Resilient Neighborhoods: How two Detroit nonprofits reinvented youth career development for COVID-19

Cristian Estrada, 18, spent this past summer surrounded by gears and wheels, repairing bicycles at a shop called Southwest Rides on Detroit's Southwest Side. It's a job the Western International High School student has been doing for the last few summers, but this year things worked a little differently due to COVID-19.

"I usually work with customers’ bikes and do tuneups," he says. "[This year], I had to wear a mask all day, and it was very Cristian Estradahot."

Besides masking up, the shop has limited customers inside its premises to two at a time, mandated hand sanitizer use, and required that bikes be dropped off for any repairs requiring more than five minutes. 

While Southwest Rides is still open during the school year, Estrada has stepped away from the shop to focus on senior year schoolwork. That said, the 18-year-old considers the time he's spent working there a valuable experience.

"I'm getting more confidence," he says. "It taught me how to talk to people and not be afraid or shy. It's increased my vocabulary on how to talk professionally and those types of things." 

Southwest Rides is a project of a Southwest Detroit nonprofit called Urban Neighborhood Initiatives (UNI), one of several youth-oriented career development programs offered by the organization.

In turn, UNI is just one of many organizations in Detroit to offer this combination of programming and employment to youth. It's a one-two punch that can mean a lot to a young person's life, allowing them to explore career paths and make a little money too. Over the past year, however, the pandemic has forced Detroit organizations that do this work to reinvent the way they provide these services.


Creating opportunities

Youth development is one of UNI’s top priorities, along with education, land use, and economic development. The nonprofit first dipped it's toes specifically into youth employment programming during a planning session back in 2007. After consulting with residents of the community it services — a 1.3-square-mile area bounded by Fort, Dix, and Waterman Streets — UNI's leadership felt it was crucial to open up career opportunities for neighborhood youth.

"It became very clear talking with young people and parents that we're a very young neighborhood, and there were kids we know that were making decisions about whether to stay in school," says UNI Executive Director Christine Bell. "We started to think about how to create youth employment. First jobs are so important." 

When it comes to youth employment, the organization has several separate youth programs that fall under its umbrella. Southwest Rides

Estrada initially got involved with UNI through its apprenticeship program, which allowed him to connect with Southwest Rides. The apprenticeship program helps familiarize youth with on-the-job professionalism, allows them to explore different career paths and places them with local businesses or organizations that align with their intended career goals. 

During the summer months, the apprenticeship program partners up with a citywide jobs initiative called Grow Detroit's Young Talent (GDYT)  to connect youth with paid summer work. Sponsored by the City of Detroit, GDYT is open to permanent Detroit residents from the ages of 14-24 who work an average of 120 hours during the season. The city initiative covers wages for the youth, while program providers select young applicants, offer youth development programming, and oversee summer employment programs, which may involve placing youth with an outside business or organization for work. Last year, more than 8,000 youth around the city participated in GDYT-affiliated programs.

The bike shop Southwest Rides, which gives youth an opportunity to learn bike mechanic, retail, and business management skills, is one pathway youth can take with UNI's apprenticeship program. Other options include working at the nonprofit's front desk or through a partnering organization like Grace in Action collectives.

In addition to its apprenticeship work runs a program called the Southwest Urban Arts Mural Project. Youth spend their winter months with the project sharpening their artistic skills under the supervision of a professional artist. And in the summertime, they are hired to design and create murals for local residents and businesses. Initially, UNI worked with trained artists with the College for Creative Studies Community Arts Partnership. More recently, UNI has hired neighborhood artists to provide technical know-how for the project, which is currently headed up by teaching artist and coordinator Phil Patrick, a former SUAMP participant.  

Under another UNI program, youth can also participate in leadership training geared toward planning and implementing neighborhood improvement projects and mapping out their careers. 

In the past, the nonprofit has also run a program known as the green team that coordinates with the city to maintain parks, vacant lots, and green spaces. While that particular project was put on hold this past year due to funding, a related team that supervises trainings and out-of-school enrichment activities for kids and young teens was expanded from six to 11 weeks.

Beyond all that, UNI also uses these programs to find youth to fill staff positions and divisions like the Q-team, a data collection and analysis team that helps evaluate the effectiveness of its youth programming.

"We have intentionally tried to build young talent into our entire organization," says Bell. "Our bookkeeper started at our front desk, the education initiatives coordinator started at our front desk, and we've also utilized our youth program as another entryway into building a talent pipeline." 

According to Bell, youth enrolled in UNI's career development programming are less likely to be chronically absent at school Valeria Arredondoand more likely to end up enrolling in post-secondary education. And, not to be forgotten, there's also the subjective impact of being involved in a youth employment program.

Valeria Arredondo, 20, is currently an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. But during her high school years, she participated in UNI's career development programming. She originally got involved through its apprenticeship program, working at a local dance studio, and later was hired on as a member of the nonprofit's Q-Team and became a member of its Youth Advisory Board. 

Looking back, Arredondo feels she got quite a lot from her time working with UNI. 

"Not only did they give me a lot of skills about professionalism and building my resume, I also built a lot of connections with the people who worked there and the program facilitators," she says. "So if I ever needed a letter of recommendation, they were there." 


Expanding awareness

UNI isn't alone in its effort to help connect young Detroiters with career opportunities. On the city's east side, the nonprofit GenesisHOPE has been busy doing similar work.

Established in 2008 as a charitable extension of the Genesis Lutheran Church, the nonprofit corporation focuses on bringing youth, community, and economic development to Islandview and the surrounding area. GenesisHOPE's Executive Director Jeanine Hatcher says expanding job opportunities for teens and young adults is a longstanding part of the nonprofit's efforts. 

"We have had a workforce readiness and college preparation course for many years," she says. "We typically work with anywhere from 25-50 young people … to provide [them] with basic life skills, everything from financial literacy to something as basic as how to dress for success."

GenesisHOPE's youth employment programming typically takes the form of internships. Under their standard model, youth can choose between growing food at a nearby urban farm and working at a farm stand or the nonprofit's weekly farmers market or an approach that focuses more on social change and civic responsibility. Beyond that work, participating teens and young adults also get to practice team-building and learn about different career paths as well as explore what it might be like to open their own businesses. 

During the summer months, GenesisHOPE coordinates the internships with the city's Grow Detroit's Young Talent program. At times it's also collaborated with Michigan State University Extension, which helps them out with agricultural expertise. In addition to its internship work, the nonprofit also offers college scholarships to help local youth attend college.

Sometimes, after the internship program ends, GenesisHOPE will hire youth to help with administrative work or to tend itsNishay Husband farm. 

Nishay Husband, 18, worked this summer through GDYT as an office assistant, but she got her start through the internship program in 2018 and has fond memories of her time there. 

"It was my first summer job. It was really cool," she says. "People would come from Michigan State University Extension and teach us about money management. We also did a farmers market there. And that was really fun, because I'd never been inside an actual farmers market before."

For her part, GenesisHOPE program coordinator Micah Wilson is happy to play a role in expanding the horizons of local youth.

"It's important to do this work, because exposing our children to different possibilities is everything," she says. "Sometimes our young people feel limited in the things they can be interested in or excel in, so just letting them know … can help them be interested."


Embracing change

For both UNI and GenesisHOPE, however, 2020 has been an unusual year to take on youth career development programming. In fact, it's fair to say that the pandemic has made it impossible not to do things differently. 

"Normally we have a farmers market and a garden, but because of COVID we were restricted to only having a virtual Micah Wilsonexperience," says Wilson.

This year, GenesisHOPE sponsored a five-week online program that was structured more like a classroom than its usual internship setup. Meetings took place in July and August via Zoom five days a week and covered topics like career choices, health, food preparation, money management, and entrepreneurship. In addition to discussion, participants also cooked food and pitched ideas for businesses. Between sessions, youth filled out worksheets to demonstrate their knowledge of what they learned.

Wilson led most of the meetings, while the health care sections were handled by a local physician, Dr. Joseph Thompson. Due to COVID-19, in-person Interactions between youth and staff were limited to pickups of lunches and food for cooking class. During the five-week course, computers and internet access were made possible for all the youth through the nonprofit's partner Grow Detroit's Young Talent. Overall, program attendance was pretty high, with 45 young people enrolling and 35 of them showing up regularly to pick up food.

Despite being online, Jamese Willis, 15, enjoyed being part of a program. And as the GenesisHOPE internship Zoom callowner of a small sweets catering business called Treats by Mese, she appreciated what it offered her as an entrepreneur.

"It opened my eyes to expand my vision more," she says. "We learned how to cook,” she says. "It added on to my list of what I can do with my business. And it helped me learn about money management and other things with entrepreneurship."

For UNI, the arrival of COVID-19 also required moving to an online format for youth career development programming.

"Obviously a lot of [youth] were eager to come back to in-person programming, but ... working with 200 youth, we thought it would be very challenging," says Vania Ruiz, UNI's Youth Workforce Development Coordinator.

Like GenesisHOPE, UNI had to rework much of its career preparation programming into a webinar format, as GYDT required all its programming to be online this year. Meanwhile, other employment had to be redirected online as much as possible while activities, like Southwest Rides and their mural arts program, that required in-person interaction had to adopt strict safety protocols. Beyond that, adult UNI staff made it a priority to keep in touch with youth as much as possible through weekly texts, emails, and phone calls. 

The pandemic also served as a wake-up call for the Southwest Detroit nonprofit to act more boldly. While UNI had been considering addressing mental health in its programming for a long time, the arrival of COVID-19 finally convinced them it was time to act. So two staff members with mental health backgrounds were hired on to its leadership training program to help with any issues youth might face. The nonprofit also created additional internal jobs for youth in areas like mental health advocacy, social media and communications, and mentorship Programs, since many of the in-person jobs it usually places young people in were no longer possible due to COVID. 

UNI's leadership has also used the last few months as an opportunity to reevaluate how racial equity and efforts to assist its most vulnerable youth can be integrated into their programming. 

With that in mind, Bell is hopeful that organizations like UNI that serve youth will use the current crisis as an opportunity to improve and grow.

"I think what's really important to us as we continue to deepen this work is that racial equity is at the core," she says. "And that we are creating robust pathways so that young people can continue to dream and have the support to realize those dreams."

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that UNI was supervising a combination of remote and in-person jobs with local businesses. The article has been updated to reflect that only virtual jobs are allowed under GDYT's pandemic guidelines and that UNI has also created new internal youth positions because of COVID-19. 

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.
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