Serving, staying, and making a home in the City of Detroit
Jennifer Niggemeier was surprised when she attended the fifth annual Worldwide Ford School Spirit Day gathering in Detroit this summer. “When we first did a Detroit event in 2011, there were maybe seven people there,” says the Ford School’s director of graduate career services and alumni relations. “This year, there were nearly 30.”
That’s just one way of illustrating the rapid growth of both the Ford School’s presence in Detroit and the city’s popularity among students as an internship site. Here’s another: at least 10 of the 90 master’s students who did internships this summer completed them in Detroit. Niggemeier can remember when the norm was two or three.
She told some of the alums in Detroit that day that the deepening and broadening relationship between city and school was “a testament to their commitment to Detroit, their encouragement to keep expanding the school’s footprint in the city, and their willingness to help make that happen.”
It’s also a testament to the vision of philanthropists. Between 1994 and 2006, roughly two-dozen of the school’s students received support from the Ford Motor Company to intern in the Detroit mayor’s office. When the auto industry redirected its philanthropic investments, venture capitalist David Bohnett (MBA ’80) picked up the torch in 2010 and has already funded close to a dozen mayoral fellows.
While the fellowship recipients—all aspiring public servants—have been the direct beneficiaries of these programs, they are far from the only ones. Those who have interned in the mayor’s office have not only contributed to the city’s improvement, but have also fashioned a burgeoning pipeline of successors.
“The passion they feel is contagious, and they’re creating ways for it to be contagious,” says Niggemeier. “It’s one thing to say, ‘You should come and do this,’ and another to create the ways in which someone can do that: hosting an intern, opening your network, connecting people, and encouraging more students to get involved."
That’s a two-way street, says Olga Savic Stella (AB ’98, MPP ’99), who interned in Mayor Dennis Archer’s office in 1998 and was recently promoted to chief operating officer of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation.
“We’ve been pretty consistent in hosting one or two interns from the Ford School every summer,” she says. “One of the benefits is I know we’re going to have high-quality, highly skilled students working with us. For a nonprofit like ours, there isn’t a lot of extra time to hold someone’s hand.”
And, she says, students bring passion as well as skills to the table. “These students all really express a genuine interest in what Detroit has to offer, not just an internship for an internship’s sake,” says Stella of policy students both from Detroit and coming to Detroit for the opportunity to take part in the city’s future.
Like many other former fellows, Stella fits squarely into the latter category. She grew up in suburban Troy, Mich., but has lived in Detroit since her graduation from the Ford School. “I can honestly say the internship directly spurred my economic development career in Detroit,” Stella says. “It really opened the door to a lot of opportunities I would probably not have had otherwise.”
Stephanie Chang (AB ’05, MPP/MSW ’14) interned in Mayor David Bing’s office in 2012. Originally from Canton, she had spent years working as a community organizer in Detroit when she first learned about the mayoral internship opportunity. “I realized that I had a bunch of experience working as an organizer and an advocate from outside, but no experience actually working within government,” she says, “so I thought it would be a good opportunity.”
It was. After her fellowship, Chang campaigned to become state representative for House District 6, which includes Detroit, River Rouge, and Ecorse. In 2014 she won the post, becoming the first Asian American woman to hold a seat in the Michigan state legislature.
Diana Flora (AB ’09, MPP/MUP ’13), who interned in the mayor’s office with Chang, took a different path. Flora had already interned for Chang’s predecessor, State Representative Rashida Tlaib, working in her Neighborhood Service Center and, among other things, helping high school students fill out their financial aid applications. She later served as Tlaib’s campaign manager, and knew she wanted to work in government. “There’s something I’ve always loved about working to serve my neighbors,” says Flora, “and I really count everyone in the city as my neighbors.”
Since then, Flora has won a number of fellowships that have allowed her to continue to serve the City of Detroit. Most recently, she served as project manager for Data Driven Detroit (D3), managing the organization’s contributions to the Motor City Mapping project that employed Detroit residents to photograph and survey all of the city’s 380,000 properties, then created an easy-to-navigate map showing the condition of each. This August, Flora became one of the inaugural Kresge Mayor’s Fellows, tasked with using her data skills to find ways to improve public safety processes and services within the Detroit Police Department.
“Knowing that I had already had experience in a public safety department (as a Bohnett Fellow) and understood what daily operations were like, what the back-end data looked like, was appealing to the people who hired me,” says Flora.
Brittney Foxhall was majoring in international business at Howard University when her term as student association president lit her public policy fire. “I really loved and enjoyed that experience,” she says, “so I decided to come back and get a master’s in public policy.”
Foxhall, who hails from Detroit originally, chose the Ford School for her studies and interned in Mayor Mike Duggan’s office this summer, assisting a district manager in the mayor’s new Department of Neighborhoods.
“It was not an internship where I was sitting in an office from nine to five,” she says. “I spent most of my time in the field, and I think one of the biggest takeaways was learning there are people in city government who are not elected officials but are on the ground and really doing work that affects the people that live in these communities. I always wanted to run for office, but now I know that’s not necessary to effect the kind of change I hope to bring about some day.”
Lisa Nuszkowski (MPP ’03) was a mayoral intern during the Kwame Kilpatrick administration, then returned to Detroit after graduation where she’s worked for two city administrations, served as State Representative Steve Tobocman’s (MPP/JD ’97) chief of staff, and co-directed the Michigan Foreclosure Task Force. “Obviously, Detroit has had a lot of challenges,” she says, “but it also has such great opportunities and such good people doing good work here. I wanted to become a part of it.”
That she has done, and then some. She spent the last three years overseeing projects at Wayne State University designed to help the school be “a good neighbor in a good neighborhood,” before becoming executive director of Detroit Bike Share this summer. “Detroit has long been known as the Motor City, but we’re also a city where at least a quarter of the population doesn’t have access to a personal vehicle,” says Nuszkowski, so a bike share is “not just a nice amenity to have, but really critical in getting people around.”
Ben Falik (MPP/JD ’09), who interned in the mayor’s office shortly after Nuszkowski, has long been involved in connecting student volunteers to meaningful work in Detroit. In 2001, he co-founded the volunteer organization Summer in the City, and these days, he’s deepening those efforts as director of Repair the World’s Detroit headquarters.
Falik believes the city’s “onramps and runways to involvement” have grown substantially since he founded Summer in the City nearly 14 years ago. With increased attention and engagement, he sees the next challenge as “doing with, rather than doing for,” and together tackling “the decades of institutionalized racism and concentrated poverty that have made it really hard for a lot of motivated people to be part of the city’s rising tide.”
Thanks to the philanthropic investments of donors and the talent and diligence of alumni, the Ford School has indeed grown its footprint in Detroit. But it is also making an imprint, both on the city and on the students who go there and are captivated by what they find.
By Jeff Mortimer for State & Hill, the magazine of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy
Below is a formatted version of this article from State & Hill, the magazine of the Ford School. View the entire Fall 2015 State & Hill here.