Ben Ratner is a 2021-2022 Fellow. Ben grew up in Ann Arbor, MI and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Government and Legal Studies from Bowdoin College.
Tell us about your host company and your role in the organization.
I work for Brilliant Detroit, an organization that works alongside neighborhoods to repurpose vacant houses into community centers. Our hubs support families with young children through a wide range of programming, including literacy tutoring, exercise classes, nutrition workshops, mental health support, and much more. We hire from the neighborhood to ensure each hub offers a warm and welcoming environment. Because they are located right in the middle of a block, our hubs are accessible to the many families in Detroit who do not have access to a vehicle.
My role at Brilliant Detroit is the Development Manager. I oversee the lifecycle of our grants — including research, concept development, writing, and management. In short, I am an organizational storyteller, making the case for our model of community development and showcasing the brilliance of the families, partners, and volunteers who make up the Brilliant Detroit network. Though the city undoubtedly faces a range of challenges, we make a conscious choice to use an asset-based lens in our grant writing. Rather than define communities by what they do not have, we make a case for investing in each neighborhood’s strengths.
Tell us about the challenge project you’re currently working on; what are you learning from the experience?
We recently wrapped up our first Challenge project with the Metro Detroit Black Business Alliance (MDBBA). My team created a youth programming framework for MDBBA, including plans for an 8-week skill-building program for young entrepreneurs and a set of youth-specific membership perks. Throughout the project, we learned the importance of flexibility and listening. We learned not to get overly attached to our initial ideas, and to use the design thinking process to improve our prototype based on the feedback of MDBBA staff. Ultimately, our willingness to let go, shift gears, and simplify resulted in a finished product that will help MDBBA get their youth engagement work off the ground.
How do you hope to impact the community as a Fellow?
By investing time and energy in my neighborhood, I hope to give back to a city that has taught me so much. I’m a volunteer caretaker of our neighborhood garden, I mentor a student in the Central Detroit community, and I stay engaged with local politics and other forms of civic engagement.
Since becoming a Fellow, what is something you have learned about Detroit that has positively impacted your perspective on the city?
During our fellow orientation, I learned that the Avenue of Fashion (Livernois between 7 Mile and 8 Mile) is the largest concentration of Black-owned businesses in the United States. It’s a thriving corridor – we learned that first-hand by talking with a number of business owners – and an important reminder that economic growth is not always tied to cultural displacement. Detroit can and should be a leader in this type of community development, where we invest in the existing talents and entrepreneurship of its neighborhoods.
Please share the most memorable moment you have experienced so far as a Fellow. Why was it memorable and how has it impacted you?
For me, the most memorable moment of the fellowship thus far was at our kickoff day for our first Challenge Project with the Metro Detroit Black Business Alliance (MDBBA). In the middle of a day, we got to hear Black entrepreneurs practice their first-ever business pitches and give them feedback in real time. Although our feedback may have helped them refine their pitches, it really was an education for us as Fellows; these were the people who our projects needed to work for. During the rest of our project with MDBBA, I didn’t forget those aspiring entrepreneurs and their passion.
If someone is reading this and considering applying to be a Fellow, share why you would encourage them to apply?
I would encourage those considering the Challenge Detroit fellowship to apply so that you can join a network of people with diverse backgrounds and viewpoints who care about making the city a better place. We have so much to learn from our peers, and Challenge Detroit embraces this. You will be introduced to a wide range of nonprofit organizations in Detroit and have a chance to immerse yourself in their work, all while advancing their missions through your Challenge Projects.
Learn more about Ben in this video.