Voices of Youth: What would our youngest community members change? We ask them.

This story is part of a series that sees youth partnered with writing, photography, and art mentors to help capture their own perspective and narrative. The program is made possible with funding from the Skillman Foundation.
“Be the person you needed when you were young,” Ayesha Siddiqi posted on Twitter in 2013, inspiring child advocates worldwide to spend more time reflecting on their own personal experiences in their work with youth. 

In our latest initiative, Model D Media and Issue Media Group are focusing on helping young Detroiters find and connect with their voice to share their stories and perspectives on life in our city. Our Voices of Youth program takes place in two parts; with the first bringing young children together in a group to talk about what they love about their community and what they would like to change, and the second part empowering them to report on their own stories with guidance from journalism and photography mentors.
Clifton "Mr. CliffNote" Perry sketches the enlightening youth listening session.
We started with a workshop with two local child-focused organizations. Serving over 400 students across metro Detroit, the primary mission of Center for Success Network is uniting literacy and community to empower students in the journey of education. Brilliant Detroit provides programming and support to families in high-need neighborhoods. We conducted a listening session with two groups of their families and youth in Chandler Park and Southwest Detroit to develop a program that amplifies youth voices. 

Led by journalist and former educator Biba Adams, and Joel "Fluent" Greene, a noted Detroit poet and show host, our workshops also featured Clifton "Mr. CliffNote" Perry, a talented artist who captured the sentiments shared during the listening session in beautiful art that will be returned to the community partners to be displayed in their spaces. 

We then sat down with amazing groups of students at three different locations. The kids, whose ages ranged from 8 to 10 years old, talked to us about how they feel about what it means to be a member of a community and what, if anything, they would change. The responses youth gave were surprising. 

But, first, we had to define what community is. 

Kindercare, one of the nation’s largest childcare centers, notes that young children — even as young as 2 or 3 years old — can learn about community. “Introducing children to our communities gives them a sense of belonging, ownership, and ultimately, social concern,” the organization states, adding that raising a child who engages with their community may help them to be happier and healthier in the long run. 

"I love my granny," a third grader responds when asked about who the members of their community are. Another youngster named Jace says that the best part of his community is "playing video games with my friends…and eating tacos."

Clifton "Clifnotes" Perry captures the sentiments shared during the youth listening session.

More than many adults may realize, children recognize that they are a part of a family community, a school community, and a larger local/global community — just like their adults. They may also be in social communities like teams and churches. The groups of young people that we worked with at Center for Success Network and Brilliant Detroit understand the concept very clearly. 

We asked the youth about the things that they would like to change, and what they think it means to have a voice for change. We found that a similar theme emerged from each workshop: 

Kids are very aware of their space. They notice things like trash, litter, and speeding. In each session, they expressed that trash or the aesthetics of their neighborhoods are things they would like to change as well as to have an enhanced sense of security. 

It’s a concept that is backed up by studies. When investigating what makes up the "Soul of a Community" research found that drivers that create emotional bonds between people and their community are consistent in virtually every city and can be reduced to just a few categories. Interestingly, the usual suspects — jobs, the economy, and safety — are not among the top drivers. Rather, people consistently give higher ratings for elements that relate directly to their daily quality of life: an area’s physical beauty, opportunities for socializing, and a community’s openness to all people. 

Our youngest citizens are more aware of their communities than many may realize. Artwork by Clifton "Clifnotes" Perry.

For young people, physical beauty ranks highly. We found that in all three of our sessions, youth have concerns about trash, litter, and things “being clean”. 
They also express concern about things that are out of their control, like speeding cars and gun violence. They have ideas for things they would do if they were in charge, "I would make sure old people had a way to get to the doctor," 10-year-old Cayleigh says. 

In Southwest Detroit, it was a group of moms who told us about their thoughts about community and how it affects them and their children. In this neighborhood, there was concern about the pervasiveness of illegal dumping — an issue that has been reported on in this neighborhood and others where communities have taken a stand against it.

The sense of community in Southwest Detroit is also rooted in the shared experience of being an immigrant community. Esmeralda Torres, the community engagement manager at the Brilliant Detroit site in the neighborhood, says "many of these families come from cities that have great beauty," she adds that those who immigrated longer ago — are more impressed with the improvements in Southwest Detroit. While those who have more recently arrived in the city see that there is much that needs to improve.

What each and every session had in common was that the young kids (and their parents) expressed that the centers where they get resources and support are one thing that they value most about their community. 

"We can come here and see each other, spend time together, and learn from each other," one mom at Brilliant Detroit. "This place is what I think about when I think about being a part of a community."

Clifton "Clifnotes" Perry captures what youth shared in a powerful listening session.
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Read more articles by Biba Adams.

Biba Adams is a regular contributor and project editor for Model D. Formally Model D's Editor at Large, she is a longtime journalist whose work is fueled by her passion for people and her native Detroit. Find her on all social channels @BibatheDiva.