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Innovation Challenge Harnesses the Power of Community

News stories about Detroit’s comeback are written almost every day. Much is written about new developments in the city, but little is said about the people who have endured school shutdowns, reduction of infrastructure maintenance and police force cutbacks. How are their needs being met? How are they being included in the growing economic landscape? How will they be part of the emerging business culture? How can they contribute to Detroit’s comeback?

In effort to address the lack of inclusion, the Skillman Foundation and Campaign for Black Male Achievement, launched the My Brother’s Keeper Detroit Innovation Challenge. The $500,000 initiative invests in programs that seek to empower Detroit’s young men of color.

More than 450 ideas were submitted in March 2016. Ideas included technology training, emotional learning programs, mentorships and entrepreneurial workshops. During the first selection round, 100 teams were chosen to present their vision in a more detailed application.

Round two narrowed the group to 20 teams. From June to July, each team received $5,000 to prototype and test their idea in a real-world setting. The goal was to launch a small version of the programs and make needed changes along the way. The teams received professional technical assistance throughout the process.

On September 27, 2016, the 20 teams presented their progress and findings to a panel of eight judges, including two young Detroiters. Each team took part in a Q&A session and showcased their work in an expo hosted at the College for Creative Studies. The teams engaged with the community, receiving feedback from the panelists and people in attendance.

The final selection round awarded six teams with $50,000 each to launch their idea.

The six projects awarded were:

  • Culture Creators: Helps young men become leaders, community builders and independent artists by merging arts, activism and entrepreneurship.
  • Developing Despite Distance: Helps young men of color express complex emotions and connect with their incarcerated parents.
  • Dream Deferred Project: Works with young adults who have left school and the workplace, reconnecting them in educational and economic opportunities.
  • Giving Them The Business: Teaches young men of color practical skills to become owners and operators of restaurants using a full-service restaurant setting.
  • JOURNi: Addresses the lack of opportunities for Detroit youth to develop tech and entrepreneurial skills.
  • Our Town: offers neighborhood and city tours designed and lead by youth from Detroit’s east side.

The additional $5,000 Audience Choice Award was given to Developing Despite Distance, based on votes by the event’s attendees.

The six teams are currently in the “expand and scale” stage as they work to bring their idea to life. Their monthly workshops provide technical assistance and help to keep them accountable and connected with one another. Teams are responsible for scheduling their collective monthly meetings. The Foundation serves as a thought-partner for solving challenges and a resource to provide meeting space and professional assistance to the teams.

“You are not operating on your own,” said Skillman Foundation Program Officer Kumar Raj. “You’re able to leverage the time and talent of those five other teams along with you. It allows for collaboration.”

The development of these initiatives have had their legal, logistical and creative stumbling blocks, as any new organization does. But by taking part in the MBK Detroit Innovation Challenge, these groups have a springboard for these ideas to be seen locally and nationally. JOURNi received Google’s RISE Award to promote computer science to underrepresented youth in the field. Giving Them The Business has partnered with a brick-and-mortar space to use as its classroom. Culture Creators found a group of funders to support one of their infrastructure-based projects in the southwest Detroit.

While the stage of development for each idea varies, their work continues to move forward as they prepare to present their projects at the capstone expo in the fall.

What could have been described by some as a competition has become a collaboration of talent and resources within the Detroit community. The initiative serves as another example that Detroit’s best asset is its people.

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