This 21-Year-Old Has Big Comeback Plans for His Rust Belt City
The Equity Factor

This 21-Year-Old Has Big Comeback Plans for His Rust Belt City

“If we can’t provide jobs for people even after all we’ve done, our impact is not what it should be.”

Pontiac's commercial historic district (Photo by Andrew Jameson)

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Pontiac, Michigan, was one of the hardest hit Rust Belt cities in the Great Recession. Nearly two-thirds of the 8,450 jobs it shed in 2008 came from plant closures in Pontiac and Oakland County. It was run by state-backed emergency managers instead of a mayor between 2009 and 2016. Public payroll jobs dropped from 600 down to 50, and practically every public service was outsourced or privatized.

Anders Engnell, a 21-year-old student at Oakland College, is one of a new crop of nonprofit entrepreneurs that have sprouted up in the majority-minority city over the past few years. He’s a response to the hurting world around him.

“I remember talking with my friends in high school, and oftentimes they’d say ‘I want to be a doctor’ or a business leader, but they’d chase that with ‘I don’t know where to start,’” he says. “It seems like nine times out of 10 they’d end up working at a fast-food restaurant.”

On Dec. 21, Engnell’s organization, Leaders of the Future, received $100,000 from local paint manufacturer AkzoNobel to help him embark on what he says will be a 15-year journey to “completely revitalize the community.”

That money will get split four ways over two years. In 2017, $25,000 will go toward community aesthetics projects — tree plantings in local parks, a “Welcome to Pontiac” sign near one entrance of the city — and another $25,000 will go to five prospective college students who pass through the Leaders of the Future program as they navigate high school.

In that program, they’ll learn how to form business plans, run a nonprofit, write a resume, negotiate a job deal — all the basics of becoming an entrepreneur packaged together in a program that Engnell says his city hasn’t made available to youth in the past.

Following the framework laid out by Leaders of the Future since it was started in 2014, 30 high school students and 11 college faculty will meet every Friday, January to October, for six hours. They’ll network, build ideas, discover mentors and forge a path for their future selves based on their passions and the potential impact of their community revitalization projects in the post-high school life.

It’s not a cure-all for financial ills at this point. But Engnell says the first two phases of his group’s plan — activating the youth and sprucing up the city — will eventually lead to the third, which is more comprehensive economic revitalization.

“People are going to do business in a space where they feel safe, they feel supported, they feel comfortable,” he says. “And it’s difficult to do that when you have boarded-up houses on the streets and parks that have turned into trash piles.”

He looks 5 miles to the northeast, at Auburn Hills, Michigan, where the economy is booming thanks to major international investors.

“They’ve been able to attract global electronics and robotics companies by building a community that is, first of all, motivated to build economic development practices, but it’s also aesthetically pleasing,” says Engnell, referring to companies like the German engineering group FEV and automotive electronics supplier Magna.

With the support of AkzoNobel, Leaders of the Future will continue to widen its “talent pipeline.” The goal is to expand that reach as far down as to the elementary level, giving youth in Pontiac constant access to entrepreneurial innovation that can make them competitive when they try to vie for greater opportunities — whether in post-high school vocational careers or college — after they graduate from high school. AkzoNobel is also interested in tapping into that workforce as well, and Engnell is interested in expanding the base of similar partners.

Until then, he recognizes that the first step to building a city out of poverty is to rebuild a city into one its community loves. “If we can’t provide jobs for people even after all we’ve done,” he says, “our impact is not what it should be.”

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Johnny Magdaleno is a journalist, writer and photographer. His writing and photographs have been published by The Guardian, Al Jazeera, NPR, Newsweek, VICE News, the Huffington Post, the Christian Science Monitor and others. He was the 2016-2017 equitable cities fellow at Next City. 

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Tags: jobspovertyrust belt

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