Game over: Enough excuses from Detroit to Grand Rapids

This Rapid Blog comes to us from Matt Clayson, who leads, launches, and scales outcome driven organizations and initiatives. Whether it be working to grow Shinola’s reach amongst influencers and early adaptors, elevating Detroit’s image for Super Bowl XL, or laying the foundation for Detroit to be recognized as the first UNESCO City of Design in the United States, he specializes in developing metric driven marketing and communications strategies that mobilize influencers and connect in-market consumers to brands, products, and communities. Currently, Matt is Vice President and General Counsel at Detroit Trading Company. This essay is his own and does not necessarily reflect the views of Rapid Growth or its parent company, Issue Media Group.
This Rapid Blog comes to us from Matt Clayson, who leads, launches, and scales outcome driven organizations and initiatives. Clayson explores bottom-up solutions for communities across the state, including coming together to solve common problems.
“I am tired of making excuses for Detroit’s messes”…

…said various Grand Rapids business and civic leaders to me in 2010 at a summit convened to explore solutions for driving economic growth in Michigan’s cities.

In light of Flint’s water crisis, a broken education system, the worst roads in the nation, a botched tax foreclosure process in Wayne County, and the current and ever growing mess at Michigan State University, these words resonate–but not for Detroit, rather Michigan as a whole.

Yet, these words stung back in 2010, as I knew that in light of the corruption, incompetent leadership, broken neighborhoods and steady stream of negative news coming out of Detroit, there were equal amounts of responsible leaders, progressive solutions, strong neighborhood organizations and dedicated activists committed to addressing systemic inequity, driving local economic growth, and creating a cosmopolitan region where all citizens have access to opportunity and prosperity.

And these words stung my peers in Grand Rapids, who shared concerns about the increasing divide between Michigan’s first and second largest cities and who recognized the importance of a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship between the two.

Our response was simple: initiate an organic exchange between the two cities where next generation civic and business leaders could explore challenges and aspirations shared between the cities. This led to several exchanges between Detroit and Grand Rapids called GRR2DET, including a visit to the 2011 Rust Belt to Artist Belt Conference in Detroit, a series of related dialogues, discussions and tours in Detroit, and visits to ArtPrize and the Detroit Design Festival led by Creative Many Michigan (RG publisher Tommy Allen also wrote about the project in 2014). The audience expanded to include a who’s who of business leaders, civic leaders, and philanthropic leaders.

When our generation comes together, we make change.

Fast forward to Detroit’s bankruptcy, where the unthinkable happened: leaders from Grand Rapids and Southeast Michigan united to identify funding—to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars—to shore up Detroit’s finances, ensure pension obligations were met, and help Detroit make a clean exit from bankruptcy. And fast forward again, when the same stakeholders worked together to identify funding to help Detroit Public Schools return to solvency.

The actions of a group of committed, next generation leaders laid the foundation for mutual understanding and compromise.
Yet this compromise has only gotten us so far.

Much of Michigan remains mired in crisis—from crumbling roads to failed experiments with our public schools to a sexual assault crisis of epic proportions at Michigan State University. And few in the halls of power are willing to actively address these problems in a public, transparent manner.

Note my use of the word transparent. Michigan has a transparency problem. Big time. And this transparency problem is largely generational and cultural. And it leads to situations like Flint. Like Michigan State. Like the mess facing our public schools. Like those potholes that destroy our cars.

We need bottom-up solutions to fix Michigan’s transparency problem. The current top-down approach that relegates hard questions and comprehensive solutions to the metaphorical kiddie table is no longer working. See Flint. See MSU. Drive on one of our roads. Ask a teacher what it is like to teach in a public school turned experiment.

Bottom-up solutions need bottom-up leaders. Leaders whose skills have been honed working hand-in-hand with those they serve. Leaders who understand that their actions and the results that matter, not their volume or bluster. Leaders who take a long-term approach to problem solving, who build coalitions and partnerships to ensure that the solutions of today engender meaningful, systematic change. Leaders who understand that the next generation of leadership is neither predominately white nor male. Leaders who embrace the diversity of their peers and leverage that to drive policy that leaves no Michigander behind.

Across Michigan, women, people of color, people of the LGBTQ community, Millennials, people of migrant backgrounds, and their allies are raising their hands to lead. You see it in the refreshing campaigns for Congress, State Representative, and State Senate. You see it in the Governor, Attorney General and Secretary of State races. You see it in the corporate boardrooms and philanthropic conversations.

It is time for this group of committed, next generation leaders to lay the foundation for a new culture of leadership and openness in Michigan; just as they did back in 2010 to improve relations between Michigan’s two largest cities. And it is time for those who have been standing in the way to stand down.

I, for one, am sick of making excuses. Game over. It is time to act.