Detroit’s future from the mouths of babes: Young people discuss their neighborhoods at ‘Real Change, Real Talk’

Detroit’s future from the mouths of babes: Young people discuss their neighborhoods at ‘Real Change, Real Talk’
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For anyone who thinks Detroit’s young people don’t care, don’t understand real challenges, don’t appreciate the guidance of a caring grownup, aren’t filled with amazing wisdom, or don’t want to work and contribute – think again.

By Maggie DeSantis, founder, Building the Engine of Community Development in Detroit

As far as Building the Engine of Community Development in Detroit (BECDD) is concerned our young people deeply care about Detroit, understand its greatest challenges, want to be part of the solution and believe they can make a difference.

Therein lies the future of our city’s neighborhoods. If just half these young people stay and work for change, we are going to be OK in Detroit.

Thirty-five young people, ranging in ages 5 to 21 from Detroit neighborhoods to the north, south, east and west, converged on the Cadieux Café recently as part of BECDD’s “Real Change, Real Talk” series. They joined 21 adult leaders from philanthropy, community development organizations, corporations, academia and government to discuss these questions.

What does a youth-centered neighborhood look like and feel like?

How are the adults (police, teachers and principals) behaving? 

The discussion was different from the other BECDD conversations in two ways. First, at each of the other three discussions at least one adult spoke out for youth and expressed a need for youth voices and participation in community efforts.

‘Real Change, Real Talk’ gave youth the floor so that they could speak for themselves and the adults in the room stayed quiet until the end of the discussion.

The event gave youth the floor so that they could speak for themselves and the adults in the room stayed quiet until the end of the discussion, so they could listen and learn. By the time the night was over there were few dry, grownup eyes in the house.  The young peoples’ answers were frank, brutal, inspirational, scary and insightful.

Secondly, the discussion started when everyone in the room got a chance to describe their neighborhood in one word, holding signs so others could see. How is it possible that “neglected” and “empowering” could be the most used words?

For these young people both things are true – two opposite conditions happening at the same time, in the same places. These young people are true Detroiters – accustomed to horrific conditions, yet determined to make a change.

The details of the discussion are on record at the BECDD offices. Anyone who is interested can take a look. In the meantime, here is a summary of the recurring themes and responses to co-moderators Orlando Bailey’s and Donna Murray Brown’s question … What does a youth-centered neighborhood look and feel like?

  • “It would have more helping hands.”
  • “Adults would stop smoking and drinking and killing people.”
  • “There would be community groups in every neighborhood and the adults would be stepping aside and letting young people step up because we have ideas, too.”
  • “There would be trees and flowers everywhere and trash containers on the sidewalk.”
  • “There would be art so people can express themselves.”
  • “There would be bike lanes on every street.”
  • “There would be a lot of parks and recreation centers and more libraries.”
  • “It would be well-lit and there would be no more abandoned houses.”
  • “It would feel safe.”
  • “It would have places where you could go after school and get help with your homework.”
  • “The adults would be like your grandfather – not mean, and always looking out for you.”
  • “The police would respect us.”

Bailey asked the young people what community development means to them. Contrary to what we hear from many adult Detroit leaders – that community development is about new houses, shopping centers and investors coming to the neighborhood – these young people got to the heart of the matter.

  • “It would be a place where you could work your way to the top.”
  • “It would be a place where people would make decisions together.”
  • “It means showing people that they matter.”
  • “Community development is hope.”
The young people got to the heart of the matter when asked what community development means to them.

The discussion wound down with young people posing some questions to adults in the room.

“What’s your plan for making Detroit better?” asked a young woman from the Northend StoryTellers.

The room quieted down as the adults looked at each other. Finally, Maria Salinas of Congress of Communities spoke up. “We are committed to making spaces for youth to have a voice and for residents to have the power to bring back their neighborhoods” she says.

If we have any doubt about the future of our city, this is where we can keep hope alive.

By stepping back and letting young people step up.

By seeing them as our partners and listening to their wisdom.

By showing up for them as much as possible.

And, in the meantime, by being just like their grandpa – always looking out for them.

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