After leaving college at the University of Michigan to have her son, Nina started her professional career in 2009: “my first professional job was at the US Census Bureau as a survey clerk, collecting data on field representatives.” In 2014, Nina went back to finish her final semester at the University of Michigan and graduate with her degree in English. “It was a great time in my life because I met a lot of great people and I was introduced to the nonprofit world through the people that I met.” After getting her degree, she continued her work at the census bureau, where she now held a supervisor position, while also mothering and starting as a receptionist at DAPCEP, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing an excellent education to at least 90% of kids in Detroit. In 2015, Nina made one of the hardest decisions she had ever made when she decided to leave her structured government job to pursue her dream of working in the nonprofit world. “Making the decision to move from stable, long-term employment I had been at for so long, those were my colleagues, family, supportive supervisors. I was a young mother and they gave me opportunity after opportunity to develop myself. It was almost like leaving for college because I was leaving a stable place for something not as stable. It’s a different universe leaving a government job for the private nonprofit world. You only get a few opportunities to pursue what drives you and feed your passion. I knew the work was right, but I had to find the right way to do the work.” Nina took on a bigger role at DAPCEP doing communications, grant writing, data evaluation, and project management, but she realized she was curious about the side of philanthropy that was making the funding decisions. It was this curiosity and ongoing passion for the nonprofit world that led Nina to apply to work at GreenLight Fund and start her work as a Program Associate this past January.
Nina’s Thoughts on Detroit:
Nina grew up one street over from Detroit, in a small suburb called Harper Woods, where very few African Americans lived. “I first moved to Detroit out of necessity. I was independent and wanted to take care of myself with my young son and it was cheapest to live here. The city reflected me and my core beliefs—not always—but I was okay with that tension, I felt that tension, it was the right balance of push and pull. There was enough wrong that I felt obligated to stay and fix it and enough right to keep me here.” She explained how the city was the perfect solution to her drive to help others and make sure their outcomes as well as their children’s outcomes were good. And what has she loved most about Detroit: her neighbors. “Even when I didn’t have great neighbors, I could still see a story in whatever they were going through. The older residents of the city have weathered all the ups and downs. It’s a rare glimpse into what it means to stay and persistence and determination and pride—they are proud of this city. They are reflective of what they used to have, aware of what’s not the case anymore, but also optimistic in spite of that.” She also loves the way Detroit, while having bad neighborhoods, also has places that act as an escape to a more peaceful place: “you can drive ten minutes away and feel like you’re in a different world.” Nina also told me her opinion on what is most important to change in Detroit. “Education—and not just for our younger kids but all the way up through adults into your thirties. It’s the workforce development side of it where a person can get a job but it’s not a fit to be successful in that job because the income’s not high enough or the hours aren’t enough or you don’t have a car to get there. It’s not just welfare assistance and giving a job—you have to look at people from a holistic perspective and applying that to how we help people.” She thinks that the best way to fix this is through collaboration. If nonprofits can collaborate to address a significant problem, then Nina believes we get a layering effect and can successfully move people from poverty. “I don’t want to be negative, but I have to be honest; without increased development in the neighborhoods and greater support to those not in the downtown, there is going to be a divide. There are differences in access to opportunity and there’s a perfect storm for failure for some and a perfect storm of success for others and we need to have this recipe pass down. The current state isn’t working and only helping certain people not just on racial lines but on income status. I want us to be the example of how to combat poverty, strong leaders, resident contribution. You can’t just have a voice—voice isn’t good enough. You have to add an action.”
Nina’s Work at GreenLight Fund:
Working at GreenLight Fund, Nina says she has learned a lot. For instance, her work has exposed her to the social entrepreneurship scene of Detroit. She describes it as “enterprise and business whose overall goal beyond the profitability of the business is to make an impact on the local residents or population in need of the services or who could stand to benefit from the services. It’s interesting because it’s beating two beads with one activity.” And what is GreenLight Fund’s role in all of this? I asked Nina about her thoughts on the GreenLight Fund model and the work it does: “it’s innovative and a model that’s unique. I was really intrigued by it when I first heard about it. The goal is not to be redundant but to bring in something, an organization, that has strong data-driven outcomes, that has a history and ability to improve the lives of low-income individuals. The organization is the result of collaboration between local leaders. The organization didn’t come up on its own—it was brought in by local stakeholders that represent the different voices of our community, which keeps it tied to Detroit and what they need and filling the gaps in Detroit.” When Nina talked about her work, she kept coming back to her pride in what GreenLight Fund does and continuing to do her work with the highest quality. “We are making decisions based on the experiences I have in the city and the city colors what I do here which makes it so exciting, an important part of what I do.”