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The Mitten: One Size Fits Most?

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Facebook page: Michigan by Choice

Facebook page: Michigan by Choice

The Generation Y Michigan podcast on Michigan Radio and the overly optimistic pro-Michigan sentiments it's inspiring are starting to annoy me.

Oversimplified arguments for pledging allegiance to Michigan willfully ignore infrastructure-dependent jobs, the near impossibility of raising capital for start-ups, and the time it will take most people to turn a profit.

In fact, the very notion of "profit" seems anathema to these folks. Instead, they imply that highly-educated, underemployed Mitteneers should take the path of most resistance, forgoing things like meaningful paid work and health insurance indefinitely. recently named Michigan as one of "the perennial losers, the sad sacks of our economy," home to one of the four Worst Cities for Jobs. In light of that fact, Michigan By Choice’s rallying cry, “Not enough ___? Start your own ___!” might work for people who make tangible products, but it's irrelevant for those of us whose livelihoods depend on existing infrastructure.

It’s easy to start a band or even a nonprofit, but would you tell my good friend K* – a poet, scholar and educator with two master’s degrees and a doctorate – “Hey, why not just start your own university so you can teach?"

What would Lauren Silverman, Gen Y Michigan's reporter, do if, like my friend J* – a U of M grad with a bachelor's in biophysics, masters in genetics, numerous volunteer experiences and Spanish fluency – found that the only local jobs in her field were washing test tubes? Oh wait, she'd probably move to Washington, D.C.

And what about people who try to start something but can't find the capital to get it off the ground? People like D: After a series of lay-offs and jobs outside the food industry, decided to start a dinner club, and a restaurant, in Grand Rapids. D finally moved to Los Angeles because neither project attracted sufficient investment to even set up shop, much less turn a profit. In L.A., he found two jobs within a few weeks, at restaurants that value his culinary artistry. He also met Robert Downey, Jr.

In order to become a scalable and sustainable employer, start-ups need capital and infrastructu. These are things Grand Rapids – the only part of Michigan I can really speak to – does not currently offer. The city is a great place to start new projects, just not to get paid for them.

Ann Arbor is actually the only Michigan city to make CNN's 100 Best Places to Live and Launch a new business, and there were 41 other places ahead of the college town.

Michigan idealists have also neglected to mention the consequences that an influx of new products or firms could have on local economies.

Take arts production, the entrepreneurial industry of choice. An increase in supply without a corresponding increase in demand is just going to make prices for artwork go down. Not good for local artists who are already struggling in the current market.

Without the introduction of other variables (mainstream critical engagement, increased competition, anything that will create the perception of scarcity), the general and slightly apathetic public is unlikely to respond to increased supply with renewed demand for what are often perceived as luxury items.

A potential consequence of "Just start your own!" for the nonprofit sector is service duplication, a major nonprofit no-no that reduces everyone’s chance for funding. I don't need to reinvent the wheel and start a new arts nonprofit. I need the ones that already exist to start hiring or offer paid opportunities for collaboration.

There's also a certain irony in the fact that Generation Y and Michigan by Choice are brought to you by people employed in their chosen fields at vibrant, innovative firms that had preexisting infrastructures and/or start-up capital.

I would never, ever try to minimize the millions of hours George Wietor has put into the Division Avenue Arts Collective,, and countless other local projects. But the fact remains that none of these homegrown efforts are paying his bills. Kevin Buist, another sensational guy, has benefited professionally from the injection of DeVos funding into the local arts sector, most recently through ArtPrize.

Had Buist and Wietor not been able to plug into the functional part of Grand Rapids' cultural infrastructure, would they have had to move too? And how successful would Lauren Silverman be if she had to write, fund, and produce Generation Y without the support of Michigan Public Radio?

And yet they all seem to advocate the path of most resistance as intrinsically virtuous, a veritable badge of honor. To me, this misses the point. Shouldn’t the goal be to leverage the talents we've cultivated into the greatest impact for the largest number of people anyway? If so, then people should go to locations with high need, where they can most quickly and efficiently start filling the gaps.

Another irony here is the fact that all this talk of homegrown entrepreneurialism undermines arguments for why young college grads from other states should stay here. Why should Michigan transplants feel any particular commitment to improving Michigan over their own home states? And if they don't return home, why should they consider Michigan over another state, where they believe they can have greater positive impact?

This is especially true when you consider the time it will inevitably take to turn the city and the state, around.

A recent report by the Pew Charitable Trust reveals that a mono-industry economy combined with state government’s inability to take swift, decisive action has jeopardized Michigan and other states’, competitiveness. Systemic failures like this didn’t happen overnight, and they won’t be resolved quickly either.

People with the education and experience to found successful new enterprises are most likely saddled with student loans, credit card debt, and car payments. In West Michigan, many couples in their 20s are already married, some with children. They just don't have the luxury of risking time and resources into start-ups that may take years to pay off.

*Both J and K are employed, but they are in fields tangential to their academic backgrounds and, by their own admission, making less than they would in other areas.

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I feel the need to explain some of the thinking behind Michigan by Choice. I've been surprised by some of the reactions to this Facebook group, but perhaps I shouldn't be. Where people choose to live is an important choice, and it can be very difficult to make.

Let me explain what Michigan by Choice is, and what it is not. Michigan by Choice, at least for now, is a only Facebook group, it is not a digital component of some other entity, like a non-profit. Being that it is only a node in a social network, we don't expect it to be anything more than a platform for exchange, a way to connect others in the community, and reminder that such a community exists. Michigan by Choice is about supporting the idea that quality of life in Michigan depends on individuals making a conscious effort to improve their communities.


This is a really obvious statement, and it applies to every single state, but I live in Michigan and I want to see it thrive. This idea is also a response to prevailing assumptions about Michigan which I think are harmful. This is a tough time for the state, and it's easy to believe that individuals cannot change that. Of course individuals can change it! How else would the prospects of our state change? By some cosmic economic lottery? The deliberate actions of individuals built this state, and deliberate actions will rebuild it.


Now, about what Michigan by Choice is not. This essay seems to assume that our Facebook group is meant to shame people who left the state in search of work or for other reasons. That's not our intent at all. We'd like people to find opportunities here and try their best to contribute culturally and economically to Michigan, but everyone's situation is different. I have many friends who have left, and I don't fault them for it. What I do find fault in is the attitude that the state should automatically be abandoned by young people because there is no chance of finding a job or connecting with a cultural community. This attitude, that we're living in a wasteland and that infrastructure does not exist is tremendously harmful, and simply untrue. Things could be a lot better, which is the reason I want to encourage people to make deliberate choices to that end.


This essay mentioned "a certain irony in the fact that Generation Y and Michigan by Choice are brought to you by people employed in their chosen fields, at vibrant, innovative firms that had pre-existing infrastructures and/or start-up capital." This seems to acknowledge that both pre-existing infrastructures and start-up capital do exist in this state, which is true. Also, I fail to see a problem in people from these innovative firms acting to proliferate local infrastructure and start-up capital. You're right there's not enough to go around. We're working on it, that's the point.


It's unclear to me what the purpose of this essay is. It's true that the fifty some words I wrote on the Facebook page don't mention all the difficulties the state faces or the potential consequences of new initiatives. That's not the intent. It's just a place to connect and encourage an attitude that supports positive action in the state. I have a question for you, Ruth, and I do hope you respond. What is it that you want people to do? What actions should people be taking?


If the answer is that you want initiatives like Generation Y Michigan and Michigan by Choice to stop encouraging people to think seriously about their contribution to the state, I can respond in advance: No.

Hi Kevin. I want to respond in greater detail to your comment, but for now I'll just explain my intent for this article and focus on what I think people should be doing.

This essay is a virtual tantrum for all those who wanted desperately to make a difference in the community, but have not yet found an outlet to do so. Yes, I'm childish like this sometimes. It's just heartbreaking to spend years pursuing a specific career path, only to find yourself drifting further and further away from your initial passion. I don't think that story is being told enough.

1. We need to accentuate the negative, and get some Real Talk going about people's frustrations and negative experiences here. All this positive Creative Class self-talk can be really demotivating for people who feel they've given all they can, and still come up short of their goals. Also, if people who aren't as motivated as you and George (e.g. me) start to believe Grand Rapids is sooo vibrant and energetic, we're not going to strive for something better. Stop preaching to the choir, and start reaching out to people who have been burned. And don't underestimate people's complacency. 

2. Local organizations, esp. NPOs, need to be held to a higher standard of transparency, equity, and fairness. There are a lot of people who have been "grandfathered" into positions that in a larger market would demand credentials they simply don't have. There is a culture of fear that keeps founders from mentoring and cultivating emerging leaders. Non-competitive hiring processes, nepotism, and - ahem - "alternative" budgeting all need to stop if these groups are going to truly add long term value to the city. Employees, investors and constituents need to push harder for this. Also, individuals need to challenge themselves to produce excellent work, even in the absence of external competition. I know I do.

3. Colleges and universities need to turn out entrepreneurs, not grad school applicants and entry-level workers in search of mentors. Job-seekers need to teach themselves now how to envision and strategize for the career they want.

4. We need a better system to connect highly-motivated individuals to resources. Nonprofits should follow the example of groups like the Common Language Project, who publicly invite people to submit ideas for mutually beneficial projects. CLP extends its 501(c)(3) status to selected individuals, which allows them to secure grant funding, and potentially a salary, for their project. What if we had a web-based platform like Volunteer Match or 99designs where entrepreneurs could connect with investors?

5. We need to reimagine what Grand Rapids can realistically aspire to. Let's stop frontin' like we'll ever be The Place for young people to settle down, or the next Chicago. We are already a city that incubates young professionals, who go on to use their talents in a larger market. Our colleges and universities already attract students from all over the world. Why are we trying to Jedi Mind Trick people into staying, when we could rebrand transience as an asset, and position ourselves as the country's best talent incubator.

Hmm... now that I've written all that I'm not sure it's even relevant to your comment. Oh well, hit me back and we'll keep the dialogue going. Thanks, Ruth




In regards to #3 above, it turns out that some steps have already been taken in this direction by the West Michigan Strategic Alliance. Does anyone know what ever happened with these initiatives?

For those looking to start your own business, this report may be interesting. Or this one...

Apparently work has already been started toward #4, in the form of Innovation Works. Of particular interest to those in the arts may be the Design West Michigan initiative. While some of the other WIRED West Michigan projects appear to be defunct, this one seems to still be functional.

See this report to see how West Michigan compares to other similar regions. (Spoiler alert: not well).



Considering how many calls I receive at a local foundation from people who are suffering from this fantasy, this seems to be a prevalent attitude. Want to help people? Start your own nonprofit! It is not easy to complete all of the work required to get nonprofit status from the IRS, let alone all of the work needed to find funding. And running a successful, effective nonprofit - even harder.

Maybe this is just based on my own experience, but the reason I'm here in Michigan has nothing to do with my field of study or my current job.  I'm sacrificing a lot of money in order to be here.  I'm fine with that. I'm sure there's a reason that people who do what they feel passionate about even though it doesn't "pay the bills" don't go somewhere where it might.

I think the facebook group is for people who have found reasons to love this state, people who are tired of the constant negativity.  Nobody here is wearing rose-colored glasses; it's just not possible to sugar coat the situation we're in.  But there are a lot of us that would like the world to know that we're not here just because we can't afford to move.  It's about getting people to see past the negative stereotypes and at least consider the state as a viable opportunity. 

@Amy: I was thinking starting a nonprofit is relatively easy compared to starting a university or your own medical research facility. It's time-consuming and can be expensive, but it's mostly just a lot of paperwork. You're right, though, starting a useful, sustainable nonprofit that can afford to employ people is a whole other issue... (for anyone thinking about starting one check out this how-to guide from the Johnson Center...)

@Jared: What is it that drew you to Michigan?