Blog: Kate Baker

Kate Baker, 29, is director of development at the Wayne State University Press and a Ferndale city councilwoman.  Kate is active in many community and civic organizations, including the Ferndale Planning Commission, Ferndale Downtown Development Authority, FernCare Free Clinic, Ferndale Education Foundation, Fusion, the Detroit Area Art Deco Society and the Millennial Mayors Congress.  Kate is the youngest elected official in Ferndale's history and was named to Crain's Detroit Business "20 in Their 20's" in 2008 and a Smith College Alumni Association "Alumnae on our Radar" in Spring 2009.

Kate graduated from Ferndale High School in 1998 and from Smith College in 2002 with a BA in Government and Urban Studies.  She will complete the coursework for her Master of Urban Planning in Economic Development at Wayne State University this spring, and welcomes topic ideas for her master’s thesis.  

A vocal advocate for her city and her region, Kate found her passion for volunteering early in life – a passion that has developed into a career in arts and culture fundraising and an eye toward a career in politics and community development.

This is Kate's first attempt at blogging, which will revolve around central themes that she feels will help Ferndale and metro Detroit grow and prosper – Potential, Opportunity, History, Culture and Community.
Kate Baker - Most Recent Posts:

Kate Baker - Post 4: Community

As I hear bad economic news and sense general feelings of fear and negativity all around me, my natural inclination to be a pro-Detroit cheerleader becomes eroded and my batteries need to be recharged.  Rather than try to block out the bad news by pretending this isn't happening, or, worse, leave the state in search of something "better", I recharge my batteries by focusing on what I can do right here, right now to make my community a better place to live and work.  It is the energy that I get from the community of active, intelligent, involved individuals and families in which I live that keeps me here and keeps me going.

The value of community, and the security and support afforded by a tight-knit community, is something that Detroiters are particularly proud of.  I'm proud of the way that my friends and neighbors in Ferndale have responded to the economic downturn by rallying around local businesses to help them keep their doors open and by supporting each other through initiatives like Ferndale's soon-to-open free clinic, FernCare.  This all-volunteer-led effort is well on its way to becoming a haven for the un- and under-insured in our region, offering free physical, mental and dental health care.  Without the work of community members committed to supporting their neighbors, this effort would never have gotten off the ground.

Although blogs like Metromode do a great service in highlighting new developments in metro Detroit, it is important to disconnect from the computer and reconnect with actual humans who are making these exciting new things happen.  The energy at a fundraiser for a local charity, a youth sports event, a community garden, or among a committee of volunteers at your local Downtown Development Authority office is contagious and can do wonders for your tired soul. 

I encourage everyone to get involved in a local community initiative this spring and to recharge your pro-Detroit batteries.  It's an ugly economy out there, but if we take the time to know and care for our neighbors and our neighborhoods we will get through it and come out with stronger, more connected communities.

Kate Baker - Post 3: Opportunity

Metro Detroit has abundant opportunities for young people with good ideas to make a difference. Every day, my study and work at Wayne State and my service to enterprising Ferndale residents show me how to turn ideas into realities that are making our region better, more sustainable, and more prosperous.  Metro Detroit is a place that is so in need of new ideas and community leadership that age has not been a barrier for me and my contemporaries.  Indeed, youth, in combination with education, energy and enthusiasm, is often an asset.

Opportunities for community involvement available to young people in Detroit are unparalleled in other major cities.  During a recent visit to Washington D.C., I remembered how much I once enjoyed living there, working diligently for a cause I believed in, and seeing so many 20-somethings on Capitol Hill who were doing the same thing.  Now I understand why my work in Detroit and Ferndale is much more fulfilling. Rather than working 18 hour days to further the agenda of a political party or elected official, I am the elected official, working to make a direct impact on my community.

Finding opportunities in Detroit requires many residents to change their perceptions and expectations.  We are no longer in an economy or a region where jobs will come to us.  We are, however, in a region where entrenched barriers to access and power are breaking down because the systems they support are fundamentally shifting and changing.  A recent conversation about the Millennial Mayors Congress (see Sharon Carney's blog) reminded me that young people, rather than being excluded from political and regional decision-making, are now invited to become the decision-makers.  This window of opportunity will be entirely what we make of it, though.  Leveraging this time of economic and political change, at the local and state level, will ultimately be the most rewarding for those of us who choose to stay in Detroit and Michigan and engage in the process of reshaping government agendas and community priorities.   

Thinking more broadly about opportunity – prioritizing access and personal development as opposed to wealth creation – will require young people to seek out and engage in conversations about their vision for our region.  The Millennial Mayors Congress is only one route for engagement.  Young professionals can join networking groups like Fusion or Leadership Next.  They can reach out to and meet their elected officials.  They can learn how the political system works through participation on city boards and commissions and position themselves to make change from within.  

To fuel enthusiasm, they should seek out community groups that support causes they believe in, and donate their time and energy.  Speaking as one 20-something, I assure Detroit's young adults that that their actions and ideas will be noticed and heeded.  There is no better place than Detroit for seeking and finding opportunities that lead to personal and professional fulfillment, and create a better place for everyone to work and live.  

Kate Baker - Post 2: Culture

My friends' two-year-old daughter loves the Detroit Institute of Arts. She is equally fascinated with and terrified by the African masks, "teaches" other visitors about the colors and shapes found in modern paintings, and marvels at the suits of armor in the Great Hall. She has been taught to enjoy life experiences beyond television, spending most Fridays with either her father or mother at the DIA, the Detroit Zoo, Cranbrook, or The Henry Ford. As a result, she is one of the most inquisitive children I've met, and will surely grow up to value, appreciate and support the world-class cultural institutions that we in metro Detroit are so lucky have in our community.

Arts and cultural institutions are among the community resources that many cherish yet take for granted in metro Detroit. We are proud to boast a world-class symphony, but likely have little idea of the types of performances taking place. We have fond memories of childhood field trips to Greenfield Village, but likely have not been back to The Henry Ford in a decade. We may own a copy of American City or AIA Detroit, but don't realize that they were published by the local, nonprofit Wayne State University Press. Our cultural institutions are dynamic organizations – not staid or boring – with programming and exhibits that are constantly changing and evolving, giving all us of plenty of reasons to visit regularly.

In a time of economic downturn, Detroiters should reevaluate what they value in their community and support the things that make Detroit Detroit with their time, passion and dollars.  If our region is serious about getting out of this economic quagmire and breaking our dramatic boom and bust cycle, we need to change the ways we think about community and understand the symbiotic relationship among business, education, and arts and culture.  In order to attract new businesses and create and retain an educated workforce, we must respect, support and value the cultural institutions that so positively impact the quality of life in our region.  

I don't want to lecture anyone, nor do I want to make anyone feel guilty for not taking their two-year-old to the art museum on a regular basis.  I am hopeful, though, that I've inspired you to move to the top of your spring to-do list a visit to your favorite Detroit-area museum, playhouse, gallery or community art center.  Your support and participation, whether in the form of membership renewals, ticket purchases, cold cash or volunteer hours, are vital to the survival of the places we love – the places we want our children to be able to experience as we did.

Kate Baker - Post 1: Potential

Over the past few weeks, I've been happily browsing the Woodward corridor for shower gifts in my favorite local stores.  As I visit shops in downtown Ferndale, Royal Oak, and Birmingham, I'm reminded of what these places looked like a decade ago, when, college-bound, I decided to leave metro Detroit and never look back.  

Back then, some communities, like Royal Oak and Birmingham, had already cultivated unique retail and experience-oriented niches out of their historic downtowns through strategic investment and reinvestment.  Others, like Ferndale, were just beginning to revive a local, niche-retail downtown while trying to overcome major public and private infrastructure hurdles.  After graduation, I took a second look, and, thankfully for me, decided to come home and help cultivate the potential of the places I love.

Recognition of the potential of our traditional downtowns, walkable neighborhoods, well-kept public parks, and diverse housing stock, all of which contribute to the feeling of a cohesive, urban community, is what will ultimately allow our inner-ring suburbs to prosper in the coming years.  I believe the economics that made sprawl desirable – cheap land, cheap gas, greenfield industrial development – are revealing their real costs to the public in both dollars and environmental degradation and influencing individual decision-making about community life.

How we choose where to live is derived from complex and highly personal priorities.  Residents across the region are again valuing the amenities that cities like Ferndale have to offer with regards to location, culture, diversity, access to transit and community cohesion.  I'm proud that Ferndale has fared better than most during these trying times, and believe it can serve as a model for long-range planning, careful budget management and the cultivation of progressive, regional values. 

Yes, property values have fallen, but Ferndale's homes have held more value than almost any city in Oakland County.  Yes, retailers and other business owners are struggling, but Ferndale residents choose to shop locally, allowing our downtown to retain a high occupancy rate and many in our business community to weather the storm.  

Ten years ago, my 18-year-old eyes failed to understand the potential of neighborhood-based economic development as I headed east to Smith College with high hopes for a fulfilling future anywhere outside Detroit.  By the time I graduated, I had developed a much deeper understanding of community dynamics and economics, and found myself defending my hometown to fellow Smith students with a renewed fervor.  

I follow those classroom lessons with hands-on experience as a volunteer for the Ferndale Downtown Development Authority and strive to put them into action as a member of the city council.  Potential and promise exist in hometowns throughout our region.  I encourage other young Detroiters to participate in making their communities a place in which they want to live, raise their families, and develop careers.  If we're lucky, I'll wear out more shoe leather on Woodward Avenue, seeking the perfect gift to celebrate their milestones.