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K-12 Education

Teach For America alums learn with youth by co-creating enrichment programs

The Skillman Foundation is honored to support Teach For America Detroit. Over the years, it has served as an important racially diverse educator pipeline and leadership development engine for the education ecosystem in Detroit. TFA’s network remains a strongly positioned force to achieve the system-level change in education that our Detroit students deserve.

Teach For America Detroit (TFA Detroit) alums are teaming up with Metro Detroit students to co-create educational experiences that foster inclusivity, build confidence, advance trauma healing, and evoke creative expression by centering students’ voices and offering leadership development opportunities.

Students throughout southeast Michigan are catalyzing movements that seek to recognize the humanity of their peers while promoting diversity and inclusion in decision-making. Members across TFA Detroit’s alumni network are using their platforms and expertise to amplify the voices of young leaders through organizations and programs like Strategic Community Partners, Black and Brown Theatre, Detroit Heals Detroit, the UPrep Gay-Straight Alliance Club, and the Cass Tech Muslim Student Alliance.

“Across Michigan, members of our network are exploring opportunities to empower students as creators, and not just consumers, of their educational experiences,” said Armen Hratchian, TFA Detroit executive director. “Youth are the most directly impacted by education policy and implementation but aren’t typically brought to the table as stakeholders. TFA Detroit is working to inspire and develop systems-change leaders at all levels of Michigan education, as well as the next generation of rising leaders—our students.”

Since its inception in 1989, Teach For America has recruited and developed over 66,000 educators across the country. More than 800 TFA alumni live in communities across Michigan. Of that, nearly 80% continue to work in the education sector and advocate for elevating student perspectives.

Strategic Community Partners Youth Advisory Council

TFA Detroit alumni-led initiatives are answering the call for high-impact, youth co-designed programs that bolster students’ convening power and offer leadership development workshops, socio-emotional reconciliation best practices, and financial compensation.

Photo: Strategic Community Partners

“We have brilliant, passionate, and powerful young people who are making a difference and want to make a difference—and deserve to be heard,” said Dr. Chanel Hampton, founder and CEO of Strategic Community Partners and Teach For America alum. “Our Youth Advisory Council is our latest commitment and evolution of lifting up youth. Not only are we lifting them up, but we are compensating them, ensuring the village is pouring into them, and further formalizing their seat at the table.”

The Strategic Community Partners’ Youth Advisory Council was created in 2021 to support a multi-faceted group of young leaders through hands-on development opportunities and service to their community. The council represents youth and young adults from Wayne and Oakland county.

“It’s important that youth have a seat at the table because some kids don’t have the opportunity to have their voices heard in their schools,” said Armani Smith, Youth Advisory Council member and senior at Southeastern High School. “Youth may not always like the decisions that adults make for them so they need to be a part of the decision-making process.”

Black and Brown Theatre

At Black and Brown Theatre, a nonprofit that creates opportunities for theatre artists of color in Michigan, the launch of the Our Voices Theatre Festival gives students an opportunity to bring their stories to life. Through the afterschool program, students can write and direct a play for adults to perform, write and direct a commercial for a local business, or act in a play.

Photo: Black and Brown Theatre

“We have an opportunity to make youth and adult co-creation the norm and ensure that educational experiences center students’ choices, interests, and identities,” said Emilio Rodriguez, co-founder of Black and Brown Theatre and Teach For America alum. “In the Our Voices program—instead of adults writing and directing while kids act—the students get to do the writing and directing by telling the adults what to say and how to say it.”

Currently serving youth in Romulus, Ypsilanti, and Westland, the organization’s afterschool programs showcase student creativity to thousands of online viewers and help youth build confidence in themselves and their voices.

“I like that we can write our own story so we can be whoever we want to be,” said Our Voices program participant and Halecreek Elementary School student. “I don’t like copying what’s already out there. I want to make my own story.”

Detroit Heals Detroit

Photo: Detroit Heals Detroit

Acknowledging and advancing healing for traumatic experiences faced by young people are equally as important as building leadership skills because exposure to trauma can impact cognitive development and academic outcomes for students. Detroit Heals Detroit, a youth-led nonprofit organization, uses healing-centered engagement to transform pain into power.

“As a teacher, I’ve learned a great deal from my students because they are teachers as well,” said Sirrita Darby, Founder, Detroit Heals Detroit and Teach For America alumni. “They’re actually the best teachers I’ve ever had. We need to be listening to them and amplifying their voice and power. We need to use their insights and factor in their learning styles to truly prepare them for success.”

UPrep High School Gay-Straight Alliance

Fostering ideation and recognizing the invaluable insight young people have to offer promotes inclusivity and belonging while bridging the opportunity gap for future leaders.

For example, UPrep High School junior Perrion Summers reconstituted the Gay-Straight Alliance Club to offer students and staff an opportunity to learn more about the LGBTQ community and work toward becoming a more accepting student body with more accommodating school leaders.

“In my AP psychology class, I had to conduct an acceptance survey, so I decided to poll my peers about their sexual identities—looking to gauge who felt accepted as themselves,” said Perrion Summers. “As I suspected, students from the LGBTQ community felt significantly less accepted than heterosexual students. It brought me to tears to hear how intolerant some students were of LGBTQ experiences when I engaged them about the survey. Something needed to be done to build understanding. And that’s the origin story of the Gay-Straight Alliance Club.”

According to Summers, she received overwhelming support from her peers who’ve felt ostracized due to their sexual identities, as well as strong encouragement from school leaders like Jerry Lawrence, dean of culture at UPrep High School and TFA Detroit Leads fellow.

“Maintaining a safe environment for students to build community, challenge one another’s perspectives, and problem solve is most important to me,” said Lawrence. “Instead of prescribing solutions, I work to cultivate the conditions for students to develop as leaders through peer-to-peer engagement. We’re at our best when our school is positioning students to create the change suited for them.”

Cass Tech High School Muslim Student Association

Inaugural Detroit Alumni Educator fellow Meenakshi Mukherjee worked in close collaboration with then Cass Technical High School student Mohammad Muntakim and 482 Forward to urge the Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) to commemorate the Muslim holiday of Eid. After two years of advocacy, the 2021-22 academic school year is the first time Eid will be celebrated in the district’s history.

Photo: Cass Tech Muslim Student Association

“In our classrooms, we are taught to utilize our abilities to impact our communities,” said Mohammad Muntakim, a freshman at Wayne State University, intern at 482 Forward, and member of The Skillman Foundation’s President’s Youth Council. “We are also taught to value diversity and to respect those with beliefs that differ from our own. That’s why I decided to use my voice to advocate for the district-wide observation of Eid. I am grateful for the efforts the school has made to accommodate us.”

Lead by Muntakim, the Muslim Student Association held virtual town hall meetings that featured state and local legislators, teacher unions, and nonprofit organizations with the goal of encouraging conversations through panel discussions and intergroup dialogues.

“As adults, we aren’t generating enough spaces for students to drive change around what they’re most passionate about,” said Meenakshi Mukherjee, Leadership Development and Internal Organizing Coordinator, AFT Michigan. “Although I helped to develop high-level strategies, I took a hands-off approach in regard to executing the campaign for observing Eid, which made room for Mohammad and the Muslim Student Association to flourish as servant leaders.”

TFA’s alumni network is reimagining learning opportunities for tens of thousands of young people across Metro Detroit. Their leadership is a critical lever for systems change, and we have seen what is possible in communities where there is a high-density of our alumni working across occupations and sectors to improve outcomes and opportunities for students.

Subscribe to TFA Detroit’s newsletter for up-to-date information on how its network is expanding opportunities for Michigan children.

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