HFC alumnus becomes “Chief Storyteller” for Mayor Duggan
At the beginning of 2020, Eric Thomas received a text message. That text turned into a meeting. That meeting turned into a job offer.
That job offer was chief storyteller for Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. Thomas, who was recently featured in Deadline Detroit, succeeds Aaron Foley, author of the book How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass.
“I’m looking forward to proposing a series of plans to improve our storytelling strategy. Mayor Duggan has been incredibly supportive and understands the power of narrative,” said Thomas, a lifelong Detroiter.
Outspoken advocate for Detroiters’ needs
Thomas has been outspoken about the needs of Detroit residents. In fact, he wrote an editorial in the Detroit Free Press about this topic in late 2019, mentioning the importance of black spaces in Detroit and the preservation of Detroit’s culture.
“I figure that has a lot to do with my appointment. It’s not just about knowing what's going on in Detroit but also having the ability to articulate it in a way that rings true emotionally and factually,” he said.
Bringing city services to a grassroots level
Thomas will oversee TheNeighborhoods.org, a community-focused media publication of the City of Detroit. He’ll also help departments strategize new ways to communicate more effectively and oversee social media and how it connects with Detroiters.
“I view myself as a conduit. With TheNeighborhoods.org, we can give Detroiters the chance to speak for themselves through profiles, stories, and interviews. I have a few plans that haven't been finalized, but my ultimate goal is to really show the heroic nature and cultural force of Detroit and its residents,” he said. “I want to help bring city services down to a grassroots level, but I also want to bring community concerns into the city with real emphasis and candor. Communication can’t be a one-way street; to communicate, we must have dialogue.”
Becoming an entrepreneur
After graduating from Henry Ford Academy in Dearborn, Thomas attended HFC. He studied graphic design and worked for The Mirror News, the College’s student-run newspaper, which won several design awards during his time there.
“I attended HFC when it was Henry Ford Community College,” recalled Thomas. “That was a good time for me. The classes that I took were engaging, and some of the friends I met there I’ve been friends with for life. Overall, it was a great experience.”
Entrepreneurship was not a goal when Thomas began his career, starting off as a freelance graphic designer. He moved into a more entrepreneurial space by cofounding SAGA MKTG – The Storytelling Agency in 2015. A professional speaker, Thomas has traveled the nation, talking about social media, storytelling, marketing, and racial equity. One of his more prominent speaking engagements was TEDxDetroit 2016. His articles have appeared in Hour Magazine and The Financial Times.
“Why I Hate Detroit”
In 2016, he wrote a now-infamous essay on his LinkedIn profile called “Why I Hate Detroit”, which discusses racial and economic disparity in Detroit – and went viral. It was later reprinted in the Metro Times.
The article was titled deliberately, and amplifies the ways the gentrification of Detroit has hidden or marginalized some of the deeper issues relating to lack of access to resources, opportunity, and upward mobility. "When the world expects less from the youth, they typically only rise to lowered expectations," he wrote. He pointed out the problems relating to per capita income being half the national average.
He also wrote, "I love the people. I hate the place, but I love the people.... I am a product of Detroit, and I’ve seen firsthand how bright and resilient the people are. There are diamonds littered throughout the landscape, and I’m not talking about historic homes. I’m talking about brilliant youth and passionate grassroots activists that have been doing the best they can with what they’ve been given. If we’re going to start talking about development, let's talk about human capital. Let’s stop doing the chic thing and pretending we ‘love Detroit’ and develop the Detroit that matters: the people.”
From that writing, you can tell he has a passion for storytelling.
“I’ve discussed that essay at length and, really, everything I have to say about it is in the story,” he said.
Also in 2016, Thomas was named to Crain’s Detroit Business’ “Twenty in their 20s” list, spotlighting outstanding young leaders in their 20s who are leaving their mark on Metro Detroit.
Changing how the D is perceived
Thomas has benefitted from the media exposure, which has amplified his focus on changing how Detroit is perceived.
“My primary focus is on how Detroiters see themselves. How can I tell stories, across all media, that inspire Detroiters and improve the external perception of our city? That is foremost on my mind every day,” he said. “The stories that affect our perception of Detroit are old, pervasive, and, sometimes well-founded. This is the sort of job that requires wide-reaching consensus on how the stories we tell about our city and residents impact our tangible outcomes.”
Thomas knows it’ll be a challenge, but he’s up for it.
“I have the opportunity, at a city level, to impact the people I’ve grown up with, see myself in, and who I know are heroes,” he said. “As a person who believes in justice and elevating the voices of the unheard, there might not be a better job in government than this one.”