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Benjamin Kennedy Class of 1995

The Lessons of Detroit


fter majoring in economics at Morehouse College, earning an MBA at Harvard, and conducting fieldwork in South Africa, Benjamin Kennedy ’95 imagined he’d forge a career in facilitating economic development in the developing countries of Africa. But when the Kresge Foundation tapped him in 2009 to join its Detroit team as deputy director of its Community Development Program, he realized the opportunity to deploy his talents on the domestic front might be just as relevant. “Figuring out ways to make communities and the lives of the people in those communities function better is, at its core, the purpose of economic development,” Kennedy said. “My first exposure to this was in South Africa, working at the grassroots level. Throughout my studies in economics, it was never just numbers to me; I always focused on the real people behind the mathematical indicators. And when the opportunity in Detroit arose, I realized that it wasn’t really all that different to think about the future of individuals and communities in sub-Saharan Africa than in a major American city. We increasingly see people finding themselves in situations where they face less access to opportunity, income growth, social mobility; where

they are impeded by growing disparities. A chance to take on that challenge right here in the U.S. appealed to me.” Although he was raised in Boston’s Dorchester and Jamaica Plain neighborhoods, Kennedy has become wholeheartedly devoted to his new hometown of Detroit over the past six years, and that devotion is critical to his job success. “With its associations with Motown, the automotive industry, and jazz, Detroit is an iconic American city,” he said. “But it has also become emblematic of urban crisis and urban decay. When I arrived in ’09, Detroit was being walloped by every major crisis hitting the American economy and then some: the national economic crisis, bankruptcy in the auto industry, the foreclosure crisis, a city government in deep fiscal distress and facing the possibility of bankruptcy, and a political scandal that ended up landing the mayor in prison in one of the largest racketeering cases in recent history. I arrived to a place people were starting to write off.” But the Kresge Foundation wanted to right the ship when it came to Detroit’s economic development, and Kennedy willingly rose to the occasion. One project in which he has been particularly closely involved is the revitalization of the

Woodward Avenue corridor, which spans numerous commercial, business, academic, medical, and residential districts. But it’s not just about businesses or investing capital, Kennedy pointed out —it’s also about drawing in people who possess energy and ideas. Another part of the initiative involves recruiting mid-career professionals from other parts of the country who are then deployed across the city’s nonprofit and public sectors. “We’re working to make Detroit a place where you can roll up your sleeves, get involved, and make change,” Kennedy said. “Because ultimately, that’s what makes a community thrive: people who can make new things happen.” And Kennedy’s efforts ripple beyond the streets and neighborhoods of Detroit; the Kresge Foundation has also named him to a new undertaking it is calling American Cities. “That’s about capturing the lessons that we’ve learned here in Detroit and trying to deliver some of those lessons, along with capital, network, and all the other resources the Kresge Foundation can offer, to other locations facing similar challenges: Memphis, New Orleans, Newark, Oakland, San Antonio,” Kennedy said. “We are helping to create the cities we need in order to make this country what we all want it to be.” 33

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An economic developer brings change to American cities

10/28/15 8:08 PM

Profile for Concord Academy

CA Magazine Fall 2015 Issue  

This special issue spotlights create + innovate: The Centennial Campaign for Concord Academy, including a campaign impact report and coverag...

CA Magazine Fall 2015 Issue  

This special issue spotlights create + innovate: The Centennial Campaign for Concord Academy, including a campaign impact report and coverag...