Celebrating Five Years of the Community Development Fellowship: Part 1

CEDAM manages the Community Development Fellowship with support from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC). Fellows are placed in communities engaged or certified in Redevelopment Ready Communities (RRC) for fifteen months and work on a variety of projects to expand organizational capacity, increase local collaboration, and remove barriers to development.

In celebration of the Community Development Fellowship program’s 5-year anniversary,  we will be catching up with former fellows and host communities to reflect on the impact of the Fellowship over the course of the year.  

For the first part of the series, we will be hearing from Blake Newman, Josh Prusik, and Katie Higgs, all former fellows who are now working for the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. Blake, Josh, and Katie will be sharing their Fellowship experience, how the Fellowship has impacted their careers, and how their experience shaped the work that they are doing now. All three are providing hands-on technical assistance, boosting capacity in communities, and helping municipalities make strides in their economic community development priorities. Follow along with us to learn about their stories and other former fellow journeys throughout the year! 

Our first interview is with Blake Newman! Blake was a community development fellow in Tecumseh from 2021 – 2022. She now works as a community planner for the Redevelopment Ready Communities toolkit at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

What drove you to apply to the community development fellowship?

Right around the time the fellowship cohort for our group got announced, I was wrapping up my master’s in social work with a focus on ‘community change’. I had been working in a higher-level organization that was more focused on research and things like that, and I wanted to get back into a more ‘boots on the ground, working in the communities’ situation. I hadn’t really been exposed that much to community and economic development, and I wanted an opportunity that would do that, and this felt like the perfect fit. We had just moved to Dundee, my husband had just switched jobs, and there was an opportunity to be placed in Tecumseh, Michigan, which was 20 minutes from our apartment. I didn’t have that high of a hope, honestly, I was kind of like, ‘I don’t know how qualified I am for this,’ but I was super, super excited for the opportunity.

I wanted to feel like I was a part of the community that I was in – that felt really important to the Fellowship and what CEDAM was trying to do with the Fellowship. I was familiar with Tecumseh – I grew up in Jackson, about an hour from there. Immediately before this, I was doing work in Detroit. It was a pretty big difference, going from the largest city in the state, to Tecumseh, which was less than 10,000 people. My initial perception of the community was that they were extremely welcoming – that speaks to the power of the Fellowship, in my opinion. They were just so excited to have an extra set of hands and an extra person to help with some of the work that they wanted to get done. They had a lot of really big goals that were definitely going to take extra manpower, extra heads at the table. I was getting involved in a lot of the stuff that they had going on, and there were even projects that weren’t on the initial set of priorities that I was able to do. They wanted help and they wanted someone who was willing and able to do the work that they had outlined – that was really exciting as well.

What was your most memorable project working with Tecumseh?

For the first half of my fellowship, my main project that I was working on was what we’ll call ‘Project Phoenix’. Project Phoenix was a large industrial site where Tecumseh Products used to be. Tecumseh Products was a large manufacturing facility that took up about a full city block, if not more, about two blocks from the downtown. This site had been vacant since around 2008 and the City was looking to create a large sports complex/community center there. It was basically like a fast track to learning community and economic development. I got to touch a ton of things. We were looking at business recruitment, and at community services and how to make this a location and a hub for people to come and get multiple services all at once. We were talking about health and quality of life, and how a development like this could impact things like that. We were also talking about outdoor recreation and about sports tourism. I was a plethora of knowledge gained all at once.

I learned a lot of really positive things from that project, and I also learned some hard lessons that come with the work that we do. Sometimes your projects don’t come to fruition. They don’t always get completed, and that’s a really hard lesson to learn, but I really value that project. I get to carry that experience into communities that could be experiencing the same thing, working through the hardship that goes with investing time and energy into something that doesn’t actually get to happen. But that doesn’t mean that all the work was for naught. We got to identify a lot of gaps in services across the county. We had a lot of conversations about transportation issues in the county. There was so much work that we did, that is still going to get used, and it’s still going to add value to not only Tecumseh but the surrounding areas.

What did you learn about the community development field through the Fellowship?

I have a background in social work, and so I came into this role with some impostor syndrome. I felt like I was missing skills that some of my colleagues had that were in other communities. I learned pretty quickly that it does overlap way more than I think we realize, and how important that focus on relationship building and things moving slowly is. I think my social work background helped me come into this field with the right mindset, because social work is also slow. Things move slowly when you’re trying to make changes on a broad scale.

I think I was a little naive coming into this thinking that things would move quickly. I thought that we would be breaking ground on the Products site by the end of the Fellowship, after my 15 months, and there was absolutely no way that was going to happen, even if things went smoothly. I mean, just the sheer amount of work and the time it takes to get a project like that, or any project for that matter, off the ground. This is very, very slow work. Being patient, understanding the process, and doing things the right way is important.

How did the Fellowship prepare you for the next step in your career?

I wasn’t even fully aware that the job I have now existed before the Fellowship. Now being an RRC planner with the MEDC, I’d gotten that exposure through working with Stephanie Peña, who is now my coworker. She was my community planner while I was in Tecumseh, and I got to work with her. The whole second half of my Fellowship was pretty much dedicated to RRC and working with the community on their recertification. I got a ton of exposure to the intricate processes at the city level, walking them through the process, and making sure everything was in order. That directly correlated to why I decided to apply to this position. I believe that the Redevelopment Ready Communities toolkit and the work that we get to do in communities implementing that toolkit can really change the fabric of the communities we’re working with and create places where all Michiganders, including future Michiganders, can thrive.

I felt extremely prepared both with the first half of my Fellowship being focused on a really large development project and getting the exposure on that end of things, and then my second half being focused on RRC and the processes at the municipal level. I think that that created a really awesome onboarding process to prepare me for the role I’m in now. It’s so amazing to get to see these communities, up close and personal, and meet with people who are advocating and doing this work on the ground. The idea that I got to do that not only with Tecumseh, but now expose myself to three other regions and work with 60 communities around the state. It was like a dream come true. I was like, ‘this is the best job ever.’