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Motor City Exchange invests in Detroit’s revitalization

Student-run initiative hopes to rejuvenate city known for its 20th-century deindustrialization

While most Brown students scramble to find summer internships on the East or West Coast, a few are venturing to a city where job prospects seem slim: Detroit.

“The amount one student can do within a summer is really significant,” said Ben Gellman ’14, co-founder of Motor City Exchange.

In January, Gellman partnered with two University of Chicago students to found Motor City Exchange, a pilot program that links college students with different community development organizations in Detroit for 10-week summer internships. The exchange connects students with organizations that are typically understaffed, Gellman said.

Gellman, a Detroit native, was inspired by his work with two community development agencies on opposite ends of the city during high school. “Through my job, I became affiliated with this network of people who were embedded in the work they were doing in their local neighborhoods,” he said. “That motivated my interest in a career that helped advance economic development in cities like the one I came from.”

The program is unique in its design because it provides a support network for interns working in Detroit, said Naomi Varnis ’16, MCX outreach director.

The project targets Detroit because of its legacy of deindustrialization, which caused rapid population and economic decline in the city in the decades following World War II, Gellman said. With MCX, Gellman saw an opportunity to help revitalize a once-vibrant city.

“People think there is New York, San Francisco and maybe Chicago,” he said. “But the way people are envisioning Detroit’s future is unheard of.”

The city is full of opportunities and creativity but “needs help, since it does not have the resources that other big cities have,” said Alissa Rhee ’16, MCX communication director.

For this upcoming summer, MCX has formed partnerships with four community-based organizations: Builders of Promise, Focus: HOPE, Michigan Urban Farming Initiative and Hostel Detroit.

The partnerships will allow participants “to leverage the experiences of undergraduates to help drive capacities within organizations that need it,” Gellman said.

Motor City Exchange recently fielded its first summer application process and received a diverse array of applicants and student interests. “Many of our applicants were from places outside of Detroit, and many of them were not even from cities but from rural areas,” Rhee said.

Of these applicants, many were first-years and sophomores at Brown, Varnis said, adding that younger applicants are particularly attractive because they can “become invested in the program and help the program grow over their time at Brown.”

Depending on funding, Motor City Exchange will send three to five Brown students to Detroit this summer. The program is currently relying on the University’s Linking Internships and Knowledge (LINK) Award to fund Brown student internships but hopes to get more consistent funding as the program grows, Gellman said.

Since MCX is in its pilot phase, the program’s direction and long-term goals will be decided after this first summer of operation, Gellman said.


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