Resilient Neighborhoods: SW Detroit nonprofit to celebrate opening of youth-driven community center

Jesus Sanchez, 21, has watched a once-blighted apartment complex in his Southwest Detroit neighborhood slowly come back to life over the last few years. Now he's full of enthusiasm to see it used in a way that benefits his community.

Located near the intersection of Junction Avenue and St. Hedwig Street, the building is now a neighborhood space established and operated by the Congress of Communities (COC), a local nonprofit that's strongly focused on communityJesus Sanchez (Courtesy photo) organizing. It's called the Youth-Driven Community Center, and, as the name suggests, it was created with youth and young adults in mind.

The space serves as a home base for COC youth development activities as well as the nonprofit's headquarters. It's also worth mentioning that the "youth-driven" part of its name isn't just lip service. The project got its start with young people involved with COC, and its design and activities have been actively guided by their input.  

Sanchez, a student at Henry Ford Community College who is studying robotics, feels the new community space is a great place for young people in the neighborhood to hang out, while also gaining access to a variety of youth-oriented programming and resources. 

"It's an escape haven," he says. "If they're feeling too much pressure at home they can come here and do their homework. And all throughout the building are games for youth to come here and have fun."

Congress of Communities first popped up on Sanchez's radar a few years ago. COC youth stand in front of the community center before major renovations. (Courtesy photo)Staff with the nonprofit would ask him to help him move heavy things from time to time. Later, he got involved with a community gardening club run by COC called Sprouts. Today he works part-time for the nonprofit doing groundskeeping work and odd jobs and leads the gardening club.

Occasionally Sanchez also makes use of the Youth-Driven Community Center himself. Sometimes, he'll use the space's printer to print college papers; other times he'll just stop by to decompress and chat with COC staff when he's having a stressful day.

Fabiola Venegas is Sanchez' mother. She helps COC with education-oriented organizing through a grassroots parenting organization called Taking Action por Nuestros Niños (TANN). Like her son, Venegas also loves the concept of COC's new Youth-Driven Community Center.

"There are a lot of youth in Southwest Detroit that need leadership development," she says. "The space is like a second home to them. It helps them feel like, 'Yes, you can get an education after high school. Or, yes, you can do something outside for the community, like the garden."

COC's Youth Council in action.Creating space for local youth

The Youth-Driven Community Center has been in the works for years, but only became a reality in the last six months. The space had a soft launch this past October and a grand opening is being planned for May. 

It's currently being used for a variety of youth-oriented programming and events. The most prominent of these is probably COC's Youth Council. Each year, the organization chooses a cohort of 12 to 15 local Latinx teens to engage in a 12-month program focused on leadership development, civic engagement, Latinx history and culture, mentorship, and educational justice. Almost 100% of program participants have gone on to attend college or trade school, and some have received scholarships to attend prestigious institutions like Harvard and the COC's Youth-Driven Community Center is located in Southwest Detroit.University of Michigan.

The Lavender Society, an LGBTQ club that organized a queer prom in the community last summer, is also active at the space. Other programs taking place at the center include the Sprouts garden club; EJ at COC, an environmental justice program aimed at high schoolers; and Detroit Creative Society, an arts and culture group.

While COC Director Maria Salinas believes the center may eventually be available to be used in a limited way for older residents like local parents, its main focus remains providing a place for young people in the community to gather. 

"It is a youth-driven community house," she says. "So that is our priority to make sure that the building is a space that reflects that."

The project was originally conceived by members of the nonprofit's Youth Council during a weekend retreat at the Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor in 2018. COC's adult leadership liked the idea of having a youth space that local kids and teens could call their own. The organization applied for and was awarded a $150,000 Kresge Innovative Projects-Detroit grant that would help pay for planning and a portion of implementation costs. COC's leadership then convened a 
a Youth Center Task Force made up of youth, young adults, parents, and community members to help realize the project. 

Eventually, the organization found a two-story building that had been used as an apartment complex at 4870 St. Hedwig St. and began the work of transforming it into a community center. 
Like a lot of development projects that center has run into its fair share of issues with inflation and pandemic-related labor issues, since COC started work on the community center about three-and-half years ago. The organization also had to break up its sidewalk to replace piping, so it could get its water turned on, rearrange its bathroom setup, and install sealant and a sump pump in the basement to prevent flooding.

Despite these headaches, there has also been some good news. The WSU Aesculapians, a service organization made up of Wayne State University medical students, chose COC as its partner of the year for 2023 and has raised more than $7,000 for the nonprofit's work this year.

The Windsor Detroit Bridge Authority has also awarded COC a green infrastructure and programming grant as part of its Gordie Howe International Bridge Community Benefits Plan.  The investment will help support green programming, community education efforts, and infrastructure improvements including an expansion of its community gardening program.

Playground at COC's Youth-Driven Community Center.Getting ready for a grand opening

According to Chinelo Onuigbo, COC's Director of Youth Programming work on the house is now nearly complete.

"We're currently in the process of finalizing things, so the space is up and running," she says. "We have a youth advisory board, and they're making sure that the house remains youth-led. They've chosen some furniture for the space. We'll have gaming systems, and we're getting ready to have some outdoor space as well."

Youth are also in the process of plotting this year's community garden and will be planning some outdoor summer events, which could include things like bonfires and outdoor movies. Looking forward, Maria Salinas is interested in getting a generator for the center to help residents with power outages like the ones that struck Southeast Michigan this past winter. And if the center proves to be a great success, she would love to open another space in another part of Southwest Detroit in the coming years. 

More immediately, COC is currently planning two events that will be taking place in the near future. On April 29, it will be celebrating Earth Day & Month of the Young Child at the Youth-Driven Community Center from 2 to 5 p.m. That event will feature environmental justice presentations, a clothing swap, children's activities and snacks, and a variety of other free resources (including those related to recycling and gardening activities). Beyond that, each child will be able to go home with a planted seed. 

Then, the Youth-Driven Community center will be celebrating its grand opening on May 20 from 2 to 5 p.m. The celebration will involve live music, children's activities, community resources, and a variety of local vendors. 

"We're planning for hundreds of folks to come through, so it'll be a big deal. There will be food, and we're talking about having some live performances that really emphasize all the cultures of Southwest Detroit," says Onuigbo.

Sanchez is looking forward to the grand opening too, not just for the festivities but also for what it could mean to the neighborhood itself. 

"I hope this brings the community a lot closer together, so we can interact and share some thoughts about what we think of the neighborhood to help improve it," he says.

All photos by Steve Koss, unless otherwise noted.

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.