In Michigan, small things add up to life writ large

Michiganders lament the brain drain that sees some of our best and brightest young people fleeing the state for supposedly bigger and better things on the coasts and in major cities. I was one of those young people (though I am dubious as to whether my leaving caused much, if any, drain on Michigan's intellectual capital), who thought the best path forward was to head out to one of the coasts and pursue my destiny.

After nine years on the East Coast, eight of them in Washington, D.C., my wife and I recently came home to Grand Rapids. Our experience has given me some insight on how we might attract young people back to Michigan — and how we might convince them never to leave in the first place.

There are all sorts of incentives we could think up to keep young people here or draw them back. Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s Cool Cities Initiative was just one. While such projects aren’t unimportant, I think there is a more fundamental change we need to make.

We live in a culture of meritocracy, where we are taught to dream big and that anything is possible. There should be no limit to how far and to where we can go. In many ways, this pushes people to excel, but it also teaches them to look outward, to follow their ambition far from family and the community that shaped them.

It also is premised on a half-truth. Experience teaches us the world is not limitless. One need only consider the environmental consequences we suffer today because of our disregard for natural limits.

And if we observe the fruitful and virtuous lives that move and attract us, we see that they are often generated by the creative tension between limits and freedom. In short, limits are often the very preconditions for true freedom and creativity. The painter is bound by the four sides of her canvas, but it is within those four sides that her creativity comes to life.

What is true of us as human beings is true about geography and place. One of the hurdles I needed to overcome to move home was the way I viewed Grand Rapids as limited, crabbed and confining. It isn’t D.C. and doesn’t have some of the great opportunities D.C. has. But I can see now how the very things I saw as limits are actually opportunities for true flourishing.

Wendell Berry writes that “most of us can name a painting, a piece of music, a poem or play or story that still grows in meaning and remains fresh after many years of familiarity.” When I began to view Grand Rapids and Michigan in that light, I saw how Michigan can, and will continue to, surprise and remain fresh as the years go on. There are nooks and crannies, bars and restaurants, streets and parks, here in Grand Rapids and all over the state, that I’ve yet to explore -- even the places I’ve been hundreds of times offer fresh revelations as I revisit them.

My suggestion, then, is that we need to cultivate such an understanding about the places from which we come — the towns and cities that dot the Michigan landscape. And then we need to convey it to our young people.

Despite Michigan’s perceived limits, it is a place of remarkable opportunity that we can spend a lifetime exploring and never exhaust.  We need to teach our young people that greener pastures don’t lie elsewhere, but right in front of us. If we do this, I’d wager that many more of our young people would stay here. They’d see deep value in building up and sustaining the places they’ve been given.

While such an approach won’t reverse all the trends sending our young people away, they would be a big step in the right direction. We need not give up on programs like Cool Cities, but we need to address the deeper fundamentals that lead folks away.

And we need to take legitimate pride in this place and not be afraid to proclaim Michigan’s virtues to her native sons and daughters.

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Sun, 04/14/2013 - 6:25am
A young friend, who is moving to a west coast city this summer for graduate work, was succinct when I asked her when she plans to come back. "Probably never", she said. "Michigan's has been turned over to the Taliban". She wasn't happy with the lack of support for education (she's not in debt but has many friends who have huge student loans), the wages women earn (women in Michigan earn less than in other states she says), the attacks on women's reproductive rights (she's never been pregnant), the gay marriage ban (she's not gay but has friends who are), the crime in large cities (she's never been a victim but has friends who have), the attacks on her union relatives (she's not in a union), the opportunities for her own children (she doesn't yet have children), people carrying loaded guns around (she's been around guns all her life, but they were never brandished as they are now), and the deteriorating economy (she's always been able to get a job and her parents have always been employed and are solid middle class, but she has many friends who are desperate). She's actually had a pretty good life in Michigan, but her perception is that the state is going downhill quickly and the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. Her perception is bleak and what's going on in Lansing is discouraging for her. "Taliban", is the image, and why would a woman voluntarily submit to the Taliban?
Tue, 04/16/2013 - 12:59am
What pie-in-the-sky rubbish. As somebody who just left Michigan to move to california, I can tell you my reasoning wasn't that Michigan didn't have cool cities. The problem was not my perception of Michigan as a sort of Midwestern Backwater. The reason people are leaving Michigan is because staying there is not sustainable. I spent 2 years looking for work in Detroit and Ann Arbor--and got a job within 30 days of arriving in California. Why should anybody stay where you can't even scrape by, let alone plan for the future? You can keep your " nooks and crannies, bars and restaurants, streets and parks, here in Grand Rapids and all over the state," for yourself. Personally I wouldn't have been able to afford them in Michigan anyways, and I'd rather move away than try surviving a michigan winter while homeless.
MR friend antithesis
Tue, 04/16/2013 - 11:43am
MR, sorry your friend did not appreciate the upside of most of those issues. I moved here after living on the east and west coasts so my kids would more likely understand from their friends, educators and culture that children should be produced and raised by married mothers and fathers. Sounds like your friend didn't get that same upbringing, probably because she was in a left wing dominated space. Unions had a good for a while, but eventually on a worldwide basis they had become way over paid and were sure to crash since they had gone so extreme. I agree that bragging about guns is immature whether urban or rural. The Taliban oppresses and kills women and law-abiding citizens. Only a very prejudiced person would equate that to Lansing regardless of its faults. She might feel happy on a left coast for a while, but sexual perversions, baby killing, and bankrupt socialism are not sustainable. I hope they only crash and burn their states and not our whole country and the world.