Young creatives strengthen neighborhoods through art, community-driven funding

Artist Mary Luevanos knew something needed to be done when a longtime Latino arts and culture organization closed its doors after serving the Southwest Detroit community for over 25 years. "It was a loss to the community and especially to the youth," says Mary's daughter, Lisa Luevanos. They immediately started brainstorming and meeting with other residents to craft a solution.

So in 2006, Mary, along with her daughter and other Southwest community members, founded the Community of Latino Artists, Visionaries and Educators (CLAVE). The organization offers a number of community programs and events, as well as advocating for appreciation of Latino art.
Lisa Luevanos of CLAVE
CLAVE also received funding from Community Connections, a resident-driven grant program that aims to engage and empower Detroit residents in six neighborhoods throughout the city: Brightmoor, Chadsey-Condon, Southwest, Osborn, North End, and Cody-Rouge.

The initiative, which was established as part of the Skillman Foundation's Good Neighborhoods Program in 2005, now also gets significant financial support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The program's primary focus is uplifting Detroit youth by providing existing residents with skills and resources to effect positive change in their neighborhoods. Grants range from $500 to $10,000, and the program has dispensed approximately $3 million over 750 grants.

While community-focused grants are becoming an increasingly popular resource for Detroit neighborhoods, Community Connections is not your typical grant. The six target neighborhoods are primarily communities of color, and it's the residents themselves who deliberate and select the grant proposals.

"In order for it to be authentically and completely resident-led, we have a Resident Review Panel," says Community Connections director Lisa Leverette. "They're the ones who actually make the decisions about the different grant proposals."

Considering Detroit's broken public transportation and school systems, it can be difficult for young people to leave their communities for recreational activities, explains Leverette. This means that the neighborhoods where these children live are the places that need resources to promote safe havens for creativity, learning, and empowerment.

She adds that residents know their neighborhood's needs, and because of that, are best able to assess what can address them. Also noteworthy, the Resident Review Panels' monthly meetings have resulted in the program having one of the fastest turnaround times in the country for delivering grants to applicants.

The outcome of this process is an impressive variety of projects. Youth leadership programs, neighborhood beautification projects, and community arts proposals are just a sampling. "They've grown in scope and complexity to effect some really impressive systemic changes," says Leverette.

Community Connections, for example, helped Osborn High School's Hip Hop Majorette Dance Team get to the University of Michigan for a dance competition in March with funding for costumes and transit. The Osborn Majorettes won the competition, and were invited back to the campus for a dance workshop this summer, which Community Connections is also helping to fund.

In a neighborhood like Southwest Detroit, art, music, faith, and cultural diversity are staples of everyday life. In fact, these things are often intertwined, especially when community leaders, such as Mary Luevanos, are involved in multiple projects throughout the neighborhood.

Aside from CLAVE, Luevanos is also connected to Grace in Action, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that's located in Southwest Detroit. Grace in Action has received Community Connections grant funding for a project to encourage youth entrepreneurship.

One such program, Stitching Up Detroit, gives teens the opportunity to learn skills in project management, sales, and design through making custom-ordered t-shirts. Community Connections funding allowed program participants to visit a number of Detroit print shops and even meet with consultants to learn the many facets of the printing business.

"Social justice groups in the city are using Stitching Up Detroit because of their cooperative business model," says Leverette. On Dilla Day, for instance, the teens were making t-shirts on the spot, and in the process, teaching other kids about it.

Both Leverette and Luevanos say the projects engage youth in many ways, some of which can't be easily quantified. 

Mosaic on a viaduct in Southwest Detroit

Young Nation received funding for The Alley Project (TAP), a multi-generational endeavor involving transformation through art. Young people and artists in the community used their creative skills to beautify garage doors lining an alley in Southwest.

"They even transformed a couple of these garages into studios," says Leverette. "They share art with each other and also have a graffiti park."

TAP also helped the lives of these young graffiti artists, who had previously been characterized as delinquents. "Now they're celebrated as artists, and have an outlet," says Leverette.

In addition to hands-on experience, projects like TAP are helping young participants build connections with their peers and adults who are invested in the vitality of their neighborhood. "They're talking about homework, they're talking about how to handle conflict with parents, teachers, friends and how to move their way through systemic barriers that may show up," says Leverette.

After nearly a decade, the Community Connections program is still strengthening community bonds. Lisa Luevanos, a photographer by trade, says one of the strongest experiences she's had in working with youth involved a group of students who went on a "photowalk" as part of a small arts festival organized by CLAVE at Clark Park. Luevanos says the children and parents in her community look forward to the festivals, public art projects, murals, and mosaics that make them feel proud of the place they call home.

Leverette believes that the support structures created by these residents and their programs is what uplifts Detroit's young people and propels them toward success. And it's work like this and mentors like Mary and Lisa Luevanos that make the Community Connections program worthwhile.

"Not people who are leaving the community everyday at five o'clock, but people who are there 24 hours a day,” says Leverette. 

Photos by Marvin Shaouni.

This story is part of a series of solutions-focused features and profiles about the programs and people that are positively impacting the lives of Michigan kids. The 
series is produced by Michigan Nightlight and is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read the previous story in this series here.
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Read more articles by Annamarie Sysling.

Annamarie Sysling is a multimedia journalist based in Hamtramck.