Last week I had the chance to sit down with a person who fits that bill perfectly. Jessica Meyer, Director of Programming at Build Institute, came to Detroit after graduating from Illinois Wesleyan University with a degree in International Studies and Human Rights. She was a highly involved community activist surrounding international issues during college, and even lived in both London and South Africa. It was this very global engagement that caused her to work domestically.
“When I graduated college, I knew I wanted to spend at least one year giving back in my own community in the United States because I had done so much abroad.”
An AmeriCorps program, which labeled Detroit as the city most in need of volunteers, provided the opportunity. Originally planning to return to Chicago, she fell in love with Detroit. And never left.
D:hive, Build’s old counterpart before it became independent, was a sort of “gateway to the city.” Jessica was very involved in their events during her early time here and became close with a good number of the employees. So, after a tech start-up she was working with decided to discontinue its business, she took her friend’s advice and decided to take entrepreneurship classes through Build. Her idea, 313Exchange, was a knowledge and skill share group, similar to one she was involved in during college. People would come together to teach and learn all sorts of things, from sowing to bike repair to the history of Africa.
Halfway through the courses, her friend who worked with D;hive (essentially in her current job) decided to move to Boston. He recommended Jessica as his replacement, and she was soon Build’s newest member. She later found out that the founder of her old tech start-up was a Build grad himself, which she felt was a connecting tribute to everything he stood for. As Director of Programming, Jessica is basically the manager of everything under Build. Her many hats include overseeing the six various programs, fostering alumni connections, and updating Build’s website and social media.
Outside of work, Jessica is just as driven and engaged. One thing I found particularly interesting was her involvement in After the Storm, a group that plans action-oriented conferences with the outcome of changing policy in the city. Most recently, they created The Transit Policy Lab, a three-day, twenty five-person event that included speakers and discussions with the intent of coming up with creative solutions to present to regional transit authorities.
She also likes to just get out and learn, both from Detroit and the people in it. A couch surfing enthusiast, Jessica enjoys getting to know people that are coming to the city and also to show them what Detroit is like, what it’s all about. An avid biker, she spends many hours simply getting lost in the streets.
“I try to bike every weekend, just a couple of hours, wherever, I have no destination. I just start turning down streets and you’ll just find the coolest buildings and this little restaurant that you’ve never heard about that’s been there for forty years. And you just get this better view of the city…as a whole.”
In her eyes, Detroit has changed a lot since she moved here only five years ago. You can see it in the entrepreneurs moving in, the growing multitude of languages, and the once-empty storefronts filling with aspiring locals. That’s what Jessica, and the rest of Build Institute, finds so meaningful: the opportunity to see people come through the program, pursue their ideas, and make a physical difference in the city. You can literally see the change. Build is also contributing towards an all-encompassing Detroit comeback. In reference to the trend of “new innovators”, the people flocking to the city and its lure of change:
“That’s valid. They’re opening businesses, they’re contributing to the community, and that’s awesome. Now there’s just that balance of making sure everyone’s voices are included.”
Personally, working with Jessica has been nothing short of encouraging. Always open to talk, collaborate, and simply grab brunch on a Friday morning, she and her work with Build has opened my eyes to the variety of viewpoints in this city. Hopefully, if you come visit Detroit, you’ll get lucky enough to learn the city as I have, from such an impassioned Detroiter.
“I’ve never felt this connected to a community. I think it’s been a huge challenge because you take on all of the problems of the city, you feel the weight on your shoulders because you’re living them everyday. To be so connected to a city that’s not [always so positive] is hard emotionally, but it’s also so much more rewarding when you know you’re a part of the change and a part of making it better and a part of supporting the community.”
“How long do you think you’ll live in Detroit?”