Why I have gratitude for Challenge Detroit and what my time as a fellow has meant personally and professionally

As my time concludes as a Challenge Detroit fellow, I look back and ask myself, “How would I sum up this experience? What did it mean to me? Was it worth it?”

The short answer is, of course, yes. Joining Challenge Detroit and my host company, DTE, was certainly “worth it” and this time did mean something to me, especially in regard to bolstering my personal development. But still, I struggle to find a succinct way to sum up my experience… How do you describe a year filled with a mix of creativity, diversity, lots of listening, some uncomfortable growth, and extremely tight deadlines? How do you translate that into a couple sentences for someone else to understand?

Rather than trying to do that, I decided to take a look back at my year as a Challenge Detroit fellow and explore some of the most important themes that came up. In the end, I recognized three key principles I plan to take with me in the future and I decided to share them here too, hoping they will provide value to other readers.

3 Things I Learned as a Challenge Detroit Fellow

startup environment

Challenge Detroit fellows gather at TechTown, Detroit’s entrepreneurship hub on the Wayne State University campus. 

1. Though it’s hard to measure, small actions add up in solving wicked problems.

According to Harvard Business Review, a wicked problem is an issue that is nearly impossible to solve because it “has innumerable causes, is tough to describe, and doesn’t have a right answer.” In Detroit and our nation, some of today’s wicked problems include poverty, education design, healthcare access, income disparities, affordable housing, sustainability, and more.

At both DTE and Challenge Detroit, I often worked on tasks with goals aimed at helping improve Detroit’s wicked problems, such as distributing connected devices to every student in the Detroit Public Schools Community District to solve gaps in our education system or designing new outreach methods for the City of Detroit’s Office of Civil Rights, Inclusion & Opportunity to help create a more equitable city.

While my tangible contributions may have seemed small, I know that my past participation, activations, and future voice is not. Small actions from all of us will create impact that can eventually add up in the long run, especially if we use the design thinking process that forces us to listen to others and consider a human-centered approach in creating solutions.

Virtually working on Challenge #4 with Manistique Community Treehouse Center and Michigan Community Resources in Detroit’s Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood. 

2. “You can’t scale community development.”

Similarly, I will never forget one of the first Challenge Detroit immersion sessions I sat in at Neighborhood HomeBase in Detroit’s Fitzgerald neighborhood, where a community activist reminded me why I sometimes find community development difficult: it takes a lot of time.

Like with a wicked problem, there is no checklist that can be quickly run through regarding community development. You can’t hold one community meeting for a new project and say you’ve got community support. (And if you know me, you know I am a classic overachiever who likes to check items off her list.)

Still, throughout this entire year, this quote has stuck with me because it reminds me to slow down and stay present. It reminds me that by moving too fast, I am likely missing a crucial input or perspective. It reminds me that, especially in law school and my future career in solving problems for others, I will need to take the extra time, even when it doesn’t feel like I have it.

Scenes from peaceful protests in downtown Detroit. 

3. Sometimes learning is achieved through unlearning.

As a Challenge Detroit fellow, I felt I came into the program with a truly open mind. Though I came to the program with years of career experience in other cities and states, I knew that there was still a significant deal of information to learn. Yet, even though I knew that, I didn’t realize how foundational the idea of “unlearning” would be to my fellowship year.

For example, nearly every project I’ve worked on at DTE or with my cohort in Challenge has taught me something new (and something to be unlearned) about a subject I previously thought I understood – whether that was how to operate effectively in a massive Fortune 500 company or how block clubs and neighborhood associations can play a vital role in the livelihood and success of a community.

Toward the end of this year’s Challenge Detroit fellowship, all of us began to face two additional challenges: the COVID-19 pandemic and our collective history of racial injustice in America. It was at this time that I realized just how grateful I am to be a part of Challenge Detroit and DTE, two communities, one corporate and one non-profit, where I could embrace these two distinct challenges, talk through them together with diverse voices, and find ways to unlearn and build a better system of support.

In the end, I return to my original set of questions and I ask myself:

  • How would I sum up this experience?
  • What did it mean to me?
  • Was it worth it?

Was Challenge Detroit worth it? I believe the answer is yes.