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The challenge to improve Detroit

June 06, 2013
Sarah Somes accepted the challenge.

The Grosse Pointe Park resident is one of 30 young women and men working intensively for 12 months with Challenge Detroit. The team offers creative solutions to Detroit’s nonprofits.

“Challenge Detroit is an organization based in downtown Detroit,” Somes began. “It’s in its second year, intending to do urban revitalizations with entrepreneurs and young professionals working with downtown businesses and half the time with nonprofits to revitalize Detroit.”

The select group will live and work in Detroit. The team works with a downtown company four days a week, drawing a salary. The remainder of the week, the team is devoted to solving problems nonprofit organizations present. Challenge Detroit begins in August.

Somes is working with Edw. C. Levy Co. in the environmental end of the business dealing with steel, concrete and land development.

“I work four days a week with them (Levy). Friday, I get together with the 29 others. We work with nonprofits downtown for one month. They present a problem. We break it down to ideas, solutions and present a prototype. We present it to their board. The board chooses to use it or not. We will be working with at least nine nonprofits.”

A 2009 Grosse Pointe South High School graduate, Somes is a May graduate of the College of Charleston (S.C.) where she majored in urban studies and planning.

Though she said she grew up going into Detroit, choosing Charleston was a conscious decision because she wanted to experience a new culture and continue her passion for sailing. She was part of the college’s co-ed crew sailing flying juniors and 40s, most recently defending the college’s 2012 Intercollegiate Sailing Association’s National Championship. 2013 races were held in the waters off St. Petersburg, Fla.

Yet, she is a Michiganian at heart.

“I missed the Midwest. I grew up going to Detroit, loving the city,” she said. “In my sophomore year (of college) I was looking at what was going on in downtown Detroit.”

Social media kept her abreast of what was happening locally.

“This past Christmas I participated at the Beehive, connecting businesses with those looking for a job. As an urban surveyor, I was looking to see what was happening,” she said.

As a result of the Beehive connection, she received an e-mail in February introducing her to Challenge Detroit. The four-part process began with a 500-word essay, personal information and a resume, to which 700 applied. The second round was a short essay, a reference submission and a YouTube video. The video was posted on Facebook to rally as many online votes as she could to narrow the field to 150 during phase three of the application process.

“It was so inspirational to see all the people coming back to Detroit,” she said of her competitors. A majority of the 2013-14 Challenge Detroit team are Michigan residents, though she said, one hails from California, another from Colorado and a third from Chicago. They will be looking at the areas of the community, businesses, food access, immigration, education, health, environmental and social justice and arts and culture when the challenges actually begin in October.

The final round of Challenge Detroit competition was two days filled with interviews at five companies, meeting the other challenge finalists and touring the city.

“I had a great time,” Somes said. “It was inspirational and hopeful. I was surrounded by so much energy.”

The 30 were also presented with a sample problem to solve. In an hour, the group brainstormed, created and presented a prototype solution.

In addition to presenting nonprofits with solutions and new ideas, Somes said she has set personal goals.

“I want to work on my leadership ability in the work place, my ability to communicate among team members. I want to walk away with creative development and have had an impact.

“My other goal is knowing I have a long term ability to invest in the city. The city has so many challenges in development on the Woodward corridor.

“The idea is to focus on the Woodward corridor as (Detroit’s) backbone, everything will surround it (with the) hope to create a central locale and create surrounding nodes.”

When her year of Challenge Detroit ends, she will continue to watch the rejuvenation of Detroit, because Somes said, “I’ve decided to come back and seek a job here.”

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