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A Salute to a Mighty ‘Detroit Nation’

New name. New friends. New Year. New Detroit?

I’m talking about Detroit Nation, formerly known as 635 Mile. I met members of this unique grassroots group of area ex-pats recently, and I’ve been intrigued to see how much the non-profit organization has grown since launching just months ago. (Detroit Nation recently surpassed 313 members on Facebook alone — note the clever number reference.) And it goes to show how one mention of the word “Detroit” can be a catalyst…and, in this case, for positive change.

Since I first spoke to co-founder Rachel Jacobs, much has happened. First, the name change. The group evolved to become Detroit Nation because there is so much interest in starting groups across the United States, Jacobs said. So each city group will have its own Mile Road reference, i.e. Chicago’s group is known as 284 Mile, and New York is known as 635 Mile. But they all fall under the Detroit Nation umbrella. Get it? As new cities come on the map, they too will earn their Mile Road badge.

As for the new friends…well, there is a lot to report in this area. Detroit Nation not only came to Detroit in November (and met with half the city to determine future plans) but the group merged with a Los Angeles-based ex-pat group to basically double its membership. Amazing. So “Young Detroit Hollywood” is now a part of Detroit Nation. LA organizers Max Aaronson, Eli Sussman and Aron Kaczander (who formed YDH in 2008) have been incredible advocates for Detroit, Jacobs said, and there are big things in the works for this bi-coastal relationship.

And the people who join are truly dedicated to changing Detroit, even if they don’t live within the city limits. After all, who else would venture out on a freezing Chicago night to sit around and talk about the region’s problems? The 60 people who attended the Chicago kick-off event on a chilly Tuesday evening “were a relatively small crowd, but everybody there was really committed and interested in working with us,” Jacobs said. Detroit Nation’s Chicago team (which includes Bryan Fenster, Adam Babcock, A.J. Chalom and Tanya Shave Silverstein) are essential to the group’s success there, she said.

“The new name also speaks to the fact that Detroit has become a symbol for post-industrial America,” Jacobs said. “There is a lot of tragedy in Detroit’s story, but there also is increasingly a focus on Detroit as a testing ground for social and economic revitalization programs.”

This is another reason why the name change made sense, Jacobs said. Detroit Nation wants to be an organization that facilitates discussion around new ideas about Detroit. And the city desperately needs new ideas. That is one of the main lessons Jacobs said she learned when a group of Detroit Nation members traveled to the city in November to talk to city leaders.

“The trip was interesting because it changed our perception of what the needs are in Detroit,” Jacobs said. “It started elementarily; we thought everyone would say they needed money. We came and saw the issues were far more complex. Far more than money, people talked about the need for human capital. For example, literacy came up time and again as a major barrier to development. It is difficult to attract companies because they don’t want to locate in a city where half of the population is functionally illiterate.”

The case for the “creative” side of Detroit is being made, she noted. Lots of artists are here, using the large spaces, low housing prices and relatively inexpensive rents to their advantage. But the case for businesses coming to Detroit has yet to be made effectively – and that is where Detroit Nation may be able to make a true difference. Jacobs believes that Detroit Nation can start to change the national perception of Detroit, advance the investment in human capital and thereby deepen the ecosystem for businesses and non-profit organizations.

So what’s next? More meetings, more discussions, more action. Jacobs is thrilled with the response so far, and organizers are giddy about the future.

“Everybody has just been really excited to work with us. We feel so fortunate,” she said.

So do we, Rachel, so do we.

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