Bryan Barnhill ’08
When Bryan Barnhill ’08 left Detroit for Harvard, he never thought he would choose to go back so soon. But his hometown was hit hard by the 2008 recession, and he wanted to help rebuild the community that supported him. After returning, he joined the many who struggled to find a job—nearly half of the city’s residents were unemployed. He found a way forward by volunteering for local political campaigns, one of which led to a landslide victory of an underdog mayoral candidate. After years in city government, Barnhill rewrote his dream job again to join an automotive giant in the process of reinventing itself. Now an active civic leader and member of the Harvard Alumni Association’s Board of Directors, he shares how Harvard gave him the confidence to be a convener in any circle—wherever he goes.
Like all of us, Bryan’s life changed radically after our conversation together in February. We recently talked with him again about a new partnership between Ford Motor Company and Wayne State University to create mobile testing services for first responders and how the lessons from 2008 could help Detroit tackle the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic today.
Describe your path to Harvard.
I remember at a very young age riding in the car with my mother. We passed Eight Mile Road, a street that borders the city, and as we drove deeper into the suburbs, it was the first time that I realized that the world looked different from my block. I stopped seeing the abandoned roads, broken concrete, and overgrown grass I was accustomed to seeing in my neighborhood. The people I saw walking down the street and driving alongside us in their cars increasingly didn’t look like me. At five or six, I started to wonder why vast inequities could exist between communities that are so close to one another.
My observation that day was a jolting one. It made me start to take my life seriously—perhaps even a little earlier than I should have. I felt like if I didn’t achieve my best in everything, I might be doomed not to have the ability to escape my neighborhood. The mantra of my success was about making it out. Attending a school like Harvard was a dream come true for me.
You had never been to Cambridge when you were accepted early at Harvard. What did you imagine it would be like?
I didn’t know what to expect. I was certain the demographics wouldn’t resemble the ones I was accustomed to in my Detroit, a city that’s 80 percent African American. I was concerned I would be the only one who had grown up in the type of neighborhood that I was from and that I would have difficulty forming friendships. This wasn’t the case at all. I formed deep relationships with people who on the surface I had nothing in common with. Those relationships were the joy of my Harvard experience.
What else surprised you about Harvard?
For once in my life, I had become a part of an environment where scarcity wasn’t so pronounced. The abundance of talent and resources was something that I had to get accustomed to. After I did, the key realization that the only real form of scarcity is what you fail to dream up and to imagine.
Not long after graduating, you decided to return to Detroit. Why?
There was a lot going on: the mayor was in jail, the auto industry was on the verge of bankruptcy, and the mortgage crisis was just beginning. A friend of mine was thinking of going into the Peace Corps but said: I think we can make as big an impact in Detroit.
I benefited so much from the love, support, and encouragement of my community. I wanted to take my accomplishments and privilege I was blessed with to give back to the city of Detroit.
When you first returned, you found yourself in a very similar position to other people in the city: struggling to find a job. How did Harvard help in your journey from volunteering for a city council candidate to running a successful grassroots mayoral campaign?
After we won in the general election, I had a conversation with the mayor-elect about what role he thought I should play. He appreciated my ability to bring people together and get them organized. I have to credit a lot of that to my experience at Harvard. It gave me the confidence to develop entry points with diverse networks.
We created this role: chief talent officer. I was responsible for helping to build his team of executives and led mayoral appointments for government boards and commissions. I did that for several years, during which we saw significant transformation. The city emerged from bankruptcy. New residents moved in. Businesses started to come back to the city.
After several years, you went to business school and joined the Ford Motor Company. Why?
I wanted to put myself in another uncomfortable position so I could continue to learn. I saw the opportunity to be a part of a large-scale organization that was going through a significant transition and redefine itself in the midst of challenges. I joined the Ford Business Leaders Program and now work for Ford in their International Markets Group. There are many parallels between what I see in a recovering Detroit and opportunities for growth in emerging economies.
You were recently appointed as an Elected Director of the Alumni Board. What motivates you?
It’s a tremendous honor to be an Elected Director. I never thought I would have that opportunity. As a first-generation Harvard student and as an African American, I have a unique perspective of and appreciation for the impact this institution has had on my life. As a result, I relish the opportunity to help build community among our alumni.
You also serve on a number of other boards, including a role on the Board of Governors for Wayne State University. You helped bridge connections between Wayne State and Ford, which is now collaborating to provide COVID-19 mobile testing services in Michigan. Can you share why you think cross-sector partnerships are so important to recovery?
This moment requires us all, particularly our institutions, to push the edges of our creativity and problem-solving skills. It is great to see two institutions such as Wayne State and Ford coming together for the betterment of our community. Collaborations like these are key. My hope is that it will make a major difference in our nation’s effort toward recovery.
What kinds of lessons can 2008 teach us in tackling today's crises?
It made it clear that we have to work together in order to solve our challenges. The Detroit region had suffered for decades due to a variety of separations along racial, geographic, political, and economic lines. The crisis forced people into the realization that no one group, party, or perspective could solve things alone. People were united and worked together as Detroiters because they wanted Detroit to succeed. In doing so, they allowed past separations to fade away.
When you collaborate, your capacity for empathy grows. Empathy has to be the first step if we ever expect to have a meaningful nationwide recovery from both the negative impacts of COVID-19 and the painful reality of police brutality against Black people.