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July 1, 2014

Joel Arnold: Becoming a change agent

July 2, 2014

Joel Arnold is a senior from Davison, Michigan, studying social relations and policy in the James Madison College. He is a squad leader for the Spartan Marching Band, is the founder of the MSU chapter of LiveWorkDetroit! and was selected as a finalist for the Truman Scholarship.

I was born and raised in Davison, Michigan, a community just outside Flint. Growing up, I saw the effects of de-industrialization on my community and my family.

For example, family members lost pensions that were tied to auto companies and family members lost jobs due to the downward spiral of the industrial economy that impacted not only Flint, but also all cities in the Midwest.

It was while living in Davison that I became passionate about public service and what I see as an obligation to serve the community around me.

During high school I was fortunate to sit on a youth grant-making board at the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, intern for Flint Mayor Dayne Walling and volunteer for Sen. Jim Ananich, all people and organizations working to make positive change in the city.

I came to MSU to attend James Madison College, the school’s residential college for public policy. My passion for disinvested communities led me to pursue social relations and policy, a degree that focuses on domestic issues, especially those afflicting urban areas.

Louise Jezierski, a Madison professor who focuses on urban study, really helped drive my passion for urban areas and their desperate need for sustainable redevelopment. She recommended I look at urban planning as an additional major, and since it could give me the skills to pursue my passion further, I added it as a second major.

During my freshman year I read about a new program by the Michigan Economic Development Corp. called LiveWorkDetroit! It was designed as a major state effort to retain college grads, and specifically, to get them to be passionate about the state’s largest city.

MSU didn’t have a chapter so I emailed MEDC, next thing you know, I was in Lansing at a summit helping to craft how the program would grow and take shape.

Professor Jezierski was supportive enough to become our faculty adviser.

LiveWorkDetroit! has since become a program with locations on 28 college campuses across three states in the Midwest. Its purpose is to dispel common misperceptions about the city and encourage college graduates to relocate to Detroit rather than to other major cities.

Now, I didn’t want LiveWorkDetroit! simply to become a gentrification organization that displaced current Detroit residents with new college graduates. So, to help our student ambassadors connect with the groups living and working in the city today, and to create an appreciation for the community that exists now, the executive board and I began a philanthropy arm for the MSU branch.

To date, we have volunteered with People for Palmer Park and Gleaner’s FoodBank and we’re planning a major blight elimination volunteer event with Motor City BlightBusters on the city’s west side. I’m proud to say that of our active student ambassadors in this program, about half are born and raised Detroiters.

This year, I got an email from one of my Madison professors encouraging me to apply for the Harry S. Truman Scholarship. With the fantastic support of professors in James Madison College, the Honors College, the National and International Fellowships and Scholarships Office and professors from other colleges who helped me prepare, I dove headfirst into an application. I focused on how I could use my urban planning and social policy knowledge to help create avenues for social mobility in struggling American cities.

This social mobility is so vital. Throughout the past several decades, the basic American ideal that if you work hard you can get ahead has fallen apart. The quality jobs that once defined Midwestern cities have left, leaving communities in desperate need of change. This breakdown has been most acute in cities like Flint and Detroit.

The Truman application allowed me to explore methods that I can use to re-create the social mobility that once made these cities icons of the middle class.

After a dozen or so drafts and several practice interviews with MSU
professors, I submitted my application and was selected to interview in Chicago.

I couldn’t have done any of this without the amazingly supportive staff at MSU, which has helped me perfect my writing and discover my passion since I arrived here in August 2011.

Thanks to what I’ve learned at MSU, I feel prepared to become the change agent that I so passionately desire to be in my community.