My Detroit Diaspora: Out of Place, but Not Out of Hope

When I reflect on childhood and on everything I’ve been through since completing my undergraduate studies, I consider myself the face of everything that went wrong with city of Detroit and the state of Michigan in the previous decade.

I was born and raised in Southfield, quite a few years before black people started moving there in droves, and I actually had my blackness inexplicably challenged for this reason, among others, during my childhood. I can remember firmly believing if I’d just been born in the city of Detroit, instead of in Southfield or any other suburb, I would’ve been accepted. So I therefore stopped telling people in this area where I was from, fearing the conflict that could arise if I’d publicized such information. This is how I grew up.

I laugh at myself today when I think back on my childhood and the misguided misconceptions of yesterday, for my experiences as an adult have shown me that those same individuals who questioned my blackness in childhood for having both parents in the house, maintaining a stellar academic record, and, most of all, being a suburban kid, haven’t come anywhere close to demonstrating the commitment to the city of Detroit in their adulthood as I have. I have sacrificed my career, my livelihood, my life for this city, and while doing so has cost me much, I have gained so much more.

Following graduation in December 2005, I embarked on the road less traveled and made the migration from out of town back to Detroit to begin my professional life; for obvious reasons, I was one of a very small handful of friends to do this. As a teenager, I had two dreams, one, to become an engineer, and the other, to attend Morehouse College, so upon graduation from high school, I took my talents to Atlanta and toiled 5 1/2 years to earn Bachelor of Science degrees in General Science and Electrical Engineering from Morehouse (magna cum laude) and Georgia Tech, respectively, as a student of the Atlanta University Center Dual-Degree Engineering Program.

I attended school with many friends and associates from the Detroit area who, upon graduation, relocated to cities all over the country to begin their careers. None of them returned home, and quite frankly, I had not originally planned on it, either, except that I had heard the voice of the Lord a few years prior, telling me just as plainly as one can hear someone whispering in his/her ear that His blessings were awaiting me back in Detroit and Detroit only. I was resistant at first, but I knew there was a greater plan in it than that which I could perceive or understand at the time. You see, not only did I get an education in Atlanta, but I also received my calling to Christian ministry there, as well. Ministry was my primary focus and my biggest reason for returning home, for the seminary God had told me to attend was in Southfield.

So, in our final semester in school, while everyone was being flown all over the country to various on-site interviews, I was applying to Detroit-area companies because I knew Detroit was where I was supposed to be. While I was not initially keen on moving back home, I embraced it because I knew the plan for my life was greater than me. And besides, I was coming back home with not one, but two degrees, one from one of the finest, most prestigious liberal arts colleges in the nation, and the other from the #7 ranked school in the country (at the time) for my major, so I shouldn’t have had much problem whatsoever gaining employment, right?

Well, I was sadly mistaken. Making the decision to come back home to Detroit was certainly not a great one for my career, as I returned to my city at a time when jobs–professional, well-paying, white-collar jobs–were evaporating in staggering numbers. General Motors was slashing jobs left and right, Chrysler was in shambles, Ford had just begun a hiring freeze, and all the suppliers to these companies, in turn, followed suit, thus leaving me, a young, bright, accomplished, educated professional, jobless and searching for both employment and answers. Ministry and the myriad of opportunities existing in the Detroit area for ministry were the most important reasons for my coming home, so I enrolled in seminary and embarked on the path toward ordination immediately upon my return home, but I had always believed my academic preparation would have allowed me to establish myself financially while earning my Master’s of Divinity degree. I thought wrong.

At Georgia Tech, we paid pretty close attention to all the statistics regarding earning potential by major, so we were all aware electrical engineers’ average starting salary in 2005 was $55,000/yr, definitely on the high end of entry-level Bachelor’s-degreed graduates. That never quite happened for me. I spent more than a year applying for jobs and barely even getting interviews while seeing better, more promising, higher-paying entry-level positions in just about every other part of the country. The standard reason many companies gave for not giving me a look on the positions I was applying for was that they needed someone with more experience. In a state where its top industry was on the decline, the grim reality of the situation was that very few entry-level jobs were available for young professionals like me, fresh out of college. After about the fiftieth time looking at a job posting and getting excited about how great the opportunity was and how I was a perfect fit for it, only to look further and learn the opportunity was elsewhere, I began to realize why people across this nation have called Michigan the “brain drain” and why the college graduates this state’s colleges and universities produce leave immediately upon graduation, many never to return.

The job I finally did end up obtaining was an hourly position doing far less than my schooling prepared me for, earning far less than what was commensurate to my educational attainment. By the time the economy finally started picking up a little bit (and I do mean a “little”) last year, I had been out of undergrad so long that my resume was no longer deemed attractive to employers for the technical jobs to which I had applied. All in all, you wouldn’t be incorrect in concluding that Michigan’s poor economy, coupled with my unique and perhaps untimely decision to return to my home state at the zenith of its decline, effectively shut me out of the career for which I spent so many years preparing.

In January of this year, however, I decided to be proactive and made the decision to allow the gifts God has placed in me to work for me, rather than for others who did not care for me or my professional development. Instead of waiting for a company to believe in me, I reaffirmed the belief I have in myself and began investing more time and resources into my own consulting company, using the talents and abilities I have honed throughout my life to help other professionals and build a life for my family. I know I’ve been blessed with too much intelligence and have been endowed too many gifts for me not to be making money, regardless of who my employer is. I have tapped into the entrepreneurial anointing God has placed over the city of Detroit, for it is this enterprising spirit that will rejuvenate, reform, and revitalize this region.

For every negative story that has been written about the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan, there are two more of individuals like me who have turned lemons into lemonade and have begun the important work of business development and redevelopment. Stories like these will never make the front page of the paper, but they must be told as often as possible. This economy and how it’s affected this one-trick pony of a state (at least until recently) will have you doubting yourself, wondering whether you truly have what it takes to reach your personal and professional goals, and questioning whether you’re making the right decision to even be here, but if you want to be here, nothing should stop you from doing so.

I took the road less traveled and came home to Detroit because I was led by God to do so. As the years have gone by, however, my commitment to the city has matured from a simple, God-ordained mandate to a deep-seeded, heartfelt passion for all Detroit everything. I started ministry and went to seminary here; I met my wife here; I started my family here; I began my business here, and if God wills it, when all is said and done and I’ve accomplished everything I’ve been called to do on this earth, I will die here. People, both abroad and here, badmouth my city consistently, but I defend it. State government legislation, local and national news agendas, and city corruption regularly put my city in the worst possible light, but I defend it. Others—family members, close friends, and coworkers—leave, but I stay and I defend my city. I will always stand up for Detroit because the indomitable spirit of her residents is unlike any I’ve seen in any other city in this nation. It is this spirit that will finally, sooner rather than later, help make the comeback we’ve been talking about for so long a reality.

I share my story not to discourage anyone from moving back to Detroit but actually to encourage the exact opposite. As I stated at the outset, the story of how my decision to come back here pretty much ended my engineering career before it even got started epitomized everything wrong with the state of Michigan in the previous decade. Conversely, my story and others like it illustrates the unquestionable truth that entrepreneurship and shared vision will revitalize the city of Detroit well before an influx of new and different industries will (as vital as they are). Collective collaboration will revitalize our communities.

For all of these reasons and so many more, the Detroit Diaspora means so much to me. Each of you had reasons for leaving Detroit, and those of you who return will do so because of another set of reasons. When you return, you’ll be doing so, informed by those reasons but empowered by the gifts and talents you have to bring to the table. These reasons, gifts, and talents comprise the heartbeat of this movement, which will endure for generations to come. As this Diaspora grows, we will encourage each other with our stories, offer our lessons learned, share our resources, patronize each other’s businesses, and work on the front line together in the community, working to breathe life to Detroit’s renaissance, one day, one person, one vision at a time. No matter how intense the negativity anyone tries to feed us about our city, we are never without hope, just as long as we vigorously and passionately seek community. Detroit will not die. We will not die.

Peace and Love, Marcus A. Cylar 05-13-2011

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