Resilient Neighborhoods: This Detroit nonprofit is helping youth prepare for jobs and create art

Right now, Amma Cole, 17, is just about to wrap up a summer work readiness program sponsored by the Cody Rouge Community Action Alliance (CRCAA).

A resident of northwest Detroit's Warrendale neighborhood, she recently graduated from WAY Academy, a local charter high school, and plans to study linguistics and American Sign Language (ASL) at Wayne State University this fall. Cole has been a part of the alliance's program since 2019 and is enjoying what this year has to offer.

"I like it so far, she says. "It's a great way for young adults to make money and learn how to save money. Right now, we're working on self introductions and finances." 

One of Cole's favorite parts this year was a project on self-acknowledgement that helped her realize the "difference in how we project things and react to things." Reflecting on her last few years, she'd definitely recommend the training to other young adults.

"This is a big opportunity," she says. "It's something that kids that are becoming teenagers and need jobs need to look out for!"

Growing Job Preparedness
The CRCAA job preparedness program Cole participates in is part of the Grow Detroit's Young Talent (GDYT) initiative. GDYT is a citywide program that providesA youth particpates in A CRCAA jobs readiness program Detroit youth between the ages of 14 and 24 with up to 120 hours of of seasonal employment preparedness training.Originally a summer work program, it shifted gears last year to offer online work readiness training last year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

GDYT covers the costs of paying youth with payment and works with partner groups in neighborhoods across the city who handle on-the-ground logistics of the program. Last year, more than 8,000 youth participated in GDYT-affiliated programming.

CRCAA which is based in an area with one of the highest youth populations in Detroit, has been collaborating with GDYT as one of its affiliate agencies for five years now. Its program runs for five weeks in July and August. 

Charday Ward, the alliance's youth development coordinator says last year's shift to an online environment, which was mandated by GDYT, was a big one.

"Before the pandemic we we're placing youth in actual work sites, recruiting work sites, training managers, and also recruiting youth from the neighborhood to join the program," she says. "Post-pandemic we're doing everything virtually, so our teens are getting the opportunity to gain soft skills, financial literacy, work readiness and also career exposure online through project-based learning."

Rather than receiving wages, youth now receive stipends. And on-the-job experiences have been replaced with shadowing people in a variety of different professions online. Last year, participants were exposed to people working in everything from animation and the medical field to the oil industry.

"I have teens afterwards say they felt that they learned about careers they had never heard of," says Ward. "They were able to watch videos. and learn about the career, what the demand is for that job, what it pays, what colleges offer that major, and it encouraged them to pursue careers in various industries."

Focusing on Youth

While Cole appreciates what the programming is offering this year, she still misses the face-to-face aspect she had with the summer program when she first joined in 2019. That year, she was working with other teens in the program to help plan a youth summit.

"I definitely like being in person more," she says, "Because not only were we working together as a community, we were making friends and making connections with each other. We get to see each other in person. and hang out," she says.

In addition to her participation in the summer work readiness program, Cole recently agreed to join CRCAA's youth council. The group is made up of teens from the ages of 14 to 18 years old who live, work, worship, or attend school in Detroit's Cody Rouge and Warrendale neighborhoods. Young adults with that program engage in local service projects and help with community planning efforts. 

"I definitely want  to help out," she says. "Charday really encourages us to go out and help our community, and she gives us so many opportunities that we actually enjoy."

One of the newer programs CRCAA and its youth council is working on is a virtual art therapy program for Metro Detroit teens called the Tranquil Atelier. The program, which earlier this year received a $30,000 after-school programming grant from the Generator Z philanthropic initiative, is geared towards helping teens who may be dealing with feelings of stress and anxiety heightened by the pandemic.

Plans for the program envision two separate groups, each made up of a dozen young people between the ages of 14-18, who will gather online once a week for virtual art therapy sessions conducted by a licensed art therapist. In conjunction with this program, the youth council will also be organizing quarterly events to raise awareness about mental health in their communities.

Beyond that, the CRCAA is also looking into establishing a physical youth center in the vicinity of Cody Rouge, though that effort is still in its preliminary stages. 

As for the nonprofits summer work readiness program, Ward still isn't sure when the programming will return to in-person meetings or its more traditional format as a summer jobs opportunity for teens.

"I can't really say," says Ward. "We think we're ending [COVID-19] and we're getting safer, and then we hear about a delta variant. We want to keep youth safe. So I really don't know."

Resilient Neighborhoods is a reporting and engagement series that examines how Detroit residents and community development organizations are working together to strengthen local neighborhoods. It's made possible with funding from the Kresge Foundation.

Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.