Dr. Herman Gray speaks at U of M Bicentennial Detroit Seminar

Herman Gray speaks alongside other panelistsOn any given Saturday when the University of Michigan football team takes to the field, Dr. Herman Gray wears his maize and blue in support of his alma mater. So it may come as a surprise to some when they learn that he left the school as an undergraduate.

“My experience was not a happy one,” he recalled to the audience at the recent University of Michigan Bicentennial Detroit Seminar. Herman was one of five U of M alums speaking on the panel “Innovative Initiatives for Economic Mobility.”

Despite having all of the qualifications necessary, Herman was discouraged from applying for medical school by a graduate assistant who served as his pre-med adviser. His mother asked him: “Are you going to let someone else define your future?” His answer was “No.”

He left U of M to finish up his undergrad at Wayne State University and later returned to attend — and graduate — medical school. He would go on to serve as the president and CEO of DMC Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit before taking the helm as the President and CEO of United Way for Southeastern Michigan. And his relationship with the school runs deep — his daughters also attended U of M.

Herman told the audience that setbacks can either bring you down or force you to rise to the challenge.

A city facing challenges

The panel talked about the challenges facing the city, as well as how investments in educational and economic opportunities are contributing to Detroit’s renaissance.

In addition to Herman, the panel included Ryan Friedrichs, chief development officer for the city of Detroit; Amanda Good, CEO at Alternatives For Girls; Anika Goss-Foster, executive director of Detroit Strategic Framework, Inc.; and Julia Weinert, assistant director at Poverty Solutions at U-M. The moderator was Trina Shanks, an associate professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Michigan.

Herman spoke about some of United Way’s programs aimed at helping individuals access job training opportunities and find resources to basic needs through its 2-1-1 referral service.

He shared the story of one Detroit woman, La’Tasha Smith, who found the personal resolve to turn her life around.

Herman Gray speaks on a panel during the University of Michigan Bicentennial Detroit Seminar

La’Tasha lived for nearly a year in her Pontiac Grand Am. Her life fell apart after she witnessed a man jump to his death from the roof of a parking structure. She lost her job as a security worker and began drinking.

Eventually, she turned to United Way’s Access for All to find a way out. The nine-week hands-on course teaches Detroiters the skills they need to land apprenticeships in the skilled trades.

La’Tasha now operates a roller for an excavating company and has a new life.

“She wept the day she signed her lease,” Herman recalled. “It was the first time she had a home she could call her own.”

Good things happening

Other panelists talked about a variety of programs helping Detroiters gain economic independence and improve their lives. One example is Alternative for Girls, which teaches girls and young women to sew. Another organization provides financial assistance for college.

Herman said the work taking place across the city and United Way is uplifting. “One thing is for certain,” he said. “There are a lot of really good things happening in Detroit.”