Debunking stereotypes, correcting narratives: How Detroit'Teen HYPE has empowered youth for 20 years

Most of Franklin Avenue sandwiched between Jefferson Avenue and the Detroit River is quiet, save for the pulsing beats that emanate from a building with a red door. On a recent visit, it’s Kendrick Lamar’s “Not Like Us,” a West Coast diss track aimed toward someone across said river (it’s too much to explain here, but try to catch up if you’re not in the know) that has the entire continent in a chokehold. On Teen HYPE’s floor inside the building, there are a dolescents rapping the song word for word, placing particular emphasis on the bar “certified lover boy/certified pedophile.”

No doubt over the 20-year history of Teen HYPE has grooming, age-gap relationships and straight-up assault, among several other difficult topics, been discussed; an acute awareness of the topic, be it part of a roundtable discussion or a rapper’s jab at another one, shouldn’t be surprising. Difficult conversations are just one of Teen HYPE’s missions; the safe space granted, and the learned accessibility toward having them, are as well.

“It can be very rare for us to find places where we do belong, and places where we are truly heard. Because when we say Teen HYPE is a youth advocacy program and it's genuinely youth-led, that's really what we mean,” says Mallory Childs, a graduating senior who leaves for Spelman College this fall.

Teen HYPE was co-founded in 2004 by Franky Hudson and Ambra Reddick, who sought to develop a program model rooted in “respect, inclusiveness, excellence, safety, diversity, and creativity.” More than 2,000 area teenagers have been served by the program; alumni regularly come back for visits and mentorship.

The program supplements, but doesn't seek to replace, classroom education during school hours. Peer-to-peer education is a cornerstone of programming, which has also grown over the years to include speaker series, field trips, creative works and, as of late, stage plays produced, written and acted out by the teens themselves. 

This year’s most recent play dealt with themes of body positivity and social media addiction. “We tend to get influenced by rappers and stuff, and with girls, we started to see when they go on Instagram and people getting their body done and think that’s what they have to do," says Kelton Green, a graduating senior who was one of the co-writers of this year's play.

"I really want to go into sociology, and I want to say that the play really helped me become more vocal with speaking to people about what's going on around the world, especially things that people are afraid to talk about," said Lesya Johnson, a student at Cass Technical High School who had a solo monologue in the production. "And so Teen HYPE really has helped me to become more comfortable with speaking in front of people and not being afraid to tell the story that everyone needs to hear.

The organization opens its doors to all, but has largely served students of color — primarily Black students — over the years. And the evolution of TEEN Hype has been reflective of demographic changes in the region.

Several suburbs, and their respective school district at the organization’s outset did not have many Black families residing there. Today, years after an economic crash opened once-unattainable suburban neighborhoods up to urban families and a subsequent change in statewide educational policy allowing for any Michigan district to become a district of enrollment choice, many suburbs or their school districts look radically different than a generation ago.

As facilitators have learned, some of Teen HYPE’s participants were learning a form of integration in real time, allowing the organization to become a safe space for them to talk about what they’re experiencing.

“We come here and we get to be the majority rather than the minority,” Childs says. "And we get the opportunity to be among people that look like us, that grow through similar things than us, but also still have different perspectives because we are living different lives.”

There are kids that come from suburbs who are immediately tagged as having more means than their city-dwelling counterparts, participants say — but those sentiments vanish almost immediately after a few hangouts. It’s a needed balm, particularly for kids in some suburbs who say they already face the challenge of finding and maintaining community in their own schools

“Wherever I have gone, I have been able to find a community of people that look like me, which is a blessing. And definitely, I will say those things are very similar. Finding my community at school of students that look like me, but then finding my peers here that look like me and being able to just be amidst Black spaces, because, of course, especially throughout our teenage years, things like that are very important," Childs says. “We get the opportunity to see each other in a different light, the opportunity to be vulnerable with one another without the comments of judgment or, you know, without the feelings of being alone or isolated or anything like that."

The community built within the spaces of Teen HYPE has the multi-pronged approach of teens recruiting others to become part of the program, while also “changing the narrative” — a repeated mantra among adults and adolescents alike — about growing up in the Detroit area.

“I try to promote it to some, you know, some of my palm-colored friends,” Green laughs, “and you know, they were kind of scared. They were like, well, it’s a lot of black people. I was like, it's a Detroit-based thing…because even though no Detroit made non profit organization, we still should be diverse.

Green and Childs are graduating this year, while Johnson begins a new year alongside new recruits and returning peers. As expected, the two alumni are already planning their returns, while adults plan on focusing efforts on their summer programming — highlighted by a trip to Washington D.C. — leading into the fall.

“I’m looking forward to growing with teen hype, learning how to become better at marketing and promoting ourselves. I'm looking forward to expanding teen hype as a whole, like, recruiting more youth that are ready to make a difference inside the world. I am ready to become more involved in our youth advisory council, which is basically the peers indulging in leadership," Johnson says.

"It’s just so much to say, that we can be the change that we want to see in this world," she adds. "Like, there's so many people that I've met in teen hype from different areas of the city, and you would never think that so many people have so much to bring. And so I just learned how we all can be on one accord and want to make a difference if we're really willing to. There's never a time where we can just be sitting off in the corner and they won't make you feel welcome, or they won't ask you what do you feel about the situation. Everyone's voice counts no matter what the situation is."
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Aaron Foley is a Detroit-based writer and the editor of BLAC magazine. Follow him on twitter @aaronkfoley.