Capital Ideas: Sam Singh

Former East Lansing mayor Sam Singh spent more than a year travelling and volunteering around the world in places such as South America, Africa and the Middle East. Singh chose this mid-career sabbatical in lieu of pursuing a master’s degree or running (again) for office. That's so last month.

The big news is that Singh is back, and he has a few ideas about how to make our city a better place.

New Causes

“Being born and raised in Michigan and being so invested—especially in mid-Michigan, through my time in East Lansing, I just felt like I want to come back," says Sigh. "I want to get my hands dirty in some really meaningful things."

Singh currently works for Public Policy Associates, a national research firm located in Lansing. He’s working with the Michigan Non-Profit Association to ensure that everyone participates in the census this year, especially in Detroit, where census participation is below par. It's not just about numbers, either. There's also dollars involved.

“For each person that’s not counted in the census, is $1,200 of federal aid that Michigan loses every year,” says Singh.

His other project involves the New Economy Initiative, a group based out of Detroit who wants to jump-start innovation in Southeast Michigan by pumping $100 million into new businesses.

“Obviously [Southeast Michigan has] been a manufacturing based economy for such a long time. And as they make a shift from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge based economy, the foundation is working with business and with government,” says Singh of the project.

“I think it’s going to be a fascinating experience" that "will have repercussions back here in East Lansing and Lansing," he says. "We can begin to change the manufacturing from the automobile manufacturing, to maybe taking a look at medical equipment or taking a look at energy.”

New Approaches

“We’ve got some of the best design engineers in the world based in Michigan, but they only know automobiles," says Singh. In order to correct this, he suggests we open ourselves up to outside innovation.

One way to achieve this, he suggests, is by being more open to immigration. “The more that we’re open to immigration, and the more that we are open to different people coming in, that is going to help expand our communities. If you take a look at the tech industry, especially in California, a lot of that’s been moved by international people coming into our country and using their experience and skill. That’s helped the tech industry flourish,” says Singh.

Singh says we also need to keep our Michigan State University (MSU) students here after graduation, both international and domestic. “We lose our own students, our own Michigan students. I mean, they aren’t staying here. So we’re losing and training a lot of great students,” says Singh. “What I want to do is develop a thing to keep Michigan students here, as well as international students who come to this country to stay here.”

This issue is particularly close to Singh’s heart. His parents immigrated from India, and he still speaks with reverence about his father’s work ethic and the contribution that he made.

New Places

Singh also wants more options for professionals in East Lansing, from housing variety to food and entertainment choices.

“We need to be building strong downtowns,” says Singh. “If you take a look at Chicago and Minneapolis, the reason those places are thriving is that they have a great creative layout. They’ve got young professionals. They’re open to immigration and immigrant businesses, and that’s what’s really changing those downtowns."

"If you want Mid-Michigan to be competitive so we don’t lose MSU students and U of M students to other states," he says, "you have to create that environment here.”

New Global Connections

Singh can go on and on about how much he benefitted from the experiences he gained abroad, but he also wants others to have this experience as well.

“We got a great beginning with Michigan State University and study abroad programs," he says. "So my hope that we can provide more opportunities with K-12 setting, as well as the college setting to do international study programs,” says Singh.

But what about those who aren’t affiliated with the university? How do we get them acclimated to the global environment? This can be as simple as getting immigrant families to share their stories in their neighborhoods and schools, says Singh.

Additionally, Singh is a fan of "sister city" relationships. “I had the opportunity when I was mayor (of East Lansing) to sign a friendship agreement with the city of Asan in South Korea," he says. "Both (Lansing) Mayor Bernero and I had led a delegation to South Korea and, in turn, brought students from South Korea here and sent students to South Korea. Those are the types of things that don’t necessarily involve the university, [but] involve the community.”

New Career Styles

Not surprisingly, Singh is singing the praises of taking a mid-career sabbatical.

“We don’t provide a lot of opportunities for ourselves to reflect on where we are as individuals—where our passions are," he says. "Oftentimes, we just get into the work world and we work, work, work."

He cites this as one of the reasons behind his global endeavor.

“I had a dream about doing something like this—long term travel and seeing things—since I was a kid. We are living in a global economy, and I felt that [I would be] getting the global perspective and at the same time kind of living this dream.”

While he realizes that not everyone has the resources to do what he did, there are other options that should seriously be considered.

“For a company who might have a long-term employee—that’s getting more rare as we go along—perhaps you say to them, 'If you’re with us for seven to 10 years, we’d like to give you an opportunity to take a month or two month sabbatical.' And maybe it's to go learn about something that’s in your career field,” says Singh. “In my case I said, no one’s going to support it but myself.”

New Events

MSU, the City of East Lansing and the Community Relations Coalition are hosting an event called “Fostering a Global Community” at 7 p.m., Oct. 1 at the Hannah Community Center where Singh will speak about his experience.

“My goal is to share things that we can do individually to make the area more globally aware, along with sharing my adventure,” Singh says.

For more information about the event, click here.

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Adam Molner is a freelance writer for Capital Gains. 


Sam working on a Habitat for Humanity project in Romania

At his offices at Public Policy Associates
(Photograph © Dave Trumpie)

Mt. Huashan, China

Human Rights Rally in Glasgow Scotland

On Mt. Kilimanjaro

All Photographs courtesy of Sam Singh unless noted

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