New Ford Engagement Center to Focus on STEAM Skills, Economic Growth

In 2015, the first Ford Resource and Engagement Center (FREC) opened in Southwest Detroit to provide a place outside of the downtown area for people to learn new skills and develop new talents. A heavy focus was put on programs that involved STEAM—that’s STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) plus an “A” for arts—and economic growth.

The FREC landed on the public’s radar in 2015 after a splashy live MSNBC broadcast highlighted a two-day hackathon and roster of notable contest judges, including author and activist Van Jones and rapper Big Sean. Since its inception in 2013, the FREC has offered programming from a variety of entities, including TechTown Detroit’s SWOT City, the Southwest Detroit Immigrant and Refugee Center, the University of Michigan, and Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development.

The center’s model proved so successful that a second FREC is opening later this week at Fisher Magnet Upper Academy on Detroit’s east side.

Dubbed FREC D2, the center was seeded with $5 million from the Ford Motor Company Fund, and its mission is essentially the same, says Shawn Wilson, who oversees community engagement for the Ford Fund.

“We want to provide a pathway to economic mobility,” he says. “By stimulating economic growth, we can increase quality of life. [Ford Fund president] Jim Vella had the foresight to see an opportunity to invest in and uplift neighborhoods.”

Wilson says the new center will have “a lot more economic growth, entrepreneurial, and workforce programs, because that’s what the community wants.” The two-year process through which the programs were chosen was similar to a pitch competition turned on its head: Non-profits and service providers came in and pitched community members on what they had to offer, and the community made the final choices.

“We want to make sure they see the value and feel invited in,” he says. “Having buy-in will mean success. It was great to see the kids’ reaction during the soft launch—a couple of years ago, they gave their input, and to see them light up knowing they had a voice and their feedback was incorporated is really cool.”

One new tech-related program debuting at FREC D2 is a digitized hackathon platform. “At FREC, we saw the impact the hackathons had on students, but we could only serve 100 or 150 kids per hackathon,” Wilson says. “So we developed a digital curriculum to help students ideate mobile apps, build prototypes, and then pitch the concept.”

FREC D2 students will also periodically try to hack real-world problems they are experiencing; on Oct. 6, they will focus on chronic school absenteeism, Wilson says.

Another program being offered at the new center is the FREC City Accelerator, an incubator for social entrepreneurs aiming to create more economic opportunity for residents of Detroit’s neighborhoods. The accelerator is particularly seeking people developing solutions in the areas of workforce development, entrepreneurship, financial literacy, social and emotional learning, and career pathway education.

In the first cohort, which kicked off in August, seven ventures were selected to participate in three intensive three-day sessions over the course of seven weeks, where they learned how to build a sustainable business model and accessed mentorship and other training resources via the Points of Light civic accelerator curriculum. At the end of the seven weeks, two ventures will be selected by their peers to receive a $25,000 investment.

“We’re hoping [the FRECs] can be the spark to revitalize neighborhoods and encourage economic mobility,” Wilson says. “It’s a place where teachers and community members can ideate solutions, where kids can see their potential and understand workforce needs. These are Detroit’s future innovators.”

Wilson encourages those who are interested to stop by either FREC location anytime for a tour “to see what all the excitement is about.” The official FREC D2 grand opening will be held on Oct. 6.

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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