Photo courtesy Jeanette Pierce
Detroiter, entrepreneur, mom to triplets — not necessarily in that order of priority on any given day, but Jeanette Pierce’s many titles ebb and flow, much like the nonprofit Detroit Experience Factory (DXF) that she has led since 2006. DXF utilizes the concept of immersive storytelling to educate locals and visitors on Detroit’s past and present.
Although not even 15 years of that special brand of nonprofit-balancing-act-practice could have prepared Pierce for what was to come in 2020. COVID-19 stormed in as DXF’s busiest tour season generally takes off.
“My first question was, how do we do this?” Pierce said. “During long quarantine walks with the triplets, I was thinking, can we still be impactful storytellers in a virtual way?”
A lifelong Detroiter, Pierce opened the initial iteration of DXF, then called Inside Detroit, in a makeshift office space where the downtown Nike store now resides. As of today, more than 130,000 people have attended a DXF experience.
The pandemic threw Pierce’s tried-and-true, hands-on approach to showcasing Detroit into a spiral. Detroit’s stories of resilience were more relevant than ever, but how could they be made accessible amidst a pandemic?
“The first thing for us was to focus on virtual tours, and we didn’t have a three-month strategy session to figure it out,” Pierce said. “I honestly thought they would suck. I thought it would be certainly pale in comparison to in-person tours. And, I was very surprised to find that virtual tours are an amazing opportunity and actually have benefits above and beyond in-person tours.”
Using Google Street View and historical photos, DXF staff found it easier to present cityscape changes to virtual attendees. Geographical constraints no longer inhibited where guides could direct tour buses, with the ability to venture all the way from Rouge Park to Balduck Park in just a couple clicks.
Though programming changes have sustained DXF in the pandemic uncertainty, Pierce acknowledges the long road ahead as Detroiters look toward personal, communal and economic recovery.
“Detroit residents — Black Detroiters specifically — have faced unheard of hurdles and challenges,” Pierce said. “We will emerge from this challenge in time. That ‘crisis breeds innovation’ idea is true in Detroit — people step up. They work together. They collaborate. That’s what gives me hope is that Detroiters aren’t going to give up, no matter how bad it gets. Their desire to help each other, to help their city, is unparalleled.”