Tuesday, June 25, 2024

StartingBloc: Learning Generosity at Hunt Street Station

In a couple of weeks, I’ll be attending the StartingBloc Institute in Los Angeles. A preview was offered last night at an event co-hosted by the Detroit Regional Chamber‘s Let’s Detroit program and Martha Cavazos, Detroit-based Director of Community Engagement for StartingBloc. The event was hosted in the illustrious Hunt Street Station, a spectacular historic restoration in an old police station along Gratiot Avenue on Detroit’s near-east side. Hunt Street is a coworking space with private offices and shared desks and makes for a great event space. Steve Neavling wrote about the dilapidated, crumbling Gratiot corridor in 2014. You can see a picture of a boarded-up Hunt Street station!

Let’s Detroit is a program of the Chamber aimed at talent retention and attraction. It aims to serve as a sort of jumping-off point for anyone interested in expanding their local networks or local engagement. The website is a digest of places, people, and things going on, and the program focuses on how to build connections.

It is, unequivocally, doing some cheerleading. And don’t get me wrong– I have plenty of critiques of the Chamber.

But sometimes we need cheerleading.

Program manager Katherine Brown does not, however, come across as a cheerleader so much as an organizer of ideas– or perhaps a facilitator of dialogue. The Michigan native has a master’s degree in public service from the Clinton School in Little Rock and spent time working on political campaigns before joining the Detroit Historical Museum, where she spent three years working on outreach and programming. Last night’s event was appreciably diverse in terms of age, ethnicity, and vocation.


The event began with introductions of attendees. Martha introduced the philosophy of StartingBloc, which is to develop aspiring leadership through foundational principals of generosity. She went through the platform’s three maxims– of listening to your gut, maximizing chance opportunities, and to “expect good, and bounce back.” The idea is to cultivate these attributes that define what is commonly considered a “lucky” person. We think of “lucky” as being based on chance, but the idea being presented here is that fortuitous occurrence is as much about what we make of situations as much as it is derived from chance itself.

We were asked to consider whether we had had a moment during the day when we were just pissed off and stressed out. Indeed I had, having stared at HTML for hours advising me to fix some plugin that I hadn’t installed. This is the kind of thing, Martha said, people will deem as “unlucky,” and we unpacked that a bit to explain approaches to empowerment. Martha linked this to research done for a book on this question.

Listening to your gut, Martha explained, suggests approaches to decisionmaking emphasizing mindfulness. It’s got a bit of Malcolm Gladwell. But it’s also a matter of taking a moment to check where your head is at before rushing into something. You can trust your instincts– while also making sure your head is clear. Maximizing chance opportunities is a fancy way of advising you to show up and make connections.

Apropos my relationship with Martha, I met Martha randomly at a conference that I heavily debated not attendingsomething I would have sincerely regretted. And apropos of my attendance of this event, I might not have found out about it had I not run into Katherine at the Detroit Policy Conference. I had also debated not going to this, but I asked for a media credential on a whim– and got one. Is that fortuitous? Martha might say that no, it’s about maximizing chance opportunities.

While I’m generally skeptical of programs that use near-proprietary language for personal development, I think the last maxim in particular is especially important.

We often view personal struggles as setbacks rather than learning opportunities. This is evidenced in the idea of “failing up,” emphasized in the eponymous book. It’s also a very Rust Belt-friendly concept. I often say that Detroit is stronger because it has suffered so many setbacks. This doesn’t mean that the city doesn’t have problems– it does. But reframing is valuable. Thinking in terms of history, we must know whence we came to know where we are going. But we must also empower ourselves with the right tools to move forward.

Detroit frankly does an excellent job with this. Frustrated though I am with how politically backward many parts of Southeast Michigan are, I always find myself inspired by Detroiters’ resilience, creativity, and energy. For example: I do not agree per se with CRIO Director Charity Dean’s comments in Curbed that Detroitis doing development more equitably than any other city in the country.” But I do believe that we can. And I believe we have a few leaders who will make the case for it. A large part of solving problems involves understanding the value propositions in solving them. I’m inspired to think about solving Detroit’s problems in order to provide value and access to Detroiters. Hopefully this can one day eventually lead us to Charity’s honestly pretty bold assertion.

A final point that was interesting to me was StartingBloc’s emphasis on generosity. I have a longstanding academic interest in this dichotomy between abundance and scarcity. I started reading about this with Manu Saadia’s stellar book, Trekonomics. It’s worth another few thousand words, so I don’t want to get too far into it. But suffice it to say, there’s a lot of value in thinking about economic systems based on abundance (emphasizing synthesis, collaboration, reputation, and stewardship) versus scarcity (emphasizing constraints, enclosure, appropriation, and control). This is a huge topic in the new economy– and a cornerstone of the concept of Fully Automated Luxury Communism.



YumVillage provided catering for the event. The New Center-based eatery, product of the inimitable Godwin Ihentuge, is the brick-and-mortar evolution of the chef’s food truck. Jollof rice, fried plantains, collard greens, jerk chicken, and more are included in an expansive menu. Ihentuge signed a lease on the funky, art deco façade storefront after the failure of the previous, short-lived tenant, Atomic Chicken. This tenant had, in turn, replaced a Popeye’s Chicken. Be it said, I can think of few things more poetically satisfying than a local entrepreneur of color replacing a national chain. Similarly, I can think of few things more satisfying than a meal from this spot. It’s everything I want out of food. Plus, Godwin is a generally cool dude and is getting behind a lot of important issues like minimum wage.

Thanks to Katherine and Martha for putting on the event, and thanks to Hunt Street for hosting. Also, special thanks to Martha for being a Handbuilt contributor. I’m very much looking forward to the Institute– and the sunshine.

Nat Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP is a city planner, community development professional, and MBA candidate at American University's Kogod School of Business, based in Detroit.

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