Building a Better Detroit Through Youth Engagement

Nyasia Valdez, a Southwest Detroit resident, is pictured at TAP (The Alley Project), where she is social media and program manager. Her responsibility includes maintaining a creative and welcoming environment for neighborhood residents and visitors

Three years ago, Nyasia Valdez was a typical teenager just "hanging out with the people on my block."

Today, the 19-year-old keeps a calendar nearly as busy as a person twice her age. By choice, and with support from caring adults in her community, she has become one of Southwest Detroit's brightest young leaders.

Through volunteer work with One Michigan, Young Nation, Detroit Future City and the Congress of Communities Youth Council Valdez is routinely out raising awareness and promoting citizen involvement on issues such as immigration reform, neighborhood safety and cleanup campaigns, and peer counseling. Her passion for community organizing began as a member of the youth council and it's led to an array of unexpected opportunities including a 20-hour-a-week job as manager of The Alley Project, Southwest Detroit's award-winning outdoor art installation.

"Through Congress of Communities, I've seen how important it is for people who don't usually get a seat at the table to feel like they can be involved."

"It's crazy when I think about all of the things I’ve been able to get involved with in the community because of Skillman supporting the youth council and being in Southwest Detroit," she says. "When you go to the meetings and you hear the conversations and you see everything that's going on, it's kind of a push to do something. It's real motivating."

Maria Salinas, executive director of Congress of Communities, points to increased engagement among youth like Valdez as a key indicator that Skillman's investments are transforming life in Southwest Detroit. In fact, Valdez was instrumental in getting her mother involved. Together, they now serve as Congress of Communities board members.

"We have more kids involved now than we've ever had," Salinas says. "Kids want to go through the process of being selected for the youth council because they see the opportunities, a chance to learn about leadership, a whole year of activities and going beyond Southwest Detroit."

Salinas says she hopes the Duggan administration will work more closely with the Congress of Communities and other groups to create more resources for the estimated 18,000 youth who call Southwest Detroit home. "Since Skillman started with the Good Neighborhoods Initiative, a lot has changed. But in the safe spaces that we've set up to hear from youth, they still tell us there's not enough things to do after school," Salinas says. "There's no skating rink, no bowling alley, and not enough jobs."

The next Detroit, Salinas says, must deliver more opportunities to youth. "It’s not enough that adults are coming to us feeling more hopeful. The youth have to feel there’s a future, too."

Valdez, for one, is preparing to help lead the way. Currently, she's taking classes at Henry Ford Community College, but she intends to enroll at the University of Detroit Mercy to pursue a master's degree in community development.

"Through Congress of Communities, I've seen how important it is for people who don't usually get a seat at the table to feel like they can be involved," she says. "Hopefully, when I'm done, I can inspire a few young people to find a passion in the community the way that I've found mine. We have to keep it going for the next generation."

Beyond Skillman

Adriana Rivera, 8, Esperanza Berres, 8, Jessica Rivera, 6, and Ahtziri Escoto, 7, make a watercolor about fire safety with Anne Latarte (not pictured) of Lighthouse Academy at Chadsey Condon Community Organization’s annual meeting in 2013

Our work in Detroit neighborhoods in support of kids is buoyed and made stronger by the work of other likeminded funders. Here are four:

The Kresge Foundation: One of the biggest Foundations in the world is right in Detroit's backyard. The Kresge Foundation has always called Metro Detroit home and continues to make an enormous impact on the city, including in late 2014 an announcement of $20 million to support early childhood education in Detroit.

W. K. Kellogg Foundation's Community Leadership Network: The WKKF Community Leadership Network Fellowship targets individuals who can be transformative social change agents in their communities so that vulnerable children and their families can achieve optimal health and well-being, academic achievement, and financial security.

Knight Arts Challenge Detroit: This is a $9-million initiative to draw the best and most innovative ideas out of local organizations and individuals seeking to engage and enrich the community through the arts.

Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation: The mission of the Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation is to enrich humanity by strengthening and empowering children and families in need. The Foundation invests heavily in the Brightmoor community.

Jose Flores, 11, and Fabian Rodriguez, 10, battle for the ball during team Arsenal’s practice session at Clark Park. Clark Park’s summer program includes gardening, nutrition, art, writing, computer skills as well as sports.

Not In It Alone

How another funder's work amplifies our own

A quick chat with David Egner, president and CEO of the Hudson-Webber Foundation, and Jim Boyle, senior program officer at New Economy Initiative, about NEIdeas. NEIdeas is a program of NEI, of which The Skillman Foundation was an early investor.

What is NEideas?

JB: NEIdeas is a challenge to existing small businesses in the cities of Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park and asks one simple question: "What are your best ideas for growth?" Though the challenge, we are giving away a half a million dollars to the best ideas for businesses that are three years or older. On the backside, it is really a strategy to connect a more diverse and broader audience to the resources that NEI has been funding over the past several years.

Anything surprising or noteworthy about the applications you've received?

DE: Our outreach was extensive and multilingual - including door hangers, ethnic publications, community meetings and even popping into local businesses like barber shops. As a result, we were pleased to see the geographic distribution reflected the representation we were hoping for. For example, of our first 30 winners, 4 were over 50 years of age. One would think older business owners might have an engrained way of doing business, but not so with our applicants.

JB: Also, about 73 percent were minority-owned, and about 60 percent were owned by women.

Can you talk about the neighborhood component of your work?

DE: I have to start by saying that with this work, it is important for us to remember that committed neighborhood members have been anchoring their communities for years. We really want these people in the neighborhood to see themselves in this ecosystem. The contest was a great way to create a disruption, and through our awards, we have learned the importance of recognizing existing business so that they can say "I'm here and I matter." Several people have approached me after the awards to tell me that they came away with a list of long-standing local businesses that they planned to support in the future.

I think Skillman's work in the last few years has really made a lot of this possible. It's the trust building, the increased capacity, and the way they've been able to change the dialogue. We are grateful for the opportunity to build on that work and help layer in the for-profit side.

How has your thinking evolved over time?

DE: NEI really had to start with a focus on the technical assistance providers because the system of support was so fragmented and was not really servicing entrepreneurs in an efficient or effective manner. Once we started seeing progress and improved service, we were able to shift our attention. There was a misconception that we were focusing exclusively on start-ups and were not paying attention to businesses that had been up. We want to culturally shift the focuses to all businesses and not just start-ups.

JB: In reality, we've been supporting neighborhood work for years, but we wanted, really wanted, to ramp up the pipeline for the underserved communities for these services now that the ecosystem is built up and working more as a network. It was about adding more emphasis over time to this component.

DE: Now our challenge is to start doing a better job of telling our story in a way that connect the grassroots to highgrowth companies. We are working to help people to understand why all businesses in the city matter.

Crafting the Next Detroit: Youth essays, poems and art

We asked young Detroiters if they are optimistic about Detroit's future and why. We asked them to submit their answers in the form of an essay or poem. On pages 19, 20, and 23 you can read responses from young Detroit writers. The artwork on these pages is produced by young Detroit artists through the College for Creative Studies Neighborhood Arts Programs, a Foundation-supported project run by Mikel Bresee.

In November, the artists came to the Foundation's downtown office for an awards program and celebration. To see more of the artwork, visit our office at 100 Talon Centre, Suite 100, in Detroit.

Poems & Essays

Detroit's Future
By Da'Ja Smith (Detroit Collegiate Prep)

I call Detroit "D" town
Where people dream of singing a Berry Gordy Hitsville sound
Because Detroit future is a twinkling beautiful sight
We, the young adults, must prove ourselves with a good fight
The rich people are waiting on their opportunity to come back
And run the city that is a fact
But I am optimistic about Detroit's future as one can see
That is why as a young Detroiter I'm going to work hard as I can be
I imagine this city in five to ten years
Where people no longer live with fears
Fears of the city siren sounds
All of this will be changed around
We, the young adult, are gaining our Detroit Constitutional Rights
Therefore, the future years of Detroit are shiny and bright
From the DIA with its inspirational art
To entertaining at Ford Field and Comerica Park
Let's not forget the exclusive Wayne State College
And right around the corner Detroit Medical Center with all the best doctors and knowledge
As a young adult, I believe in the future of Detroit and our people
I believe that Detroit will continue to blossom like a spring flower with its sepal

I Believe in Detroit
By Nichole Degree (Denby High School)

Yes, I believe there is a brighter future for Detroit, and it will be a team effort. Hands working together. Brains collaborating. Justice being served. Parents giving discipline. Kids appreciating education. Teachers pushing for success. Leaders listening to the voices of residents. Police doing their job the right way. Most of all, Detroiters treating each other with dignity and respect. Pastors spreading the word. Churches opening the doors to anyone. Judges having a heart. Babies getting the chance to grow up. Brothers coming together to encourage one another. I will do my part to bring Detroit back, but I cannot do it alone. Who is with me? In the next five years, I see a line of improvement starting with the outline and structures of neighborhoods. Clean streets. Abandoned houses turned into homes. People will not be standing on the corner selling drugs, but on the corner promoting the next City Council meeting. Local liquor stores won’t be the hangout stop - the local recreation center will be. It will not be perfect in the next five years, but you will notice the change for greater is coming. Moreover, Detroit will be a more suitable city in which to live. In the next 10 years, we will be up and running like a GM or Chrysler car right off the assembly line. The Motor City will be back up and ready to open up to anyone who wants to visit. They will come and say WOW!

Optimism Reigns
By Larnye Greene II (Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies)

When it comes to Detroit, there is not a better place to be. From the residential streets to the downtown city, this is the place that feels like home. Some people may look at Detroit as a bad, rundown city, but in reality, it is a very beautiful place. Each day, improvements are made to better the lives of Detroiters. More resources are being added to entertain and benefit the citizens. There is a lot in store for Detroit that people have yet to see. I am optimistic about Detroit's future.
A lot of times, people tend to look only at the big picture and not pay attention to the small details. Detroit is a big project that many people are working on. So many things are being done to turn Detroit into a better place. For instance, currently, the M-1 Rail Streetcar Project is going on. The M-1 Rail Streetcar stretches 3.3 miles down Woodward in the downtown area. This will be a benefit to those who use public transportation because there will soon be a new way to get around town. Along with the streetcar project, Wayne State University, one of the leading medical schools in the country, is adding a new stem cells research facility. Over the summer, all kinds of camps and organizations are open. I went to a camp called Wayne State University Math Corps. Not only did we learn math, but we learned how to form a bond with younger students. We taught and mentored them as well to help bring out their greatness. The Detroit RiverWalk is a place of interest and entertainment for Detroit citizens. On the RiverWalk, people are free to play volleyball, walk along the trail, enjoy concessions, relax in comfortable chairs while watching the water, and much more. New stadiums are being built as well for our sports fans.
To further illustrate the point, 5 and 10 years from now, Detroit may be better than ever. Abandoned homes are being torn down and new ones are being built. With the help of reconstruction, residential areas will begin to look more pleasing. In like manner, with all the new technology we are getting, it may benefit us with certain tasks that may include computer work, machinery, school-related concepts, etc. Additionally, our environment is getting better because more companies are going green to reduce their carbon footprint. They are becoming eco-friendly by recycling things in their workspace. New businesses and companies are being produced as well. This means that more people will be able to get jobs and the unemployment rate will decrease.
Anticipating the improvements in Detroit, it will be a better place for the next generation of young people. No one wants to live in an environment where they don't feel safe. As citizens of Detroit, it should be our responsibility to help make the city a safer place for the youth. Kids shouldn't be dying because they have been shot in a cross fire. They should be able to play outside and not have to worry about losing their lives. I would like to see more change than what is happening now all around Detroit. I am optimistic about Detroit's future.