Bohnett fellows experience a summer of change and resilience in Detroit

July 19, 2020

Managing the fight against homelessness, creating employment opportunities, and reforming law enforcement in Detroit are complex issues at any time. Add an economic recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the increased activism of the Black Lives Matter movement, and it has been a unique summer in the city.

Three first-year Ford School students worked in the Detroit mayor’s office over the summer to help tackle those issues, thanks to the David Bohnett Foundation Leadership and Public Service Fellowship, now in its 10th year. They come from different professional backgrounds before attending the Ford School: a journalism career in the Midwest, work for a national workforce development association in DC, and law enforcement in Ypsilanti. All are committed to improving local governance.

When Safiya Merchant (MPP ‘21) worked at newspapers in suburban Chicago and Battle Creek, she observed issues but could not act upon them, and that led to frustration. “The Ford School was the place for me, with its emphasis on social policy. I had covered education equity issues and wanted to work more closely with communities to solve systemic policy challenges. This Fellowship allowed me to go to grad school and follow that dream,” she says.

Merchant was assigned to the city’s Housing and Revitalization Department (HRD), where she worked on a team applying for a multimillion-dollar grant that would in part build new affordable housing and provide services to residents. She helped create resident surveys, as well as analyzed data to ensure that the grant aligned with resident needs.

“The city is experiencing substantial growth, and the goal is to preserve and create affordable housing and give the residents wrap-around social services centered on improving educational and health outcomes and enhancing economic self-sufficiency,” she explains.

Though mostly working from her kitchen table, from that perch she was able to meet people in many parts of the city government, as well as nonprofits, developers, and consultants. “It was great to learn how a diverse set of stakeholders can collaborate on a single goal,” she says.

She considered it a bonus that she was able to work with Ford School alumna Julie Schneider (MPP ‘13), once a Bohnett Fellow herself.

For Kevin Naud (MPP ‘21) attending the Ford School felt like coming home. He is a native of Ann Arbor and the son of two alumni, a first for the school. After five years in Washington, DC, working primarily for the National Association of State Workforce Agencies, Naud knew local workorce development was his passion, but he needed more local experience and policy tools. Landing in the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development for the fellowship was a perfect fit. “Between the financial support and the internship opportunity, getting this fellowship was a game-changer for me,” he says.

“In Detroit, a lot of people are in more informal types of work or are interested in starting new businesses,” says Naud, who was able to help by taking a system-wide view.

“Long-term, what we do in workforce development has to work in partnership with many other community services. People are having trouble getting to a job or training because they don't have transportation; they don't have good childcare, or are experiencing homelessness, or don't have stable housing. It’s all linked.”

Though Naud touts Detroit for its resilience, he worries about unemployment numbers, citing that 40 to 50 percent of the population is currently out of work. “I am inspired by my co-workers and especially by our clients — the people looking for work and helping them find it. These issues existed pre-COVID, but this crisis has forced local governments to adapt and has created a sense of urgency to do more. What we are doing now will make it a stronger system post-COVID.”

Alyshia Dyer (MPP/MSW ‘22) worked as a police officer in the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office for 7 years prior to coming to the Ford School. Working in Ypsilanti Township, an area where she grew up, she focused on community policing and family engagement. “As a police officer, I found myself really just doing social work. Most of the calls for service in the community were mental health related,” she says.

“I started seeing a lot of trauma that wasn't being addressed in the system. Seeing the inequity families experienced everyday fueled my passion to go into policy and social work. I wanted to focus more on macro-level, systemic change,” she says. “From a boots on the ground perspective, I saw the importance of public health and policy and how racial and financial inequality can impact kids' futures.”

In Detroit’s Civil Rights, Inclusion & Opportunity Department (CRIO), her most meaningful work was serving the mayor’s Equity Council. There she participated on a subcommittee looking at criminal justice reform, particularly bail reform.

Working on CRIO’s annual report allowed her to work with multiple teams and she appreciated seeing how programs and policies were implemented and evaluated. “At CRIO, you do a little bit of everything, and the teams work together to fight for the inclusion of Detroiters on development projects in the city while also supporting local entrepreneurship to promote economic growth. It was nice to be surrounded by talented, hard working people that cared about the community.”

As the Black Lives Matter movement grew, and alongside it calls for major police reform, all three students witnessed the response to that activism through a unique lens at the mayor’s office.

“This is definitely a very emotional time around police reform,” says Dyer. “It's been really meaningful to work with the Equity Council and research how our cash bail system disproportionately harms people in poverty. Writing policy recommendations for bail reform has reminded me how important public service is, and why I went back to school to pursue my graduate degree.”

Naud saw how racial justice was a part of everything his department executed. “It is ingrained already in this office. The mission and values here are to be more inclusive, and specifically to focus on addressing long-standing inequities in Detroit's workforce.”

As the country saw residents mobilize for police reform, the head of HRD, where Merchant was working, called a staff meeting.

“The message was: equity is at the center of everything we do. The Bohnett Fellowship is all about leadership. I saw that in action.”

The next class of Bohnett Fellows are: Kristina Curtiss, currently based in Detroit and working on workforce development, economic opportunity, and mobility initiatives; Adam Flood, a dual MPP/MPH student who has worked primarily on public health research efforts in his native Flint; and Clare Knutson, an automotive engineer who has decided to pursue a career focused on community improvement.

You can learn more about them here.