On the Ground: Nurturing political activism in Osborn

Frank McGhee is old school. A couple of antique typewriters are scattered around his office, as well as an old fashioned radio that still works. Even his car, a '92 BMW, is classic. "My wife's got the new one," says McGhee, "That's all that matters."
McGhee is the Director of Neighborhood Service Organization's Youth Initiatives Project (NSO YIP), a youth leadership and advocacy training program focused on the prevention of violence and substance abuse.
"This is old school community organizing in its purest form," says McGhee about his work, a big part of which is connecting youth with summer jobs to instill in them the core values of hard work and self-reliance. This year alone, McGhee has assisted 230 kids with finding summer employment, up from just thirty last year. Dozens of those kids come from the Osborn neighborhood or attend Osborh High School.
"It's all about partnerships," says McGhee, explaining the dramatic increase in the number of summer job placements in the last year. He's a personable guy and has a knack for relationship building. This became obvious when several kids participating in YIP gave him shout-outs during our On the Ground launch meeting a few weeks ago.
McGhee has lots of hope for the Osborn neighborhood and surrounding communities in Northeast Detroit. "We have to tell our story so that zip code 48205 stands for innovation, not mayhem."
After I had been in his office for five minutes, Frank got a call from a soon to be sophomore at Osborn High School who participates in YIP. She was in a pinch. Her transportation arrangements had fallen through, and she was at risk of being late to her first day of training at Wayne State University for a summer job that McGhee and YIP had arranged for her in partnership with City Connect Detroit. So Mr. McGhee and I continued our interview in his '92 BMW as we drove to the young lady's home to pick her up and take her to Wayne State.
"I want this young lady to have this memory for the rest of her life," said McGhee, stressing how important it is for her to know that there are people looking out for her and wanting her to succeed. "This is what YIP is all about."
Transportation is a big issue for the participants in McGhee's summer jobs program, as well as thousands of other working Detroiters who don't have cars and must use an often unreliable public transportation system.
As we drove, McGhee gave the young woman pointers on being professional and told her to spread the word about YIP to her friends. Says McGhee to me after we had dropped the young woman off, "NSO YIP has street cred. Older kids tell the younger ones, 'Go get with Mr. McGhee.' "
Though McGhee has to from time to time, he says, "My job is not to rescue people, but to empower them. Then they will empower others."
Within YIP, McGhee directs its Leadership Institute, which teaches kids (generally high school juniors and seniors) the skills they need to be successful in summer and future jobs, such as punctuality, public speaking, and self-motivation. It's not just about job skills, though. "I want to train the kids to become youth activists who can speak up on behalf of their own communities," says McGhee.
McGhee draws inspiration from the 1960s civil rights movement. "When you look at the movement, it was the young people who got things done--from the sit-ins to the freedom riders." He just returned from a Children's Defense Fund conference on the Alex Haley Farm in Tennessee, where famed civil rights leader Rev. James Lawson addressed the attendees.
McGhee developed his interest in what he calls the "urban agenda" during his days at Wayne State University, where he studied political science. He chose that field after taking a class by legendary Professor Otto Feinstein, putting him on the path to becoming a community activist. "I'm a firm believer that we are all here for a purpose," says McGhee, who was on track to become a nurse before he found his calling through studying political science.
It is hard to question McGhee's belief in destiny as he beams with pride looking through the door at the twenty kids from his program intently taking part in the summer jobs training session.
We got back into McGhee's car and headed back to the northeast side. For McGhee, this was just another day at the office.

Matthew Lewis is reporting from "on the ground" in the Osborn neighborhood this summer.
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Matthew Lewis is a writer and former managing editor of Model D. He's currently the communications officer for the New Economy Initiative.