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I Will Stay If…

YLNI asks the big question, and gets some interesting answers

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


“I will stay if…”

Those four simple words have probably launched a thousand discussions in the Fort Wayne area.

And it’s just as true that those same words that have provided ample fodder for so much coffee shop conversation have also been at the core of current community development theory in the U.S. for the past decade.

In academia and public policy, “I will stay if…” is often referred to by another catchy and familiar phrase — “brain drain.” To sum up, it’s the flight of what’s perceived as a state or region’s (or even nation’s) best and brightest to a more desirable area to establish a life and a career. The argument goes that these people — young, educated, entrepreneurial, creative — have a wide range of options available to them, so what is your state, region, or city doing to make them want to stay?

But no matter how many books, papers, or studies address the problem of “brain drain” and its possible remedies, nothing really breaks it all down and gets to the root of the issue more than finishing the sentence “I will stay if…”

At a regular networking event a few weeks ago, Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana (YLNI) — an organization that was formed, in part, to tackle the “brain drain” problem in the area (FWR last covered YLNI in #125) — asked attendees to do just that: find the one thing that would make them stay in the area. The words “I Will Stay If…” were written on a big dry-erase board; anyone willing filled out the rest, and had their photo taken holding up their response.

Monica Freeman, who serves on YLNI’s Community Impact Committee, estimates that around 80 people came to the event. “Not everyone got their photo taken, but we have about 25 photos with statements,” Freeman says.

The photos and statements from the Fort Wayne event will actually become part of a much larger “I Will Stay…” campaign created by an organization called the Great Lakes Urban Exchange (GLUE), who shares the responses and photos on its website. Based in Detroit, GLUE was formed in 2007 to, in the words of its mission statement, engage young professionals in bolstering regional identity among older industrial urban centers in the Great Lakes region. Though some aspects of GLUE sound a little more political than anything YLNI has done yet, the two organizations seem to share many common goals and a similar vision: countering the “brain drain” and motivating younger people to make their city or region the kind of place where they would want to live.

GLUE’s co-founder and director Sarah Szurpicki saw the need for the organization when she moved back to her native Detroit after stints in New York and Washington, DC. GLUE’s co-founder, Abby Wilson, had worked with Szurpicki in New York, and had also moved back to her hometown, Pittsburgh. The two cities aren’t identical, but they share some of the same challenges — former industrial powerhouses that, for a multitude of reasons, have… well, we’ll just say that aren’t the flourishing urban centers they once were. “We thought whatever is working in Pittsburgh might work in Detroit, or Buffalo, or Cleveland,” Szurpicki says. “We found that there is a lot of exciting work happening in these cities to make them healthier, more sustainable, more equitable places to live, more economically successful, but they were operating almost in a vacuum where we had all these potential peers in other cities we could be sharing ideas with and learning from.”

Szurpicki says that with the “I Will Stay If…” campaign, they wanted to give a direct response to the question bubbling behind the omnipresent “brain drain” issue. “It says ‘if you do this, I’m not going anywhere’,” she explains. “It’s a very specific way of getting people to boil down their top one or two ideas for making their city a better place.”

She adds: “One of the best ways of counter acting ‘brain drain’ is not by marketing your city to make it look cooler, but to really get the young people who already live there more deeply engaged in our communities. That word spreads more effectively than marketing. If you can move to one of these cities and feel a part of community, you’re going to tell your friends about it, and that real word of mouth travels.”

As we said, the respondents of Fort Wayne’s “I Will Stay If…” event will have their photos and statements added to a larger community on the “I Will Stay If…” website, with entries from Grand Rapids, Dayton, Buffalo, and others. The sizes of the cities vary, and so do the issues facing them, but there are a lot of similarities in the responses. Jobs are, of course, extremely important. Monica Freeman of YLNI says that the event took place just a few days after Navistar announced that it was not staying in town. “There were a few people who said ‘I will stay if we can keep jobs’ or ‘I will stay if someone will hire me’. That’s happening all over. One guy said ‘I will stay if I have the opportunity to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 Company’.”

But while employment is obviously on people’s minds these days, “quality of life” issues were mentioned almost as frequently, suggesting that while there may be more to revitalizing a community than “just” attracting jobs. “You see a lot of that,” Szurpicki says. “People won’t say ‘I’ll stay if I have a better job.’ They’ll say ‘I’ll stay if we get more reliable public transportation. I’ll stay if I can send my kids to a good public school’.”

Fort Wayne’s “I Will Stay If…” event was actually a follow-up of sorts to YLNI’s 2020 Vision Survey published late last June. “ ‘I Will Stay If…’ just seemed a great fit with the whole 2020 Vision survey,” Freeman says. “It really helps with our message, and it’s a fun, open way to get people involved and talking about these issues.”

The 2020 Vision Survey is an ambitious project that sought to define YLNI as it exists today, and maybe establish a map for the issues it might tackle in the future. Over a year in the making, the survey collected responses from more than 200 people to questions such as “What about Northeast Indiana is most attractive to you?” and “What should Northeast Indiana concentrate on right now to make it a more attractive place to live?”

The results of the 20/20 Vision Survey and the “I will stay if…” event paint an interesting picture of the concerns of YLNI’s broad demographic, and one that might surprise some people. Often, discussions of combating the “brain drain” and creating communities where younger people will want to live and work center on entertainment options. While the question of “what to do after work/on the weekends” is there, that particular issue is far from the top of the list. “Bars didn’t come up,” Freeman says. “People are still looking for entertainment, more things to do after work and home, but there was more mention of diversity and cultural appreciation. One person actually said ‘I will stay if there’s something to do on Friday night other than go to bars…”

Szurpicki says she sees the same thing across the board. “People think ‘young people just want entertainment’, and that’s not true. Young people want a city where they can see themselves in the future.”

But while jobs and culture seem equally important, the 2020 Vision survey leans a little more towards the former; the guy who said he’d stay if he could be a CEO in a Fortune 500 company underscores one of the issues brought up in the survey — attracting the right kind of job. “The #1 need that came out of the survey was that we need to have more professional career opportunities,” Freeman says. “It was an overwhelming issue in the survey.” YLNI purposely does not use the word “professional” in its material, but Freeman says the organization is currently looking at different ways to address that concern and other issues raised in the survey.

As far as the “I Will Stay If…” event, Freeman thinks it might be interesting to revisit the idea sometime in the future. “We’re handing the results over to GLUE, but we don’t have any really specific plans,” she says. “I’d like it if we did something like this again someday. Maybe ‘I Stayed Because…’.”

To find out more about YLNI and the 2020 Vision Survey, visit ylni.org

To check out responses to the I Will Stay If… campaign, go to iwillstayif.org. As of this writing, the pictures from Fort Wayne aren’t up yet, but they will be soon.

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