As a child, Ron Norwood couldn't have known how his future would turn out. Yet as a black boy in Detroit who struggled in school, he was heading down a familiar path, one that for far too many young men of color ends in prison or worse.
"Just as bad as not teaching somebody something, you can also miseducate them," Norwood says of his struggles in Detroit Public Schools.
But something changed along the way.
Now working as a full-time youth organizer for the Neighborhood Service Organization's Youth Initiatives Project
, Norwood, 23, is a small piece in a larger puzzle of local organizations focused on creating leaders out of Detroit's at-risk population of boys through supplemental education support – the type of support Norwood says changed his life.
"So, although I had wonderful parents who were not on drugs, and they were smart and responsible with their money and made sure I was at school every day, I still needed something more to supplement my learning and my nourishment," he explains.
Earlier in the day, Norwood made a similar point during an intimate talk with students from the University of Michigan's School of Public Health at NSO's Harper-Gratiot Multi-Service Center. He uses his life as a testament. "It's the outside things that help build up that confidence and that better understanding of what you need to do and how you need to do it," he says.
As for where he would be without the help of organizations like the Youth Initiatives Project?
"That's a powerful question," Norwood says. "I've contemplated that question myself, and the fact of the matter is, I don't like to think that I would be in a bad place, but I truly believe that I would not be where I am."
Started in 1999, the Youth Initiatives Project combines youth advocacy and leadership development to prevent violence and substance abuse through youth peer-to-peer engagement.
"It was really [the youth's] show, and it still is to this day," says Frank McGhee, director of YIP. "They are not there just to look nice for cameras. They are there to contribute just as any other partner would, and that's huge progress from what occurred back in 1999 when the youth were nowhere to be seen."
YIP operates in two settings: on the west side in Detroit's Hope Village area on the east side out of Osborn High School. Students in the program participate in four sessions that focus on peer-to-peer learning and development. Once they have completed the sessions, they have the option to move on to YIP's leadership institute, where their focus shifts to connecting with community leaders and organizations.
"Once they leave there, they take off and become strong advocates for change. They are there not just to rock the boat and make noise; they are there to form partnerships with organizations that make a difference in making their community a safer, more viable place."
One such organization is the Osborn Neighborhood Alliance
, which acts as an all-around resource for youth in its community with a specific focus on engaging black boys.
"We act as this connector to resources," says Quincy Jones, ONA's executive director. Those resources include college readiness tutoring, volunteer opportunities like blight cleanup, and other youth-led neighborhood development projects. "My biggest role is to show that there is capacity on the ground in the community. If you give kids the resources and access to resources, then they will thrive."
Last month, Jones took a group of 17 kids to Malawi to help build foundations for schools, an experience he says was "eye-opening" and expanded the kids' sense of what is possible.
Working towards equitable outcomes for youth
Another community-based organization working to reclaim the story of its neighborhood is the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation
in Southwest Detroit. Founded in 1997 by executive director Angela G. Reyes, the DHDC uses community-based participatory research to examine issues of racial equity and social determinants. The group also offers services including training parents as mentors, and adult education, and summer programs and tutoring for youth.
"One young man said, 'Before coming here, I never realized you could wear a suit for something other than a funeral or court,'" remembers Reyes.
The DHDC receives students from all over the city, but their target area, says Reyes, is the surrounding Southwest community.
She says DHDC is designed to meet people where they are while helping to expand their horizons. "[We're] helping them become aware of first themselves and building their own personal strengths and abilities, and then exposing them to different issues and resources in the community. They learn about different cultures, they learn about issues that impact their community, and do some critical analysis on some issues."
Last summer, DHDC was part of a cohort of more than 25 local nonprofit organizations that participated in the first annual Detroit Equity Action Lab
at Wayne State University Law School's Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights. While initiatives like NSO's YIP and DHDC work to empower at-risk youth and targeted populations directly, the Equity Action Lab focuses on empowering those and similar organizations so that they may better serve their communities.
"The understanding is that the issues affecting Detroit -- and when I think about Detroit, I think about the entire region, not just the city -- are incredibly complicated, but they are intertwined inescapably with notions of structural racism," explains Peter Hammer, a professor at Wayne State University Law School and the director of the Equity Action Lab. "So the overarching methodology that we use in the Equity Lab is to both teach and analyze issues affecting the city of Detroit from the methodology of structural racism."
The Action Lab targets two areas under this methodology, Hammer explains. "One is capacity building. So we have cohorts of some 25 organizations a year that come in, all doing different aspects of racial equity, and we try to go through nine months of training on different skills that should be taught and approaches to how to do racial equity work better. The second moving part is [asking], how do we produce new knowledge, new understanding, and new analysis that shed light on to the nature of these complicated problems?"
Hammer believes that Detroit's at-risk youth are wrapped up in a complex constellation of variables.
"You've got to think about the failure of the school system," he says. "And you have to think of the lack of jobs and opportunities. Therefore, what are the incomes within these households where these boys and girls are being raised? You've got to think about the criminal injustice system that from the day that they are born targets them as a potential criminal, not as a welcomed citizen of this country."
Hammer explains that although the Action Lab focuses on helping local organizations do better work, youth are very much a part of its mission. "This notion of thinking about youth and figuring out where youth fit into the strategy of racial equity and then assisting our partners in their work is very much a part of what we view our mission as."
The hope is that participants take what they have learned at the Action Lab back to their organizations to create a trickledown effect.
"Each one stimulates the organization to do better work," says Hammer. "It's important that they go back to their organizations, who are real leaders in this movement, and empower them to be more effective and to develop their own leadership."
Restorative practices in the school curriculum
In Detroit, one school stands out for its leadership development program for young men of color. Founded in 2009, the Henry Ford Academy School for Creative Studies focuses on promoting creativity and innovation when it comes to learning, but it is also one of several Detroit-area schools operating under the restorative practices philosophy—an approach to addressing students' behavioral issues by building relationships.
"The goal is to have a restorative conference between the individuals to figure out where the root of the problem is," says Joseph Hines II, a restorative justice specialist and dean of students at Henry Ford Academy's middle school. He explains that restorative conferences are meant to help eliminate punitive measures like suspension. "The statistics show that suspension is a one-line that leads Black youth to prison. So to eliminate that, we've become a restorative school."
The restorative practice philosophy is not only a tool to amend conflict, but it is also a tool in problem solving that students can take to their neighborhoods.
"Our main focus is pushing students to be creative and innovative to push themselves to be revolutionary thinkers, rising to the occasion. And I think the combination of a rigorous curriculum, a focus on art and design, and then doing design thinking pushes students -- black men -- to be very creative, very innovative to their approach. So as we are preparing young black men for leadership, I just think that it's essential."
Hines explains that if schools and organizations start to ingrain the concept of leadership into their students, leadership will no longer be the exception, but the norm.
"So our thinking is that we have to start at our most fundamental level," he says. "And it's going to take time, but the goal is as we continue to loop ourselves in the Detroit community as a top tier art and design school, you will see the fruits of our labor."
And so will Detroit.
This story is part of a series of solutions-focused features and profiles about the programs and people that are positively impacting the lives of Michigan kids. The series is produced by Michigan Nightlight and is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Emell Derra Adolphus is a Detroit-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter @EmellDerraAdolf.
All photos by J Singleton Photo.