Blog: Sharon Carney

Sharon Carney is Special Project Director at the
Michigan Suburbs Alliance, a Ferndale-based nonprofit that works with inner-ring suburbs to enhance regionalism, streamline redevelopment and reform public policies. Her special project is the Millennial Mayors Congress, a new regional partnership of mayors and young leaders that will launch in 2009. 

Sharon spent her early years at the Suburbs Alliance indulging her passion for rhetoric as the organization's communications manager. In 2007, she left the Suburbs Alliance for India, where she worked with locally elected women leaders to organize self-help microfinance groups. Before returning to organize the Millennial Mayors Congress, Sharon freelanced as a political communicator, working with State Representative Rebekah Warren (D-Ann Arbor) on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact. 

Before finding the Suburbs Alliance, Sharon wrote for the College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, where she earned a B.A. in English Language and Literature.

In her free time, Sharon enjoys visiting new cities and meeting new people. She will blog this week about regional cooperation, inter-generational leadership and the Millennial Mayors Congress.


Sharon Carney - Most Recent Posts:

Sharon Carney - Post 4

And here, it begins: well over 100 people came out to the Renaissance Club in Detroit last night to discuss the Millennial Mayors Congress and the role that our region’s future leaders will play in it. They came from Oakland, Macomb, the Grosse Pointes, Detroit and Downriver. Some were familiar faces, but most were new to the conversation. They’d come with the prospect of learning how they could get involved and connect with others who, like them, want to do something to improve this place.

So far, I’ve written about the concepts underlying the Millennial Mayors Congress. But if you’re like me, you’re probably curious about how it will take shape. What will the Millennial Mayors Congress look like? How will it function, and what can it accomplish?

Let’s envision the Congress in action.

Say, for example, the Congress delegates decide at their first session to focus on greening our cities as a way to enable more sustainable lifestyles, create green jobs, decrease our carbon footprint and shed our rustbelt image. Crucial improvements can be made in local communities that, when done with regional coordination through the Congress, will exponentially increase the positive impact of any one city.

After discussing what representatives want to accomplish and possible strategies, the Congress might draft a task force to dig deep into how to make it happen in southeast Michigan communities. The task force—made up of issue experts, city staff and other innovative doers and thinkers—could assess existing regional resources, capabilities and best practices, develop shared goals for the communities to strive toward and commission research where appropriate.

While this process moves forward, Congress representatives (as well as council members, city staff, interested young people and other community members) will build their knowledge of “green” strategies and ways to encourage sustainability through periodic hearings and presentations. They’d also keep their partners in city leadership and their local peer networks informed.

Eventually, task force findings and research will coalesce into actionable goals and recommended policies that will be reviewed, discussed and adopted by the Congress by consensus decision. Thoroughly informed by the best knowledge available on the subject at hand and by the realities in southeast Michigan cities, the Congress protocol will be feasible and specific, with plenty of room for local customization.

A protocol on greening our cities might include, among other items:

  • Reducing municipal energy consumption levels by 20%;
  • Changing zoning ordinances to incentivize green buildings; and
  • Increasing the options, accessibility and convenience of non-automobile transportation to reduce rush-hour traffic by 15% in five years.

Each Congress community (25 and counting, as of today!) will then have the flexibility to determine how exactly to accomplish these goals within their own borders. They may conduct internal energy audits and make infrastructure and policy improvements based on those assessments. They could provide staff training with the support of a shared energy expert. They could alternately focus on walkability, creating bicycle lanes, improving the safety of crosswalks or upgrading or adding bus stop shelters. Resources like In the Ring, a policy publication focused on local government innovation in specific areas, could provide recommendations and effective strategies that cities could use to achieve these goals.

Where the rubber hits the road is at the city council level.  The Congress will be asking each participating community to ratify the action plan and set in place the policy and program framework necessary to implement it.  Like many programs our cities adopt right now, city-based plans will be rooted in measureable, achievable goals that are highly relevant to the citizenry of that individual community.  The difference will be that at least 25 communities will be taking action toward a common regional goal—allowing city leaders to benefit from the experience of those in other cities and magnifying the impact of every change.

As we discussed at last night’s visioning session in Detroit, Millennial representatives will be critical in moving their community to action. By tapping the skills and knowledge of their peer networks, they will build awareness in their cities for the Congress protocol. How? In the green cities example, they could work with local artists to organize a pechakucha-style exhibit of LEED certified structures. They could disseminate information about retrofitting homes. They could be as creative as they want in leveraging in the ideas and skills of the network.  The important concept to me, here, is that the governance process for improving our region becomes integrative, relying on and engaging the creative talents of our residents, leaning on the nonprofit community for vision and experience, tapping into the business community to help clarify the metrics and design the system through which change at the local level becomes a regional phenomenon. 

Making our cities leaders in sustainability is just one of many possible focus issues. Now, think of applying this process to other regional issues for new economy investment: making communities more business-friendly, encouraging entrepreneurship, increasing inclusivity and social equity, improving water quality, creating “sense of place”... any of these initiatives could be furthered through the Millennial Mayors Congress.

Stay tuned for what’s next in the Millennial Mayors Congress. It will launch in spring 2009, though we’re convening next month to discuss how we’ll nominate Millennial representatives. This is a major collaboration effort, so we’re looking for individuals and organizations to partner with! Email me at if you want to be a part of it.

Meanwhile, the interaction is already happening at Join the conversation, see what’s happening next, and sometime before the holidays, get a full recap of last night’s discussion.

I’ve been grateful to share our vision with you here at Metromode. Thanks for reading.

Sharon Carney - Post 3: Detroit, the Land of Opportunity

In my experience, the talent retention/attraction conversation has a tendency to split into two camps: "It’s all about jobs" and "Place comes first." I struggled a bit between the jobs versus place debate until adopting a different theory.

Eric Robertson, the Chief Administrative Officer of Center City Commission in Memphis and founder of New Path, a political action committee, defines a "culture of opportunity" as

The beliefs, customs, practices, and behavior of a particular people that cultivate and reinforce a combination of favorable circumstances or situations, real or perceived.

Eric’s belief, which I now share, is that opportunity, or the perception that opportunity is exists, is the most influential factor drawing mobile young talent to cities. Therefore, those places where a "culture of opportunity" exists are going to be the winners in a knowledge economy. To me, this line of thinking bridges the disconnect between the jobs and place arguments.

Opportunity means different things to different people, Millennials included. For some it’s the ability to make an impact, to effect change. For others it’s a job. For some it’s a place that enables a particular lifestyle. Then there’s mobility—the ability to rise as a leader or to excel in your field.  The power of perceived opportunity is nothing new. It’s what drew (and still draws) millions of immigrants to America. It’s what sent pioneers to the West. It’s what brought millions of southerners to Detroit. It’s also the force that sent millions of GI’s sprawling into farmlands, fueling the suburbanization of America. While the results might not be ideal, the point to remember here is that opportunity  is a potent influence on human behavior.

Earlier this year when I was trying to decide my next career move, numerous people advised me to head to New York. If I had a dollar for every time I heard "There are so many more opportunities for you there," I probably wouldn’t be working anywhere; I’d be exploring South America. How many people think of Detroit as the land of opportunity?

I can think of a few right off the bat.

Meredith Mullan moved here in October from Phoenix and works as an enrollment counselor for the University of Phoenix at Macomb Community College. She’s meeting different kinds of students than she did in Phoenix; many are former auto workers looking for a new career. "The changing auto industry creates opportunity for change and reform," she said. "I can be a part of that here through education."

My friend and co-worker, Toni Moceri, is a 29-year-old Warren native who spent two years getting educated in Europe before returning to Detroit in 2007. She stayed because she perceived potential for leadership. Last week, she was sworn in to her first term on the Macomb County Commission.

And of course, we all know the success of Slow’s and Phil Cooley and countless others who found entrepreneurial opportunity in the form of available, affordable real estate.

Based on this "opportunity theory" I think the questions we should be considering in the talent attraction/retention conversation are these:

What kinds of opportunities does this region offer young people?  
How do we market and connect people to them?  
How can we create more?

The target market has to be a part of this process. I say "process" and not "discussion" because I think it’s time to start asking more of our young people than what they want. Let’s stop treating them simply as consumers and ask them to take a leadership role in making this region a place that draws talent.

Enter, Millennial Mayors Congress.

Here in southeast Michigan, I’m seeing young people making change in their communities, and I’m seeing established leaders beginning to consult the next generation. What I haven’t seen is a viable opportunity for the two to act as partners in achieving what I consider a shared goal—until the Millennial Mayors Congress.  Imagine the impact of this combination:  the vast experience and knowledge of government leaders paired with the fresh perspective and vision of the region’s next generation of leaders. Local governments make decisions every day that directly impact the nature of communities, both in the short and long term. With sense of place and quality of life playing increasingly influential roles in Millennials’ location decisions, it only makes sense that these decisions be informed by young perspectives.

The Millennial Mayors Congress aims to serve as a forum for this kind of intergenerational leadership. Within it, representatives will address social, environmental and economic issues important not only to talent concentration, but to the long-term prosperity and vitality of metro Detroit. Because the fact is, these objectives are closely intertwined and often overlapping. In the process, it creates a number of a range of new opportunities for young people: opportunities to make a meaningful impact, to take a leadership role in the region, to pioneer a new and innovative project, to learn first-hand from successful civic leaders, to gain access to a system that may not seem accessible, to shape the future of the place where they hope to spend many more years.

Our turnaround as a region depends on our willingness to see opportunities of all kinds as drivers of the new economy and offer a meaningful way for the continuum of leaders to tap into them. By letting the full breadth of talent we need in metro Detroit do the kind of work – be it entrepreneurial, industrial, social or political – that gives meaning to their lives, we remind the world that Detroit, too, is a land of opportunity.

Learn more about the opportunities for young people in the Millennial Mayors Congress at a visioning session tomorrow evening (Tuesday, December 16). Details at

Sharon Carney - Post 2: A proving ground for innovative problem-solving/collaboration

I used to play volleyball. Pretty obsessively, I realize, in retrospect. At one club I played for, techniques like passing, setting and spiking were taught in an extremely controlled environment. This is no exaggeration.

During my first 3-hour practice I never touched a ball. It took 90 minutes for my team to graduate from stationary positions to ball-less footwork; before that, we worked on upper body and arm form. Once we’d mastered the fundamentals, other variables were allowed in—simulated passes, then moving balls and, after many weeks, real hitters. For a 16-year-old, this process was agonizing, but come game time, I certainly passed on target.

I typically detest sports analogies, but I think there’s something to this one. Lessons learned: you can’t expect behavioral shifts without consistent repetition, and controlling the variables can be super-effective. What if we were to apply this thinking to something like regional cooperation?

Our track record on regionalism is nothing to boast about, particularly when it comes to addressing challenges that are metro-wide in scope. That needs to change. Climate change, blight, discrimination, job loss, water quality...these issues are not municipally bound. They affect many communities and impede our ability to prosper, especially in the New Economy where sense of place and quality of life are central to the location decisions of companies and mobile workers.

I won’t dwell on this, but I think it’s fair to say there’s room for improvement. Why not control the variables? Instead of getting together at the most pressing times to fix high-stakes regional or multi-city issues, why don’t we build that capacity for cooperation in a lower-stress environment where the actors involved can focus on building strong fundamentals? It seems reasonable that participants’ collective ability to work together would become more sophisticated over time.

There are few among us who live single-city lives. For example, I live in Birmingham. I work in Ferndale. My roots are in Macomb County, so I often spend time with friends there. When I want arts and culture, I head to Midtown. At least once a month I hit Hamtramck for live music, and I love taking visitors ice skating at Campus Martius.  As much as I strive to live locally, I also value my ability to leverage the many resources and opportunities our region has to offer.

Despite our regional lifestyles, we live in a place where local control has long been the name of the game. By that I mean most governance issues and public service delivery, like garbage collection and public safety, fall to local government rather than some larger entity, like a county. This system has its ups and downs. On the up side, it enables government leaders to be more in tune with their constituency. The down side is that local priorities sometimes supersede regional ones, and that can make cooperation more challenging—especially when it comes to addressing issues that have greater-than-local implications.

Overcoming those issues depends on an ability to put local priorities in perspective with a collective vision.  This is tough in a region where locality and turf have been primary political drivers for generations.  A new approach to governance that honors that tradition of local control without sacrificing the opportunity for enhanced collaboration eliminates a few more of the social variables that have impeded metropolitan-level work on critical growth issues like transit, affordable housing and energy. 

The Millennial Mayors Congress can serve as a proving ground to pioneer a new approach to cooperation. It will be a space where collaboration isn’t forced, but chosen. The mayors and young people participating in this initiative are doing so in hopes of a brighter future, not out of obligation. Deadlines for meeting goals will be self-imposed. With time, topic and terms of participation controlled, they’ll be able to focus on technique—listening to each other, having values-based conversations and finding solutions that everyone agrees to, making decisions by consensus. As time goes on, they’ll cultivate a foundation for effective problem-solving and take on increasingly complex challenges. When the urgent, high-pressure situations arise outside the Congress, both city leaders and Millennial leaders will be better prepared to collaboratively address them. 

Sharon Carney - Post 1: The Backstory

About a year ago this month, a small group of local city leaders had a conversation about the future of our region. They talked about the New Economy and the barriers to that kind of growth in Metro Detroit. They agreed on the need for better cooperation to address these challenges, and resolved to launch a new regional effort to improve the status quo.

And then someone had a thought. "What about the Millennials? Their preferences drive New Economy growth."
Heads around the room began nodding in agreement. "They seem eager to make an impact," responded one leader. "And they are our next generation of leaders," said another. "They need to be at the table."

And with that, this visionary group of leaders pioneered an intergenerational approach to regional cooperation, a project that would later be named the Millennial Mayors Congress.

Of course, I’m paraphrasing and oversimplifying. One year ago, I had no idea this conversation was taking place. I was living in Rajasthan, India, learning from women village leaders about their panchayat raj, or village governing system.  During the long trips between villages, I contemplated where I might go once I completed my work in Rajasthan – Nepal, Thailand, maybe China? Or, I thought, I could go back to the U.S. and find a job in New York or D.C., somewhere new and exciting, something different than what I knew and grew up with in southeast Michigan.

As it turned out, Detroit was my land of opportunity. The Millennial Mayors Congress needed a point-person, someone who could understand both Millennials and local government with a willingness to work long hours for nonprofit wages. That’s me. I am now helping a growing network of mayors and rising leaders organize the launch of this partnership.

For someone who wanted something new and different, it is a perfect fit. The Millennial Mayors Congress is a unique approach to regional cooperation—one that is inherently collaborative and forward-looking. Each participating community will send a 2-person delegation to serve on the Congress, their mayor (or chief executive—i.e. the supervisor, in the case of a township, or the president, in the case of a village) and a resident young person (aged roughly 18-34). These leaders will together tackle a regional issue that impedes our ability to attract new economy investment and, over the course of several months to a year, develop actionable goals to address it. They will adopt these measures by consensus and action plans to meet adopted goals will be designed and executed at the local level. Think Kyoto Protocol adapted for a metropolitan area.

Delegates to the Millennial Mayors Congress won’t work in a vacuum; there’s room for pretty expansive participation from anyone who wants to make this region stronger. Existing research and data will guide the Congress’ decision-making, and technical experts and thought leaders from across Metro Detroit will wrangle with the details of metrics on task forces and advisory committees.

Additionally, young representatives will have the support of a network of their peers, whom they will be responsible for engaging, both online and on-the-ground. The driving motivation behind it all? Our belief that engaging the next generation of leaders is essential to the future of this region.

Metro Detroit desperately needs transformational outcomes: a system to address greater-than-local concerns; innovative, intergenerational leadership; an enhanced capacity for cooperation. In short, governance that enables 21st century economic growth. Michigan’s next economy must recognize the importance of concentrating talent, and what better way to institutionalize that than by bringing those voices to the table and giving them a clear stake in their own future?

I know I’m leaving unanswered questions on the table, but I’ll be back tomorrow for a deeper dig.  In the meantime, read up on the Millennial Mayors Congress at Think about regional governance, new economy talent, sense of place and the kind of leadership that it takes to transform a rust belt economy into a robust icon of the new millennium.