Our Youth Council Directed $200k to These Detroit Nonprofits
Enabling Communities

The vision of youth will build the future

Photo by Robert Guzman

Sitting in the study lounge at Wayne State University with the skyline of Downtown Detroit in my background, I double-clicked the Zoom icon on my laptop to join our virtual listening session. Similarly, a diverse group of high schoolers took the time to join in from the comfort of their homes after a long day of school. Why? To lift their voices and share their ideas for not only a better educational system but also a more equitable home that we call Detroit.

Historically, the progress of this city has been on the shoulders of young Detroiters—reimagining the future to make it easier on the next generations to come. That very ideology was evident in this opportunity to co-host a listening session with Angelique last week, learning from young people across the city. These vibrant youth are focused on utilizing their personal encounters, tragedies, and successes to create a better system for the future. Their effort truly goes beyond impacting themselves. 

The vulnerable dialogue amongst the youth in that virtual room emphasized the significance of allowing young people to take charge and lead. Here are some takeaways of the themes and topics that sit close to their hearts: 

Youth Mental Health 

The need to adequately support resources for mental health in Black & Brown communities is essential. In the midst of a global pandemic and recent social injustices, along with other trauma, Black and Brown youth are currently struggling with their own personal mental health.The need to address this crisis is very important in order to attain progress and stability within our communities. 

As one young person describes, “During the pandemic, I started experiencing anxiety. My family did not believe in therapy. A lot of Black people do not believe in therapy and that it causes most of the problems in our community. I think if our parents and if we get therapy, it would solve a lot of the issues in our community.” 

To properly support young people across the city, we must support their mental well-being with compassionate protocols and effective resources. 

Equity in Education 

Disparities in educational resources and opportunities have been an issue in Detroit schools for a while. Due to disproportionate school funding and other unfair state policies, Detroit students have long suffered from a lack of proper educational resources and infrastructure in comparison to their suburban counterparts. Many of the youth emphasized the need for equity in the education system, ensuring Detroit students are not left behind. 

One of the youth emphasizes, “I’m fighting for education for Black and Brown schools. The public schools further out are amazing. They have vending [machines] in schools, qualified teachers, amazing resources, books. They have so many things that Black and Brown students don’t have. We have books that are torn up, our food sucks, and I find that unfair.” 

The youth across the city illuminate that we must dismantle the educational system that requires Detroit students to work twice as hard for the same opportunities as others. 

Immigration Justice 

Increasing access for Detroit’s immigrant communities is an integral part of the work many young people do. Detroit is home to a very diverse community. Ensuring that language accessibility and proper resources are available for immigrant communities is essential. 

As one youth explains, “I do a lot of work on immigration justice. I’ve been doing a lot of work with undocumented youth in the Hispanic community for a long time.” 

The genuine acceptance and accommodations for immigrant communities will drive the city forward. Young Detroiters are determined to ensure that happens. 

Homelessness in Detroit 

A heartbreaking issue that directly impacts the residents of our city is homelessness. The lack of adequate shelter for families and young people impacts not only their lifestyle but also their education. According to the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department, in 2021, there were 1,589 homeless individuals in the Detroit area, including 351 under age 18. The desire to combat this crisis is very personal to youth in the community.

One youth expressed specific concern for “child and male homelessness. It’s something I went through myself and it was a very hard process to get out of. Because when my dad went through it, there was really no help. There was only one shelter that he could go into. We had to stay with my mom. That was something really personal and something I want to work on.” 

Another youth shares, “Growing up in Detroit, rent, housing, water bills, and all these things were a problem. For us to be a poor city, a lot of the housing is expensive. My sister is a single mother and barely can afford housing because it’s so expensive. We’re fighting for rent and housing to be better.” 

Homelessness in Detroit has long been an issue and young people across the city aspire to tackle this crisis through their work. 

Invest in Youth 

The only way to create more equitable, just, and efficient systems in the place we refer to as home is through youth input. Providing a seat at the table for young people does not mean tokenizing and incentivizing their ideas and experiences simply to check a box. Rather it means genuinely considering and utilizing their thoughts to create fundamental changes within systems. That can only be done by actually taking the time to listen to them. And that was the very purpose of this session. 

Youth also feel that listening sessions are essential to youth empowerment. As one explains, “Keep doing listening sessions like this – they’re really helpful and empowering and it’s nice to meet other organizers in the area.” 

The Skillman Foundation strives to ensure that young people have an equal seat at the table of decision-making, and these listening sessions will continue in the future as youth have requested. 

Additionally, the progress of the city will only come through directly investing in youth. Funding youth programs, both academic and non-academic, to provide adequate resources and opportunities to allow young people to reach their full potential will aid the city to move forward. Investing in youth-led initiatives not only helps projects grow, but it also helps people grow.

One of the young people highlights the significance of demonstrating belief in youth, “It’s so hard for youth to find funding. This work is so amazing. And a lot of adults don’t have faith in youth. The bad thing would be not supporting us and not having faith in us. Knowing how to be an ally versus taking a leadership role in a space is really important. And not invalidating a group’s feeling – that can create a lot of setbacks when it comes to spaces like this.” 

It is not only important that we continue to fund youth initiatives but also have sincere faith in the leadership of young people. Detroit’s future will be changed by the young people of this city, and it is our responsibility to encourage and trust their leadership. 

Youth Need a Break

As one youth was sharing their story during the listening session, a beeping sound was noticeable in the background—a smoke detector indicating the need for a new battery. Angelique remarks how this acts as a metaphor. Young people are also indicating a need to recharge. But too often the call for rest is ignored. It is of paramount importance to recognize that youth feel burnt out. They deserve breaks. They need time to relax. The historical success of systematic changes in society has always been through the efforts of young people, so it is important to recognize and respect their hard work and allocate them time to recharge. 

A Future to Believe In 

For me, the takeaway from this listening session was that the youth have a vision for the future—not just a future, but a more just and equitable future for humanity. Utilizing their shared experiences to illuminate the need to combat crises that plague our hometown was sentimental. This session highlighted the leadership abilities that these young people possess and their genuine devotion to utilizing these attributes for the betterment of others—especially the future generations yet to come. That humbles me. It inspires me. And I hope it inspires you to contribute toward the betterment of society as well. 

This does not end with handing the keys to young people to lead us—that is only the beginning. Our responsibility is to help aid their work, support their dreams, honor their visions, and be allies in their efforts to create a better future. Detroit’s future is bright because young people are invested in shaping it. I’m humbled to be a part of that journey. 

Mohammad Muntakim

Mohammad Muntakim is a trustee of The Skillman Foundation and a President’s Youth Council alumnus.

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