An Hour With… Graig Donnelly

Director of the Detroit Revitalization Fellows

Editor’s Note: Introducing “An Hour With …” — a new series where we find out more about interesting projects and people in metro Detroit.


Go behind the scenes of major civic, community, and economic development efforts, and chances are you’ll find a Detroit Revitalization Fellow. This Wayne State University program places mid-career leaders into two-year, full-time positions in various organizations to further key programs and projects. To date, Fellows in the first two cohorts have worked at more than 30 organizations in metro Detroit, including Charles H. Wright Museum, the city of Detroit, and Henry Ford Health Systems. We find out more from Program Director Graig Donnelly.


What’s the main intention? 

We’re giving people who are mid-career an opportunity to have a tremendous impact on the place that they love. And we’re also giving organizations in the city at large an opportunity to think about leadership in a different way.


It was inspired after Hurricane Katrina?

The University of Pennsylvania … had been deploying people all over the country to work on community development. After Katrina, they decided to deploy an entire group to New Orleans. That inspired people here to say, Hey, Detroit’s suffered a very similar fate … for different reasons and over a longer period of time. Could we do this here?


It’s a competitive program?

(Last round) there were 656 applicants for 23 jobs.


Who pays them?

(Largely) the organizations they work at. Any way you cut it, employers have skin in the game. We typically pay a subsidy (Fellows make $50-80,000 per year). Our subsidy (lets) smaller organizations benefit, too.


It’s different than a regular hire?

These are not typically roles already in an organization. (Fellows are) devoted to thinking differently about how they approach the future. About how their work addresses disparity. A great example is the Detroit Historical Society. They recently launched “The 1967 Project” to document what happened in that rebellion and what have we learned. … Our Fellow is their manager of community engagement — they’ve never had that position. Also the Belle Isle Conservancy. You now have to stop at a guard booth and pay a toll. … There’s a very real conversation to be had about how welcome Detroiters are in that. They asked to have a Fellow to engage the larger Detroit community.


Do Fellows take classes? 

It’s non-academic, but it’s thoughtful leadership development. They spend their first three weeks building relationships with each other. Then monthly sessions, workshops on equity and inclusion, and “Detroit dialogues.” It’s important that we are intentional about how we build our capacity to lead ourselves in the next century in Detroit. We have amazing people here (and) amazing people that want to be here (and) amazing people who have left and want to come home. Our opportunity is to help them develop as leaders in ways that they uplift each other and the city as a whole. That can have profound impact on quality of life in the city and region.


Out-of-towners apply?

There’s this national and maybe even international fascination with Detroit right now. People want to be here, actually for the first time in my life. We get to be a thoughtful, safe, uplifting structure (to aid) that. People aren’t just plopped in. They’ve given a network to plug into to help learn the ropes of the city. To have a really meaningful connection … as opposed to possibly being seen as someone (with) a “pioneering” sort of attitude.


Fellows have 5-15 years’ experience?

Some may have had a career in the corporate world. One Fellow was the director of baseball for the Detroit Tigers. (Another) was a lawyer (and) in the Marines … she now works for Eastern Market Corporation and launched their Sunday market. Talk about a career shift!


What else are Fellows working on?

One example is Downtown Detroit Business Improvement Zone. Last year legislation passed … to levy a tax on property owners (to) pay for “clean and safe” type programs. That’s going to raise about $4 million a year. Also the launching of “Revolve Detroit” to activate vacant storefronts. That Fellow has since gone on to (help) found Motor City Match. The Motor City Mapping project … took really, really complex and thoughtful collaboration across many organizations. That’s exactly the kind of work we want Fellows to do. We have a Fellow (at the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy) whose job is about (how) to maintain it as a resource everyone feels welcome at. The riverfront is one of our great success stories. It’s like Eastern Market. Everyone’s welcome … it’s not all people that look like each other.


Like Slow Roll?

Yes. It’s really important that development in this city be done in a way that newcomers and people who are here already feel welcome … at the same time.


The “Gentrification” word?

Hopefully people’s property values do rise. But hopefully they also are still welcome in their neighborhood … not priced out. There’s no reason why someone who has a very low income shouldn’t be able to live downtown. We have the room. We have an opportunity in Detroit to think about typical cycles of disinvestment and reinvestment in different ways. Reinvesting in an area doesn’t mean you have to push out poor people.

The Impact


The first 29 Detroit Revitalization Fellows are hired and begin to work at 23 different employers. Organizations include Data Driven Detroit and Southwest Housing Solutions.



The second cohort includes 19 Fellows working in 17 organizations, including FOCUS:Hope and Greening of Detroit.


80+ Percent

Number of Fellows alumni who remained in the Detroit area after their two-year stint. Organizations they’re working for include the Detroit Public Lighting Department and Bedrock Management.



Number of years’ experience Fellows had in previous careers. Many gave up corporate jobs to make an impact on Detroit.



Number of Fellows in the 2015-17 cohort. Employers include The Belle Isle Conservancy, Henry Ford Health Systems, EcoWorks and Invest Detroit.



The number of applicants for the 2015-17 program. Only 23 Fellows made the final cut.



Applications for the next round of Detroit Revitalization Fellows begins later in 2016. For more information visit

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