Vishnu Venugopal is a 2020-2021 Challenge Detroit Fellow. Vishnu hails from Novi, Michigan and has a background in Economics, History, Intergroup Relations Education and Global Media Studies, as well as a Master of Arts in Sound Arts and Industries.

A photo of Vishnu with two of his advisors and mentors from graduate school (they hold an MA in Sound Arts and Industries). In their role, Vishnu organized biweekly dialogues for APIDA (Asian Pacific Islander and Desi American) students at Northwestern. They hope to continue creating spaces and work that challenges, connects across differences, and heals societal wounds that have shaped who we are as individuals.

Tell us about your host company and your role in the organization.
My host company is Total Solutions. We are an IT consulting firm that focuses on custom web development and implementation of Microsoft’s Office 365 stack for small businesses, large corporations and everything in between. I was brought in as part of the delivery team but we’re a small organization so I’ve worn hats on our design, sales, marketing, recruiting and the aforementioned technical delivery team.

Tell us about the challenge project you’re currently working on; what are you learning from the experience?

We’ve just started our final cohort challenge with the Detroit Phoenix Center and getting to know their team and the work they do supporting high risk and homeless youth has been incredibly inspiring and resonant thus far. The org does incredible work, making their resources immediately accessible to their target communities. Courtney (Smith, the Founder and CEO of Detroit Phoenix Center) emphasized the importance of empathy interviews in creating community sourced solutions to problems in our communities. In centering the perspectives of the folx the organization seeks to support, they’ve been able to provide a multitude of useful resources for homeless and formerly homeless youth to set up their own sustainable foundations and strategies to build their lives upon. In doing so, the organization has a lasting impact in the lives of the youth they engage.

I’m enthused by their energy and confident the work we’ll be doing supporting the creation of a mobile app, a podcast, outreach materials, emergency resources and more, will definitely help this small but mighty team continue to elevate as they find new and innovative ways to make their services more accessible and increase their impact as we move through this pandemic and continue combating youth homelessness in Detroit. The hope is that, in time, more local, state and federal organizations will take a cue from DPC’s service delivery models to iterate upon to create higher quality services that, again, are super accessible and, in turn, impactful to communities impacted by homelessness.

An image of our team and our partner liaison, Kiki Louya, from our last challenge with Grandmont Rosedale Development Company.

How do you hope to impact the community as a Fellow?
My goal as a fellow this year has been to establish my intentions to be a positive force for good in Detroit and the surrounding communities. That has looked far different than I could have imagined, but in practice, I’ve found my focus to be on a few simple questions: Can I show up in ways that engage, encourage, and enrich the lives of the people around me? Can I create and contribute to work that will be useful to our nonprofit partners as soon as we hand over our deliverables? Can I plant the seeds to build fortified, sustainable relationships with my peers? If I’m able to show up for myself in those ways, I think my impact in the community can begin to lay the foundation for the longer term work I hope to complete in the years to come.

Since becoming a Fellow, what is something new that you have learned?
Communication in collaboration is incredibly important. I think this had been highlighted to me before, but as we’ve worked through the design thinking process remotely, it’s become even more key to me to let folx know where someone might be at so we can effectively, collectively balance the work we need to do with the pieces of a person’s life that may recur or pop up out of the blue. Consistency in that communication allows us to hold each other accountable in ways that are healthier – minimizing harm as we lead with compassion and understanding. Finally, another major theme has been creating immediately accessible, sustainable and implementable solutions that our non-profit partners can receive from us and run with immediately.

How do you believe your fellowship will shape your career moving forward?
So many ways! To this point, the emphasis on accessibility of resources (particularly the ones we are creating and providing to our nonprofit partners) has been huge, but more broadly, this fellowship feels like a much needed introduction to Detroit and the nonprofit ecosystem. In understanding and utilizing the design thinking process, I’m learning more and more each day how to best ensure the participation of the community in the creation of solutions for and by the community. Putting all of this together with the work I’ve done to this point, I feel like I’m setting a sustainable, fortifiable foundation for me and my peers to build the types of staple organizations that can create positive impact in the community for years to come.

If someone is reading this and considering applying to be a Fellow, why would you encourage them to apply?
Being a fellow this year has been a wonderful experience (even in the remote setting)! If anyone reading this is considering applying I would tell them that it’s a wonderful opportunity to get more exposed to and involved in the nonprofit community in Detroit. Through the fellowship, you’ll develop a better understanding of what needs are being worked on, what gaps are still waiting to be filled, and how you can best get involved to support. Through the design thinking process, the fellowship will encourage you to engage with community members to more fully understand their problems and, in turn, more effectively ideate and iterate to create robust and accessible solutions. Finally, the fellowship will introduce you to so many different people and opportunities! It’s a wonderful way to test your limits, and see what sorts of things you might like to work on all while you learn about yourself and the ways you can most effectively be you.

An image of what our ideation phase mapped out to as we shifted into our design phase during our first challenge with Focus Hope’s Generation of Promise program.