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City kids: Young Detroiters finding a voice

Youth advocacy equals positive change for Detroit
Youth advocacy equals positive change for Detroit

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In case you have't noticed, Detroit's young people are demanding better. Better schools, better neighborhood lighting, better transportation, better opportunities.

It starts with just one idea or one aggravation and builds into wanting to do something about it. With the right training and tools, a little direction, and connections to key adults, Detroit youth are working to make things happen.
 
Behind these young advocates are a number of nonprofit organizations who are helping youth to organize and advocate for the changes they see as vital to improving their lives in the here and now, and the state of the community as a whole.

Yes, youth are tackling smaller issues, but they are not shying away from pushing larger agendas: having safe, well-lit routes to school; squashing the school-to-prison pipeline; protesting school closures; preventing blight; stopping discrimination; pushing alternative transportation modes; and the list goes on.

Supporters of youth advocacy programs say that when youth are an active part of the solution and have a place where they are listened to and encouraged – not dismissed for their lack of years, prowess, or experience – they can help transform our neighborhoods, schools, and communities and stay out of trouble in the mean time.

"By believing that a lack of age equals a lack of experience, we are truly limiting ourselves in seeing the creativity and innovation that youth can bring to all spaces, and we miss out on opportunities to make incredible change," says Theresa Tran, youth programs manager at Michigan Roundtable for Diversity & Inclusion.

Tran doesn’t like hearing phrases like, "Youth are our future." Instead, she argues that youth are part of the present and are leaders in their own right. She runs the Roundtable’s Regional Youth Internship Program, a 14-month training program to help young people become advocates and organizers, and the Regional Youth Consortium, which brings together students from high schools across the region to support students working to create a welcome, accepting environment for all students at their schools.

Tran says that these programs provide a space for young people to discover the power they already have and harness it to make positive change.

"It's important to engage youth in this work early on, especially in addressing issues that directly impact them," says Tran. "It helps to cultivate a connection to community and shared responsibility for the spaces that people of all ages occupy."

That connection begins with finding a voice. Voice is a word that comes up again and again when talking to anyone doing advocacy work at the grassroots level. And for young people and others, voice is often driven by personal views, opinions, and observations. Cultivating that personal voice and guiding youth to speak out is where it all starts. Useless complaining turns into actively finding solutions.

A group of YOUTH VOICE students, for example, aren't just bemoaning in the cafeteria how many kids are being suspended from their high schools for minor infractions, like truancy or disorderly conduct. They've come up with a campaign to decrease school suspensions, which involves raising awareness about the problem, having restorative practices implemented in schools, and asking public officials to revise zero tolerance policies.

Multiple suspensions can lead to youth being channeled out of schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems, a national trend called the school-to-prison pipeline; it often impacts vulnerable youth who have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse or neglect, and youth in the foster care system.

Quentin McKinnon, 18, helped organize a 450-person Youth Takeover March last spring to bring awareness to the school-to-prison pipeline problem in Detroit. At the time, he was a senior at Detroit Institute of Technology at Cody High School where he saw the problems first hand: behavioral issues led to kids getting kicked out of class and suspended. Grades dropped and problems weren't resolved.

McKinnon noticed a lack of resources for students who had problems at home, who were dealing with ADD and ADHD, or who had other mental health issues.

When he gets the ear of a school administrator, public official, or community leader, his message is clear: "I'm telling them this is a system that is unfair," says McKinnon. "I explain the school-to-prison pipeline and how more resources are going into the prison system. I tell them that a student is worth roughly $8,000 a year and a prisoner is worth $40,000."

In Detroit, out of 70,000 students, there were 25,534 suspensions in the 2011-2012 school year. "There are a lot of teachers in our schools who can’t relate to a student’s problems or issues," says McKinnon. "All they can do is kick them out of the classroom."

YOUTH VOICE, an organization of Detroit youth who tackle community and political issues to create change, continues to battle this issue.

Kayla Mason, director of YOUTH VOICE, says that as young people develop their identity, the process of advocating and organizing helps them understand their world from a social justice lens. Those values help form the adults they will become. YOUTH VOICE works with students in low-income neighborhoods to engage them on issues that affect them.

Chris Coombe and Jaye Clement, who work with Neighborhoods Working in Partnership: Youth Mobilizing for Policy Change, recall conducting a training session with youth leaders at a school when the principal was let go due to funding cuts. The youth disagreed with the decision and used mobilizing tools from the training and some of their own to organize the student body to pressure administrators to reinstate the principal. Their efforts drew television coverage; years later some of the same youth protested the closure of two southwest Detroit schools; one of them was kept open.

There are more positives to involving young people in advocacy beyond the biggies of empowering and engaging youth and impacting the community through positive change. Research shows a connection between political activism and emotional wellness that offers a sense of hope and purpose in life. Also, building awareness of social justice and inequality, combined with social action, contributes to greater well-being for youth growing up in an oppressive social context.

The consequence of not involving youth, on the other hand, can perpetuate community problems as young people either sit in the wings feeling helpless or take out their anger in ways that add to the problems.

Another benefit to learning how to advocate and organize, says Mason, is that youth learn to think critically and problem solve on their feet.

"Critical thinking is a skill that a lot of young people don't develop until college, but through youth empowerment, students are learning ways to convert knowledge into action," says Mason. She believes that when young people understand the conditions around them – why they exist, what the root causes are, how people are improving the conditions – that they are more conscious of their surroundings.

Advocacy also teaches perseverance. Changing policies, practices, perceptions, messages, and historical influences takes time, and failure is part of the learning process.

"We allow our youth to fail and create spaces for intentional reflection to give and receive feedback to learn from those failures," says Tran. "It is from these moments that our youth learn true grit and can then push through to continue learning and growing."

Melinda Clynes is project editor for Issue Media Group's statewide education and children at risk series.
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