A Conference with a Conscience
By Rachel Siegel
I recently attended the JRPO Network’s conference for Jewish communal professionals in Detroit, Michigan. Over the course of three days I had the opportunity to reset personally and professionally, meet and reconnect with leaders in the Jewish nonprofit world, tell many people about JWFNY, and develop my skillset. While the sessions were interesting and I expanded my professional network, there was one experience that stood out because of its ability to tie the conference theme, “What Connects Us” together for me.
The conference was kicked off with a selection of immersive experiences to give conference-goers a chance to explore various Detroit neighborhoods and organizations and “highlight promising practices, complex scenarios, and inspiring leaders.” This explanation perfectly summed up my excursion to the Eastern Market. Detroit has been described as a food desert, defined by the USDA as parts of the country, usually impoverished areas, void of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers. Enter the Eastern Market, one of the oldest and largest year-round public markets in the United States.
Eastern Market has long been a place where people with limited means come to purchase produce and start their own businesses. We heard from the Eastern Market Partnership, an organization that uses promising practices to tackle complex scenarios in their community by working to make the market a place that can be enjoyed by all, regardless of socio-economic status. The organization listened to their constituents and uses innovative solutions to meet their needs. One way the market reaches across the socio-economic divide is providing staggered times at the market on Saturdays – opportunities for budding entrepreneurs and those who might acquire their creative and niche items as well as space for those struggling to feed their families to purchase produce at reduced cost. The organization also worked to beautify the buildings that make up the market by hiring locals to paint murals in an effort to prevent graffiti.
Our group heard from four inspiring leaders who started their own businesses with the help of the Eastern Market Partnership. Each has been successful and has outgrown their space at the market. Even with their success, each one continues to be a part of the Eastern Market community, including aiding other entrepreneurs in creating enterprises of their own. While these entrepreneurs differ from the social entrepreneurs with whom we work at JWFNY, their challenges are similar, including the consideration of maintaining intimacy as a company grows. The similarities continued when the entrepreneurs gave advice to our group of Jewish professionals working to change the world: the importance of working with constituents and creating the change that they want, not the one you think they need; knowing that you can only control your own efforts, not outside factors; remembering where you came from; giving back to the community; and maintaining a sense of humor.
It meant a lot to me that the conference organizers got us out of the convention center and into the heart of Detroit. In my opinion, to bring over 500 Jewish communal professionals to Detroit, a city with many complex challenges, and not discuss the state of the city would have been a missed opportunity. I appreciated having a real taste of Detroit and hearing from locals about what they are doing to change their city for the better. The fact that I was able to connect it with the work I do at JWFNY made it that much more valuable.
Any conference can hole you up in the conference center, this one had heart (and Jewish values).