I Owe a CEO – Detroit Community-Engaged Research Program

I Owe a CEO

It came for me like it came for all of us; it was our week to plan a kickass event for the cohort. My girl Lia came in clutch, of course, and it was silly of me to think that she wouldn’t have. That’s right: she was the plug for the Third Thursday Speaker Series at the Detroit Historical Museum. This month’s series promised to be contentious and riveting, with panelists on both sides of the image of the “revitalized Detroit” that gentrification created for it. Chastity Pratt Dewsey, an award-winning journalist from Bridge Magazine and Tawana “Honeycomb” Petty, an activist, poet, author of Riverwise Magazine, and Detroit-native guarded the city and its people. On the other side of the ticket sat Michael Hodges, author of such essays as “How Detroit Got Its Groove Back,” and Kevin Johnson, President and CEO of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation. There would be some hot takes and some savage rebuts. The air was electric with the passion and tension of the audience and panelists both.

Mr. Johnson’s take was the most stimulating and interesting to both the audience and myself. By stimulating, you know I of course mean that he was the target of most of the savage rebuts and impassioned proclamations. He was more than likely the most powerful person in that room; the person most capable of affecting profound and immediate change upon the city and its people. What the crowd took issue with, however, was the fact that he was an outspoken capitalist and a native to Atlanta, not Detroit. I reflected after hearing him assert his expertise for the fourth or fifth time as a native to Atlanta and a pioneer of its economy how much less convincing and, truly, more invalid, that those who have to establish their own credibility and that of their arguments seem. I mean, this guy would not stop harping on about how qualified and experienced he was as one who came from fixing Atlanta’s “newly revolutionized” economy. The Detroiters in the audience felt the same.

I pitied Mr. Johnson not only because I would be at least equally mortified and disheartened in his position but also because I saw myself in him.  He, too, is from a place completely unlike Detroit but deigns to believe that he has accumulated some skills that might help him and the people here in this new place. He, too, wants so strongly to do a good job and represent the city of Detroit well. He feels so lucky to occupy his position, and he wants to give back to the community and the people that he felt gave him this privilege and power. So many other probably more qualified applicants were passed up for the position. He had to overcome this overwhelming imposter syndrome in order to function and be useful to his company. “What right have I to be here?” he must have asked himself over and over.

I think the difference between him and myself, however, lies in the fact that I never stopped asking myself if I belonged here. Asking that question consistently compels me and people like me to consult those around them for advice and guidance. We take action and ask the people who we know for certain belong what they need and what they want us to do. Put our hands where you need them, we ask.

I love to teach. Everything from handy everyday life hacks to handling a break-up to behavioral psychology lab-based research methods, I love teaching and seeing it click. That’s why I’ll take every advantage to impart what I’ve learned here to the folks that want to do the same. The Speaker Series clarified the lesson I care most about imparting: when you enter a new space and want to help, ask yourself if you belong. If the answer is no (and it probably should be), ask someone who you know belongs what to do next.

As strange as it sounds, I do owe Mr. Johnson. I owe him for one reason: he set an excellent example. To that end, succeed where Mr. Johnson, President & CEO of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, and I, shmuck extraordinaire(y), failed.

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