As a student in Detroit Mercy’s Master of Community Development program, Annie Mendoza ’14, ’16 knew she wanted to put her degree to use benefitting the city of Detroit.
“I wanted to work for the city, not just in the city,” she explained.
As the former sales and programs manager for the Detroit Land Bank, she has had the opportunity to do just that.
Mendoza came to University of Detroit Mercy as a transfer student at the beginning of her junior year. A lacrosse player, she chose the University because she wanted a school in a large city where she would be able to continue her athletic career. And after attending Catholic primary and secondary schools, the Jesuit and Mercy values seemed like a natural fit.
What she couldn’t have predicted, however, was that an ACL injury would sideline her for much of the season her junior year.
The Communications Studies major was already planning to go to graduate school by then — “When you go into the social sciences, you have to have an advanced degree,” she said — but following her injury, she was offered the chance to play another season of lacrosse, if she enrolled in a graduate program at Detroit Mercy.
That was enough to cement her plans.
She was drawn to the Community Development program because of its holistic approach to community renewal. It’s more human-based, she explained, than a typical urban planning program.
It was that human touch that appealed to Mendoza. A lifetime of Catholic education had instilled in her a passion for service and, as a hands-on learner, she knew she would be most successful at something that allowed her to be doing, rather than observing.
She’d already gotten her first taste of community development through her involvement with the GM Student Corps, a 10-week summer program that places college interns with groups of high school students to mentor while completing community service projects. The college students are, in turn, mentored by retired GM executives and managers.
Mendoza participated in the Detroit-based program for three summers. During her second summer, she was also offered an additional internship at GM’s headquarters in the Renaissance Center, and during her second and third summers, she was involved in the interview process for potential participants.
“It was unique leadership experience,” she said, of her time in the Student Corps. “I’d never been a leader by title, only by example,” adding that it was this experience that led to her position with the Land Bank.
Her first involvement with the Land Bank was as an intern, thanks to a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. That turned into a job as a direct sales specialist after her internship concluded in November 2015. By April 2017, she was managing a team of six people as the sales and programs manager.
In that role, she oversaw auctions, own-it-now sales and the innovative side lot program that allows homeowners to purchase vacant or razed lots next to their homes for $100.
“By selling it to the next-door neighbor, there’s a better chance it will be taken care of,” Mendoza explained.
Since the program began in 2014, more than 10,000 side lots have been sold. Owners use them for a variety purposes, from community gardens and children’s play areas to simply additional space for the buyer’s family. One person even built a three-car garage. But whatever the use, they have the chance to become an asset to the neighborhood — something that increases property values.
“Nobody else in the nation is doing this type of work at this scale,” Mendoza said.
But despite her passion for the Land Bank’s work, in January, she moved on to a new position with the city’s Building, Safety, Engineering and Environmental Department (BSEED), as a project manager focused on commercial corridor cleanup efforts.
Her support for the city bleeds into her personal life, too. Wanting to be stakeholders in the city, Mendoza and her husband, Nick Labus ’15, purchased a home in Detroit’s Green Acres neighborhood in February 2018.
After moving in, they joined the Green Acres Radio Patrol, a group of residents who work with their local precinct to reduce crime in the neighborhood. Thanks to the group’s efforts, crime rates are just a fraction of what they were when the patrols started in 1986.
Essentially, the group acts as an extra set of eyes and ears for the neighborhood. Volunteers take three to four hour patrol shifts once a month, with patrols occurring seven days a week. During their shift, they report any suspicious activity to the 12th Precinct, but do not get out of their cars.
Just their presence is enough, though. Knowing somebody is watching deters would-be criminals. As an added bonus, working toward this common goal has helped the neighbors get to know each other.
Mendoza enjoys how close her home is to campus. She and Labus have been taking the time to explore the surrounding areas in a way they didn’t have the chance to while in school.
“In college, everyone wants to go to Royal Oak,” she said. Now, as residents, the pair bought bicycles and can often be found out and about. They frequently make it back to campus, too, especially for women’s lacrosse games, still supporting the team — and school — that set in motion everything that has happened since.
“Detroit Mercy gave a lot to me, more than I’d thought.” Mendoza said. “I have a good foundation for moving forward, and it all happened naturally.”
Written by Amy Skimin