Opinion

How spending three days away from Philadelphia could help make it better | Opinion

What can Philly learn from Detroit? GPLEX will find out.

GPLEX attendees in Seattle during the 2018 trip

GPLEX attendees in Seattle during the 2018 trip

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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Kiersten Mailler is GPLEX director at the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia.


One could say Detroit and Philadelphia are like cousins: We share some DNA, but we were “raised” very differently. That’s why next week, 160 Philly leaders from across the public, private, and nonprofit sectors will convene in the Motor City for this year’s Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange

It’s my second year running the conference for the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, and as GPLEX director, I have two goals.

The first is to connect Philadelphians and give them common knowledge and experiences in order to solve local problems together, which we often call building “civic muscle.” The second is to paint a complete and respectful picture of another region so that this incredible group of movers and shakers can understand it, learn from it, and implement those lessons… all within three days.

Since it is impossible to fully understand a region in that timeframe (three decades might not even be enough!), my team’s task is to give examples of the variety and depth of interesting things happening in Detroit. The conference’s program includes conversations with prominent Detroiters, tours of important sites, and discussion of topics that mean the most to residents there.

We chose Detroit for this adventure because it is a city much like our own, and by learning about and from Detroit, we can learn a lot about ourselves: it’s not quite an alternate reality, an example of another future that Philadelphia could have had — though there are some striking parallels.

In a year of researching the city through personal visits, conversations, reading histories, and following their news, we’ve learned a few cultural truisms that I think makes it profoundly special. Detroit’s history — shaped by innovators, immigrants, southern migrants, and blue collar workers — has produced scrappy, creative, collaborative hustlers. The midwestern hospitality mindset also seems to have seeped into every level: the prevailing vibe is people who are happy to work together, happy to help, and excited to keep you around a little longer with a good cup of coffee.

Detroiters are also future-thinking. This is a culture that, despite enormous hardship, continues to innovate and feels comfortable pioneering in multiple sectors. The city has faced extreme economic hardships, population loss, and cold winters, but the folks that gave us Motown, the Model T, and dutifully support the Lions do not shy away from hardship. Detroit continues to generate world-changing ideas, and isn’t afraid to try something new. There’s a pattern of working together with humility and sharing space and resources, which is why our theme for this year’s conference is cross-sector collaboration.

Detroit is one of the best places to see this in action. Ideally, Philadelphians will explore the lay of the land and say, “This approach could work for us too!”

There’s an energy that comes in the wake of a good conference. It wills participants to connect on new turf and share a common experience, and builds a bond between members of a diverse group. It compels them to work together when they get back to Philly. This is what moves the needle: people connected from all different sectors who have experienced another way of thinking about solutions, have learned how to work together, and can use those bonds to affect positive change at home.

A tour of affordable housing development in Seattle sparked ideas to bring back to Philadelphia

A tour of affordable housing development in Seattle sparked ideas to bring back to Philadelphia

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

And this is what leads to my third goal: continuing the momentum after Oct. 4.  To that end, we created GPLEX 360, a full-circle program that maintains and strengthens the connections made during the conference and offers continued exposure to members of the cohort. It also creates opportunities for new members to join with light buy-in to see if this group is something they want to be a part of without the full commitment of a conference. We are considering a model where every year is a trip to another city, so the 360 sessions are essential in showcasing all of the fantastic work happening in the Philadelphia region.

If you are a leader, a mover, a shaker, or your work supports a strong and equitable economy for our region, we want to meet you. Consider joining some of our sessions and connecting with other leaders like you, and building a network that thrives through cross-sector collaboration.

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