Resilient Neighborhoods: These two nonprofits are bringing youth-driven spaces to SW Detroit

A couple of years ago, Stephanie Segura, 18, wasn't doing a whole lot outside of going to school and hanging out with her friends. But then, in 2018, the young Southwest Detroiter got involved with a local community organization called Congress of Communities (COC), and the impact it's had on her has been transformative.

"When I got involved with COC, so many opportunities started opening up," she says. "I became more open to seeing the world differently, and I learned about social justice issues, race, and  ethnicity, which are important topics I feel are not really discussed at school." 

Based in Southwest Detroit, Congress of Communities is a nonprofit advocacy group focused on education and public safety issues and uplifting the voices of local residents. Founded in 2010, it originally came together through a community organizing effort aimed at bringing together the area's diverse residents and stakeholders and fostering cross-community collaboration.

Segura first got involved with Congress of Communities through its Youth Council. Every year, COC's Youth Council takes on a cohort of between 12-15 area Latinx teenagers who engage in a 12-month program focused on leadership development, civic engagement, Latinx history and culture, mentorship, and educational justice. Nearly 100% of the participants have gone on to attend college or trade school and some have even received full scholarships to universities like Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Michigan.

Segura, who's now remotely attending Michigan State University, remains active with the Youth Council's alumni, COC's Board of Directors, and another committee that's been working for the last several years to bring what promises to be an exciting new resource to the youth of Southwest Detroit. 

It's called the House Committee and its vision is to bring a youth-oriented community center to Southwest Detroit in the next few months. Located in a two-story former apartment complex on Saint Hedwig Street between Junction Avenue and Lockwood Street, the house will feature a community, meeting space, kitchen, offices, social justice library, outdoor gardens, and play spaces, and a special youth space on the top floor. Although construction is ongoing, the renovation should be far enough along for COC to move into this later this year.

The idea for the community center originally came about during a 2018 Youth Council weekend retreat at the Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor. The idea caught on with COC's leadership who sympathized with their desire for local kids and teens to have a space they could call their own.

Reflecting back on her own experiences over the last few years with Congress of Communities, Segura is thrilled to be working on a project that will offer opportunities similar to what she's had to other young people in her community.

"I think it's going to open a lot of doors for youth," she says. "Our parent leaders that live around the house are really excited for the youth that live on the street to help out and get involved."

COC's future youth center on St. Hedwig. (Nick Hagen photo)

Youthful Coincidence

As fate would have it Congress of Communities isn't alone in its effort to bring a community center for young people into Southwest Detroit. Urban Neighborhood Initiatives (UNI), a nonprofit community development organization based in Springwells, has also been working on setting up its own youth center in a building it owns at 2026 Lawndale St.

Operating in a 1.3-square-mile service area bounded by Fort, Dix, and Waterman Streets, UNI is primarily focused on youth development, education, land use, and economic development. With a mission that's so dedicated to addressing young Christine Bellpeople's issues, perhaps it's not completely surprising that UNI would be interested in running a youth center. 

The community development organization has owned the Lawndale building, a former Moose Lodge, since 2014. Right now, the facility is only halfway renovated. The finished portion of the building, which was completed in 2017, is currently home to the Southwest Detroit Justice Center, a community court based on restorative justice principles.

Originally, UNI had considered using the remaining section of the building for a literacy center, but that ended up moving to another part of the neighborhood. Around the time the initial renovation was wrapping up, UNI's Executive Director Christine Bell decided to revisit the issue of what to do with the unrehabbed part of the building.

"When we finished the other side, I said maybe we need to come back to the unfinished side and say: 'Is this what the community wants and needs?'" she says. "The community really wanted something from young people in that space." 

Right now, UNI is planning to put a youth hub in the back of the space and a retail space for Southwest Rides, its bike shop and youth bike repair training program, in the front. 

"Southwest Rides will be closer to our youth programming, which I think will be really good," says Bell.

Although UNI and COC's decisions to open youth centers in Southwest Detroit is a bit of a coincidence, it also makes sense. In addition to being very diverse — with a majority Latino population, sizable numbers of white and African American residents and a notable Arab presence — Southwest Detroit also has a large population of young people. According to a Data Driven Detroit analysis of the 2010 U.S. Census, 33% of Southwest Detroit's residents are under the age of 18.

Beyond the fact that both organizations are opening up community centers for young people, it's also worth mentioning that they also want their spaces to be youth-driven.

For Youth, By Youth

While Diana Sanchez, 19, didn't go to the Neutral Zone retreat where COC's Youth Council first came up with the idea of their youth-driven community center, she was involved with the group at the time and jumped in whole-heartedly when she heard about it. Now a college student at U-M Dearborn, she remains active on COC's House Committee. The 19-year-old has Diana Sanchezenjoyed being part of the project and is thankful young people have had so much of a say over its development.

"I really like that the house is made by youth. We were the ones who came up with the idea. We got to pick the colors and everything," she says. "All of the adults have been really supportive of us, like: 'Oh yeah, that's a great idea, or it could be changed a little bit to be better.' They're always there helping us."

The young architects of the center wanted a space for and by youth where they could meet meet and hang out that's less formal than COC's current offices at 8634 Vernor Hwy. While the facility will have a community meeting space and some offices, the upstairs will be a dedicated youth space, an area where kids and teens can study, play video games, read social justice-oriented books or just hang out.  

Maria Salinas, executive director of Congress of Communities and a big backer of the youth center, is excited about the plans the task force came up with for the center.

"It's going to be very interesting, innovative, and intriguing," she says. "It's going to have a lot of resources and tools, computers, a library, eating area, meeting room that's going to be used for the community, and then upstairs will be an area for young people that will be comfortable with two or three big TVs, skylights, a couple bathrooms, and cubby holes."

After the Youth Council came up with the initial idea for the youth center in 2018, Congress of Community wrote up a project Maria Salinasproposal and began applying for grants. Last year, those efforts were rewarded when they were awarded a $150,000 Kresge Innovative Projects-Detroit grant that would help pay for planning and a portion of implementation costs. The organization then created a Youth Center Task Force made up of youth, young adults, parents, and community members to make the center into a reality, which meets every other week.

When the building was purchased, Salinas felt it looked "like it was ready to knock down," but she and members of the project task force liked the building's spacious possibilities and its central Southwest Detroit location. Now the building has been gutted and the foundation and roofing are complete. Although the organization hopes to be able to start moving in November, it is still working on raising about $30,000 to complete the project. Youth have been helping out with this effort through an online crowdfunding campaign

The building of the community center is something of a dream come true for Salinas, who likes the idea of her organization creating something lasting for the neighborhood. And although adults will be present and participating in the community center, she stresses that kids will continue to have a say in its programming as things go forward. 

"It's not just going to be a youth house, says Salinas. "Youth will be the advisers forever making sure that everything that goes on there is youth-driven, because we haven't done that well enough in the city of Detroit."

Inspiring Spaces 

Like Congress of Communities, space, UNI has also had youth involved in every step of their youth center's development. In fact, the nonprofit partnered with the Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC), an architecture and design firm associated with U-D Mercy to train youth with their youth advisory board so they could facilitate a participatory design workshop to help plan what the space would look like. Together DCDC and UNI youth conducted several workshops with 50 of their young peers to come up with a plan for their youth center.

What they came up with is a design-centered on three themes: art, video gaming, and comic book store. 

"There's going to be collaborative study cubes, a folding garage door that opens up onto the sidewalk and you can move walls around," says Bell. "It's just super cool. They did a really good job."

Daniel Rizo, 18, now a freshman at U-M's School of Engineering, remembers the workshops and is excited with how things came out.

"It's so much fun seeing the progression of it from the early stages where we got to see people designing it and now funding and starting the renovations on it," he says. "For me, it's very welcoming to have another place where youth can hang out rather than being on the streets." 

Cristian Estrada, an 18-year-old Detroiter who attends Western International High School and has been involved with Southwest Rides, is also happy the youth center is coming to the neighborhood.

"It's really nice," he says. "Me, my siblings, and friends, we usually don't have a place to go to work on homework or hang out and talk to people. It should be a nice place to go."

Rehabbing buildings in Detroit is certainly not an inexpensive endeavor. Although UNI received a KIP-D grant, Bell says due to the need to raise additional funding to finish the building and put in a new parking lot for the structure, the project will likely have to happen in phases. That said, her hope is that construction on the building will be completed by January. But when the facility is ready, she's determined to make sure the young people who spend time there also play an important role in running the center.

"Our neighborhood deserves to have inspiring spaces," says Bell. "I want it to be youth-planned and youth-operated. I want it to be yet another place that young people can discover what they're good at and what they don't like. I want them to own it."

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.

UNI's Lawndale Complex (Nick Hagen photo)
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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.