Friday, September 10, 2010

Diaspora Network Geography

Developing a regional identity is tough to do. Often missing from the equation is a consideration of scale. Figuring out the right size for a regional initiative is crucial to the project's success. Unfortunately, established political geography leads the well-intentioned down the wrong path. Such is the fate of a great idea, Michigan Corps:

The idea of returning to or supporting far away home lands has taken off. Organizations like Indicorps (India), Ethiocorps (Ethiopia) and the Armen­ian Volunteer Corps send members of the diaspora “home” to do service and strengthen their loyalties. Jewish organizations send diaspora Jews to Israel. Haitians abroad — like dozens of other nationalities — remit money to compatriots back home. The Chinese economic boom was bol­stered by investments of money and skills by over seas Chinese. The Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, is said to have reached out to foreign-dwelling Rwandans after the 1994 genocide to urge them to return to rebuild.

But there is little of this loyalty within affluent countries. How many French college graduates move back to their grandparents’ villages to improve the education? How many New Yorkers send money to build infrastructure in the Alabama towns where they grew up? There are vigorous flows of money from cities to the country side in developing coun­tries, but in wealthier lands roots seem more easily forgotten.

The Jaitlys left their jobs to found Michigan Corps earlier this summer. Its mission is to tap into that same blend of solidarity and nostalgia probed by foreign home lands to get people of Michigan origin — resident and non-resident alike — to give back to the state, which has suffered heavily from the evaporation of manufacturing, the unraveling of Detroit and a severe brain drain.

I figure every state can be broken into at least two major regions. I see three divisions in Michigan: Chicagoland, Detroitland and the Upper Peninsula. Yoopers have a strong national identity that would lend itself to a functioning diaspora network. As for Michigan Corps, it is a de facto Greater Detroit organization:

The New York native started Michigan Corps with his wife, Detroit native Anuja Jaitly, after working with College Summit, a nonprofit that aims to boost college enrollment rates for low-income students. He previously led government affairs and public-private partnerships for Google across South Asia.

Anuja Jaitly is a University of Michigan graduate who most recently worked with Ashoka, a charity that aims to promote social entrepreneurship. After the birth of their daughter in Novem
ber and leaving their jobs earlier this year, they're living with Anuja Jaitly's family in southeast Michigan as they get Michigan Corps going.

A decade-long economic downturn has left Michigan with the nation's second-highest unemployment rate and one in every four residents relying on unemployment insurance, Medicaid, cash assistance or food stamps. The decline of the auto industry and American manufacturing has contributed to its struggles.

Among Michigan Corps' well-known founding members, Schmidt served with Rishi Jaitly on the board of Princeton University in New Jersey. Gupta is a Michigan native and UM graduate. And Eugenides, whose Pulitzer-winning novel Middlesex is set in the Detroit area, is a Detroit native.

Yep, there are a bunch of counties in Wisconsin. Michigan Corps supports fans of the Green Bay Packers! There are Yoopers with strong ties to Detroit, which is why the Motor City should be at the center of the diaspora network. Why not Detroit Corps?

In today's world, metros are king. As Detroit goes, so goes Michigan. The city's fate also affects Windsor (Ontario) and Toledo (Ohio). That's not the case for the western part of the state. Those communities are economically tied to Chicago. I get the sense that the founders of Michigan Corps were worried about Detroit's negative brand. That's too bad. Consider it an opportunity missed.

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