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Urban Innovation Exchange Features Michigan Corps

Detroit's Urban Innovation Exchange publication features the work of Michigan Corps in creating resonant service opportunities for Michiganders around the world.
By Tunde Wey
July 25, 2013

"How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete."

Then-Senator John F. Kennedy posed this question to University of Michigan Students in a speech during a 1960 campaign stop. His speech marked the beginning of the Peace Corps, a U.S.-based, international service organization instituted to promote peace and understanding throughout the world. 50 years after he asked this question, Michigan Corps was founded on the same principle of service—and with the benefit of incisive observation of other service organizations before it, including the Peace Corps.

The notion of service can be a vague one, revolving around ideas of obligatory financial donations, ensuing tax write offs and a general disassociation from the cause. Elizabeth Garlow, Executive Director of Michigan Corps, has something to say about this (originally founded by Rishi and Anuja Jaitly, Michigan Corps is now headed by Elizabeth Garlow). Through her work leading the organization she is thinking past paradigms that might have been important at one time but are now wilted from age and past expiration.

This re-envisioning of service by making it relevant to the time is Michigan Corps' defining characteristic. For Garlow and Michigan Corps, relevant service work is place-based and supported by contemporary technology, specifically Internet technology.

"Michigan Corps looks at the notion of service enablement that has traditionally been represented by the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps," says Garlow. "We launched Michigan Corps to empower people to lead a new kind of service that is based on an affinity for the state and leverages the web."

They looked at the ways the Internet was helping people collaborate on consumerism, and at ways they could leverage the web to help people collaborate on service in Michigan—understanding clear ways they can contribute to new developments in communities around the state. Development could be physical or social infrastructure. "To date all of our efforts have been on entrepreneurialism in the state with a focus on social entrepreneurialism."

That we live in a fast-paced and increasingly complex world, sometimes indifferent to the consequences of its progress, is oft-lamented; yet we remain tethered to ideas incompatible with this new reality – the reality of technology, and shifts in generational trends.

For Garlow and Michigan Corps, their response to the question of modern service has been to develop "a menu of options" available to Michiganders that allow a community of people passionate about the state, relatively stress free points of access. Michigan Corps achieves this through its programming.

"The notion of traditional service entailed leaving one's community and going elsewhere, [so] we asked ourselves, 'How do we make it easier for people who care about the state to engage?'

A traditional way to help people give back is through donation of finances. You can actually be engaged in a variety of ways but it doesn’t have to necessarily be donating to a cause. For example, if you make a loan on KIVA, as a lender you have access to a conversation platform where you can interact and share resources and ideas with the entrepreneur. "We’ve had entrepreneurs meet media, investors and mentors through KIVA."

The other way is in the notion that to be a 21st century citizen is to be entrepreneurial. The Pure Michigan Social Entrepreneurial Challenge is way to engage people who have ideas on how to better their communities. "I think the interesting thing about that is it’s both at a grassroots and statewide level."

The Pure Michigan Social Entrepreneurial Challenge, held June 17th, was a collaboration between the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) and Great Lakes Entrepreneur’s Quest (GLEQ). The challenge awarded $93,000 to nine social enterprises in six categories. Fresh Corner CafĂ©, a local business working to increase access to fresh food options throughout Detroit was the top prize getter in the Emerging Organizations category.

While supporting social entrepreneurs across the state with much needed resources was important, for Garlow the real benefit came from establishing networks across various sectors.

"The Pure Michigan Social Entrepreneurship Challenge is something I am proud of. It involved public, private, and government sectors as founding partners from the very beginning, and you have to think that this sort of collaboration is the future. We need more people who know how to break down the traditional silos we put ourselves in, which are often sector silos. Collaboration is the way forward and our purpose is convening and connecting people in new configurations. That’s the innovation we are trying to bring into the state, into Detroit—that helps to amplify the impact people can have."

Here we are 50 years later, standing at the epoch of a new "configuration," a new way of service. Today, however, there are few grand speeches, just diligent people – people like Garlow who are thinking hard about how to respond successfully to an ever-changing reality with service to their fellow citizen as a paramount concern.

All photos by Doug Coombe. 

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