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Lessons learned from Mackinac(ish): Bringing it all back home

In May I had the good fortune of attending [email protected](ish), a four-day program geared towards young and young-at-heart Detroiters priced out of attending the expensive Mackinac Policy Conference (MPC).

Mackinac(ish) took place on a beautiful 100-acre farmstead on the banks of Lake Charlevoix in Northern Michigan. The event was designed and curated by the folks at ASSEMBLE, the evolution of the lost X Games Detroit bid that now works to put on a variety of events that bring Detroiters together. Most everyone who participated (about 50 in all) drove up together on a Detroit Bus Company coach (I was lame and drove separately).

Over the course of my stay Up North, I swam in the frigid (yet invigorating) waters of Lake Charlevoix, slept in a temporary tent city, conversed each night with peers in the flickering light of a bonfire, rode on a tractor-drawn hayride for the first time in over a decade, and crashed and burned when dismounting from a rope swing I had no business getting on in the first place.

But the real reason that my fellow attendees and I traveled to Charlevoix was bigger than our desire to take a reasonably priced vacation (thought that played into it). Our goal was to figure out how we could insert ourselves into the high-level policy conversations happening an hour away on Mackinac Island. In many ways, we took the spirit of Urban Innovation Exchange to the country.

With the help of a sometimes lagging live stream, we listened in on and reacted to all of the major addresses at this year's Mackinac Policy Conference, including the keynotes delivered by Gov. Snyder, Mayor Mike Duggan, and Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr. I would wager that our group saw more of the core MPC programming than most of the people who paid the big ticket price to get into Mackinac Island's Grand Hotel.

A Michigan statesman even paid us visit during one of our sessions, which were held in an old barn on the farmstead. Sen. Carl Levin (D, Detroit), a lifelong Detroiter, stopped by to share some words of encouragement and take questions from Mackinac(ish) attendees.

"I've come to the right place," said Sen. Levin as he took the mic. "There's a lot of optimism in the city and it has to do with young people like you," he told us.

In addition to participating in MPC-related programming, Mackinac(ish) attendees divided into groups to tackle a problem presented to us by the folks behind Recovery Park, an urban agriculture initiative intended for Detroit's near east side with the intention of creating jobs for the chronically unemployed, particularly returning citizens and people with histories of substance abuse.

Adhering to a methodology called "IDEA" that was designed by the ASSEMBLE team, groups worked over the course of two days to design frameworks for community engagement for Recovery Park. Groups presented their ideas to the Recovery Park team, which selected a winner. The winning team will consult with Recovery Park as it moves forward with its community engagement strategy.

Beyond all the programming, I found one element of Mackinac(ish) to be most worthwhile. I have a sneaking suspicion that it is the same thing that people attending MPC pay big bucks for -- the opportunity to network.

Okay, so "networking" is a pretty cold, corporate term. At Mackinac(ish), I would characterize it more as "developing relationships" or simply "making friends." In the parlance of UIX, you might even say the whole event was a meaningful exchange of ideas.

I knew some of my fellow attendees -- co-workers, friends, and collaborators -- quite well before the outing. But most people were mere acquaintances whom I had encountered perhaps once or twice in a meeting or at a public event in Detroit. Others were complete strangers, whom at best I only recognized by name or face.

I'm happy to say that I grew close to many people in this diverse group of engaged Detroiters -- from social workers to entrepreneurs to small business owners to farmers -- in ways I hadn't imagined in advance of the conference. For four days, we worked together to form actionable ideas for improving the place we call home. We slept on the same cold hard ground in tent city. We shared meals and drinks. We shared our strengths and our vulnerabilities.

And it is my belief that we will continue to build on the relationships we forged Up North now that we are back in Detroit.

All that being said, here are a couple of general recommendations I have for my fellow Detroiters in light of my experience at Mackinac(ish):

- Introduce yourself to that "stranger" you always see around town but have never talked to. Rid yourself of your prejudices and preconceived notions of who that person is and what they stand for by actually talking to her or him. Detroit is a small town, but that doesn't mean you already know everyone, even if you already know of them. Reach out and good things can happen.

- Don't let the policy discussion end at Mackinac or Mackinac(ish). If you know someone who went to either event, engage them and ask what they learned.

- It's important to get out of town to more objectively view issues in Detroit. Yes, it is extremely important to live and breathe what is happening in the city to have an informed opinion about it, but it is equally important to step away from time to time to gain some perspective. Why do you think the Detroit Regional Chamber hosts its conference Up North? Didn't James Joyce write "Dubliners" while reflecting on his native city from abroad?

- You can have fun and be serious when talking about Detroit. That's what we did at Mackinac(ish), and I'd be willing to bet our event was more chaste than what was happening on the island.

- Finally, can someone please build a public campground inside the city of Detroit? It would be a lot of fun…

Read ASSEMBLE's recap of Mackinac(ish) events here: http://www.assembledetroit.com/

All photos by the author.

Matthew Lewis is managing editor of Model D. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjlew.
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