Resilient Neighborhoods: Here's how a Detroit nonprofit is growing social justice youth programming

Esther Guerrero's junior year of high school was a time of both increasing awareness and frustration for her.

Over the years, she attended a variety of different educational institutions in Detroit and its suburbs, including public, charter, and Catholic schools. In 2017, GuerreroEsther Guerrero (Lytzy Lupercio Photography) started at Western International High School in Southwest Detroit, but was unsettled by the educational disparities she and fellow students had to contend with there. 

"Western, while it was closer to home, was worse [in terms of educational resources] than what I'd experienced at other schools, and it really upset me to know this was because of the communities that live here." 
Recognizing what she was going through, a classmate named Bernie recommended she get involved with a local nonprofit called Congress of Communities (CoC). The organization sponsors a Youth Council that offers a mix of leadership training, civics and social justice programming and academic support.

Guerrero, who's now a senior at Wayne State, joined the council, and it was just what she needed during a difficult period of her life. Participating in the group gave her an opportunity address issues like educational inequality and discrimination she'd faced as a young Latina and learn more about how they related to historical developments and current events.

"I was angry, really mad, about a few things, and it was a space where I was able to not only talk about them, but also dissect them, go into depth about: why is it like this?" says Guerrero. "I always say, 'Congress of Communities really changed my life.' I don't know where I would be, if I had never gotten the invitation to join the Youth Council."

Supporting Southwest Detroit Youth

CoC was founded in 2006, with the goal of bringing together residents of the diverse neighborhoods of Southwest Detroit. Community organizing has always been a top priority of the group, and while it has a variety of different focuses —CoC Youth help build a community garden including parent organizing and anti-gentrification work — youth development work has long been an important part of its mission. 

Earlier this year, the organization was awarded a $47,000 Generator Z grant to conduct youth-led racial and social justice training sessions at its soon-to-be completed Youth-Driven Community Center. This new work, however, builds on the successes of CoC's Youth Council. 

The Youth Council is composed of a yearly cohort of 12 to 15 Latinx teenagers who live in or attend school in Southwest Detroit. Young people in the council engage in a 12-month program focused on leadership development, civic engagement, Latinx history and culture, mentorship, and educational justice. Almost all of the youth who've participated in the council have gone on to attend college or trade school, with many of them receiving scholarships to prestigious institutions like Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Michigan.

Members of the council start their year attending Summer Youth Dialogues on Race and Ethnicity, which is put together in partnership with the University of Michigan. That program convenes a cross-cultural group of teens from across Metro Detroit to learn about and discuss racial and social justice issues and develop an understanding of power, privilege, and oppression.

"They get the base of their racial and social justice education there," says Lindsey Matson, a Congress of Communities community organizer who helps coordinate the Youth Council. "Then they come back to Southwest Detroit. And then implement some sort of project to address segregation or some other type of social issue within Southwest Detroit." 

Young people involved with the Youth Council have a hand in determining the groups curriculum, especially the yearly project which is the centerpiece of its work. This past year's Youth Council cohort put together a series of podcasts for their project, including one that featured an interview with Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib. Another contingent organized a trip to Washington D.C. to advocate for the DREAM act. 

As part of the 2017-2018 cohort, Guerrero helped create a program called Nuestro Futuro, which provides local high school students with near-peer mentorship focusing on college and career preparation. Current college and trade school students help the teens with applications and also offer strategies for dealing with things like stress and on-campus racism.

Nuestro Futuro started out as a six-week program where teens met once-a-week with their mentors and heard from guest speakers on topics related to higher education. After that time, COC decided to continue this work as a once-a-month drop-in session connected to an alumni action component of the Youth Council.

"Nuestro Futuro students are still reaching out to me for help, asking: 'Who do I speak to for financial aid or mental health help at Wayne State University?' And I have access to those people, because of the networking," says Guerrero. "It's like a chain now. It impacted me and now I'm able to impact other people and those people will be able to impact other people." 

CoC youth help out at a community get togetherExpanding Opportunities

While CoC definitely plans to continue its work with its Youth Council, the organization is excited by the opportunity its recent Generator Z grant is offering to expand its youth programming. Maria Salinas, Congress of Communities founder and executive director, feels the timing of the grant is excellent, as it comes on the heels of the organization going through a five-month racial equity diversity and inclusion training (REDI) with youth, staff, board and stakeholders. What's more, as a result of that course, CoC incorporated new rules based on REDI practices into its organizational bylaws.

"CoC now can incorporate youth voice, experience, and vision for a brighter future," says Salinas. "Understanding racial equity, inequity and social justice issues in Detroit and nationally, the youth can be our champions to holding adults accountable to address change and start narrowing this divide of different cultures and races through conversations, healing practices and tools."

CoC got a jump-start on those efforts this summer, co-hosting a Latinx History Course for high school and incoming college students. The five-week program, called “Somos”, involved students from across the country, who joined together via an online teleconference to learn about Latinx history, activism, culture, and to meet with Latinx scholars, activists and artists. Around 20 students completed that course, and several of the event's coordinators are planning to do more Latinx history workshops with CoC in the future.

Matson sees the new Generator Z-funded racial and social justice training as a broadening of similar work being done by CoC's Youth Council.

"The Youth Council is specifically a Latinx council," says Matson. "This project will not have a specific demographic, but also won't be shying away from talking about race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and class."

There's no requirement to live in Southwest Detroit, though participants should expect there to be a focus on the neighborhood. Originally, CoC had planned to hold the trainings at its new Youth-Driven Community Center, which is expected to open later this fall. Complications with COVID, however, suggests they'll be taking place virtually — like the meetings of this year's Youth Council meetings — until the nonprofit feels it's safe to hold them in-person.

Like the center itself, the direction of the new Generator Z-funded trainings will be determined by youth involved with CoC, who will be getting stipends for participating in the project. A group already met in late August to discuss the direction of the programming. While planning is still underway, right now proposals include a social justice book club, mental health/self-care/wellness workshops, political and civics training, and a revamped Nuestro Futuro program.

For those interested in learning more about this and other CoC programming, Matson suggests people look to their online posts for details.

"We're really active on both Facebook and Instagram, so follow us on social media if this sounds interesting," she says. "Our grand opening for the house is coming up, and we also do a lot of social justice and political education over social media.”

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.
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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.