the collective impact of our cohort of fellows is as the year progresses. This is a great group of motivated, creative people and it will be interesting to see how fellows that are under- utilized at their host companies find other ways to use their talents and explore their interests.

What do you envision for Detroit 10 years from now?

I envision a city whose population has grown consistently for at least 5 years, reducing the number of empty structures and homes, a city with functioning public transit and a network of biking/walking routes that connect the entire city. I see a city that has affordable access to the fastest Internet speeds in the nation. I envision a city that helps people stay in their homes or purchase their first home, turns a good chunk of the vacant lots into public greenspace or allows people to build experimental sustainable homes on them, and allows agricultural activities. I see a city whose notoriously awful school system has achieved something resembling normalcy with the rest of the nation. I see a city with strengthened partnerships with its surrounding suburbs and across the river in Canada. I see a city that finally earns enough tax revenue to maintain its roads and that has the wherewithal to remove unnecessary roads that divide the city, a city with car insurance rates that don’t force its citizens to break the law. I see more cultural festivals and no more casinos. And there will be autonomous cars, hopefully electric. I also see a city with a football team that still can’t beat the Packers. Sorry, Detroit. You can’t always get what you want.

What is one piece of advice you would give to someone who is considering applying to Challenge Detroit’s next cohort?

To just be aware that it will change you. I didn’t anticipate this going in as someone who has done AmeriCorps in the past and who just finished a grad school cohort experience. I’m used to the one year, immersion-with- a-group experience. It’s essentially defined my professional life so far. You might not see it as it’s happening, but this program can have an all-encompassing effect and if you’re not careful, it can become your entire world. It’s important to maintain relationships with family and friends outside the program (and to cultivate relationships within the program, but centered around things outside the program, if that makes any kind of sense). I continue to struggle with this. Don’t let your hobbies and interests get buried in the barrage of events and projects. Always try to practice a ruthless optimism. When that fails, find a forest and walk in it.

To learn even more about Ryan’s time as a Fellow check out his spotlight video below.