Perrysburg native inspired by Youth Leadership Toledo to join Challenge DetroitWritten by Maggie Dziubek | | email@example.com
When she moved to Detroit, Perrysburg native Anna Balzer didn’t know much about the Motor City. Now she can’t see herself leaving.
Balzer is one of 30 fellows in the second year of Challenge Detroit, a fellowship program that places young professionals in Detroit-based companies in an effort to revitalize the city. Fellows work four days a week at host companies, and spend Fridays collaborating with each other on workshops focusing on different aspects of revitalization in Detroit.
Before moving to Detroit, Balzer, a graduate of the University of Colorado, had returned to Northwest Ohio to take architecture classes at Bowling Green State University.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of diversity [in Colorado],” Balzer said. “I wanted an urban setting and I wanted to be influenced by people who think differently from me.”
Returning to Toledo as an adult gave her a new perspective on her hometown.
“In high school I maybe went Downtown three or four times,” Balzer said. “I’m not sure if I didn’t really notice it before, but after high school I’d sort of written Toledo off. Now I see it in a different light.”
Balzer said she saw the city through new eyes, exploring Toledo’s nightlife, acoustic music scene and historic neighborhoods like the Old West End with a new-found enthusiasm.
As a student at Notre Dame Academy in Sylvania, Balzer gained a valuable understanding of her hometown as a participant in the Youth Leadership Toledo (YLT) program. Returning to Toledo reminded her of the lessons she’d learned through YLT. She said the program introduced her to the concept of “leadership through service,” something that is also central to Challenge Detroit.
Leadership Toledo Associate Executive Director Cory Dippold said he is happy Balzer’s YLT experience has stuck with her.
“What I remember most about Anna is that she wasn’t the most outspoken person, but when she did speak, she was right on target and very passionate,” Dippold said.
Balzer’s host company, PM Environmental, is a due diligence firm that oversees the transfer of properties between owners. Balzer says Detroit’s volatile housing market keeps the firm busy.
“It’s not the kind of ‘saving the world’ environmentalism I thought I wanted to do, but it’s a very practical application of what I studied in school,” Balzer said.
Balzer is also helping to establish a downtown presence for the metro area-based firm, something the Challenge Detroit program is eager to support.
“What Anna’s doing is what we really hope our fellows can do through the program,” Challenge Detroit director Deirdre Greene Groves said. “Having companies in the region is awesome, but we’re also excited when our fellows can be part of an organization’s movement toward the city.”
Balzer lives in downtown Detroit, near a People Mover stop, and right next to the Joe Lewis Arena, home of the Detroit Red Wings. She said she feels safe in her neighborhood. Now that she knows the city a little better Balzer said she’s hoping to move to one of Detroit’s neighborhoods.
Balzer has had a front row seat to the revitalization efforts happening in Detroit, witnessing both the successes and struggles of the movement firsthand as people from all over the country join the Detroit community.
“Revitalization efforts are happening and they are becoming successful but you have to ask, ‘Who are they successful for?’” Balzer said, saying it’s important for newcomers to collaborate with the existing communities in Detroit for revitalization to be sustainable. She said she’s felt welcomed in the city by native Detroiters.
“If you come to Detroit and are really genuine about your interest to help the city, you’re going to have an incredible amount of support from neighbors and businesses,” Balzer said.
Greene Groves said Detroit needs diverse perspectives to successfully capitalize on opportunities for regrowth in the coming years.
“There are a lot of cities that are in transition the way we are. I hope those other cities don’t have to hit rock bottom,” Greene Groves said. “We have a chance to be a model and now it’s on us to not mess it up.”
The program administrators are also hoping the fellows put down roots in the city, and so far that goal has been achieved. Ninety percent of the first cohort of fellows chose to stay in Detroit after the fellowship.
“Some of us have an adventurous spirit, so we know that some people will leave,” Greene Groves said. “But we do expect for all our fellows to tell a different story about Detroit, to explain to people why they chose to spend a year of their lives here.”
As for Balzer, she says she remains committed to her new city.
“I’ve always had a bit of a wanderlust,” Balzer said, “But I feel that Detroit sort of satisfies that. Somehow I feel more settled here than I have anywhere else.”
Challenge Detroit is now accepting applications for its third group of fellows, who will start in September 2014.
For more information, visit challengedetroit.org.