Celebrating Five Years of the Community Development Fellowship: Part 2

Our next interview is with Katie Higgs! Katie was a community development fellow in Coldwater from 2021 – 2022. She now works at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation as a Community Planner for the Redevelopment Ready Communities toolkit.

Why did you apply to the fellowship program?

I applied for the fellowship because I had been working in economic development in Chicago, had gotten laid off during the pandemic, and was looking to come back to Michigan, where I grew up. I knew I was looking to move more into the community development side of things, and always thought that I would work more in the nonprofit space. I saw the Fellowship as an opportunity to move back, keep doing something that I had started out in Chicago, and into a career that was less business development focused and more community development focused. I also really wanted the opportunity to learn more about grant writing and that was something I saw as being an active part of the Fellowship. I had applied for pretty much every community south of the bridge, and it was a great opportunity to find a new community in Michigan to call home.

I actually had never been to Coldwater before being offered the position there. It was a lot more rural and a lot smaller of a community than the one I had grown up in. My first impression was that it was very welcoming. It’s a very diverse place, considering that it was rural, because they have quite a large Arab population with a large Yemeni community, and a large Latinx community as well. I think I brought a fresh perspective to the community, having not been there before or grown up there. That was a slightly different experience than a lot of other fellows who might have applied to a position in the community they already called home, or their hometown, or a community close by. So, that was something that I was super excited to have the opportunity to do and I think it worked out really well.

What do you feel was your biggest accomplishment with the community?

I look back on my time in Coldwater and see myself as somebody who was adding capacity for them to do more of the things that will make a difference farther down the line. One of my favorite projects that I got to be a part of was applying for a USDA Rural Development Grant around housing preservation, for homes that were in need of maintenance and repair. People who were in low- and very low-income households would be able to take advantage of this great opportunity if we were awarded. I was super excited to be successful in winning that grant for Coldwater – it was about $115,000 in funding for this program. One of the things that’s really challenging for especially small communities are these federal grant programs and even state grant programs. They take a lot of legwork, and even just identifying the grants that work for you is a lot of work.

Going after those funds can be really catalytic for a community, but it takes a lot of time and investment for this grant writing to happen. It’s money that’s out there that communities can take advantage of, but they often just don’t have time and capacity to do so. I was super excited to bring that money into a community with limited staff capacity. Though I wasn’t around to administer the grant program once they were awarded, I know that the program has gone live and community members have been able to take advantage of it. I think it’s really beneficial to the community as a whole, not just the people that are awarded those funds.

What did you learn about the community development field through your experience?

I think the fellowship taught me a lot of things about local government, about community development, that I had not previously been aware of. Something that I had to learn pretty quickly was that these are long processes. Community development doesn’t happen overnight. As they say, ‘Rome was not built in a day,’ and that could not be more true. A lot of community development work is essentially planting seeds for what could be possible in the future – imagining what your community will look like 20 to 30 years down the road, and having those conversations today that will impact tomorrow. You might not be around to see the fruits of your labor depending on what job you have and where life takes you.

Community development projects can influence how people see their community, how they experience their community, and how they feel about their community, and this is really important. I think it really has a benefit on their lives directly because a lot of how you see yourself is tied up in how you see your community, too. By investing and by seeing what’s possible in your community, I think that can really make you feel like you belong as a member of your community. I think that’s a really big piece of people feeling good and feeling happy about where they live.

Do you think that the Fellowship prepared you for the job you have now?

More than anything else, I think the Fellowship led to where I am today. We had plenty of opportunities for connecting with other people through conferences that we attended while being fellows. Those professional development opportunities were something that CEDAM was very strategic about providing for us and making sure that we had a place to land after the Fellowship. I was able to build relationships during the Fellowship both with my peers across the state and also with the organizations like CEDAM and MEDC that support the Fellowship. I think for me, just the prospect of being at the MEDC was exciting. When I had been working in economic development in Chicago, I kind of always had this feeling like, ‘man, I didn’t know that economic development existed’ until I was already working in economic development. I think while I was working in economic development in Chicago, I had the feeling of how much I would love to do that for my home state of Michigan, and feed back into the places that I love. We experienced the unique problems in our communities and saw the development processes that happened there, and the different projects – that was a very local experience. And now that I’m at the MEDC, I get to see development happening across the state. For my continued growth and development, it’s really great to get to learn about how these deals come together – how these projects come to fruition. Something seems like it’ll be a huge, hard-to-achieve project, and then all of these different layers come together. I see how the incentives come into the process so that down the road, there’s a tangible development that has been built. That is something that, for building on where I want to go next in my career, are all important things and I get to have a front-row seat to and learn about how it all works.