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Detroit youth transform their community, challenge others

Hakeem Weatherspoon, a Denby senior COURTESY PHOTO

Hakeem Weatherspoon, a Denby senior COURTESY PHOTO

By Sandra Turner-Handy
Special to the Michigan Citizen

Denby High School seniors have challenged the residents in their community to join the youth in cleaning up and redeveloping their district to have a high quality of life. In March, the students along with volunteers, cleaned up 16 blocks around the school, boarded up 11 vacant homes, and knocked on residents’ doors to advocating for them to join the Denby Alliance.

The DA was set up to create blocks clubs and bring information to the community around blight, environmental issues, urban gardening, vacant land, safety, and other issues plaguing the community.

The beginning of May found the high school seniors defending their capstone portfolios around Detroit Future City strategic framework. The young people highlighted the problems of their community and solutions. The group of more than 200 seniors researched areas of blight, poverty, hunger, unemployment and education among others.

Most of the students passed this graduation requirement and some passed with distinction. Distinction required proficiency in some areas including mastery of knowledge, application of knowledge, meta-cognition, presentation skills, and questions and answers.  From their presentations, it was obvious the students see themselves as part of the solution and are taking steps to, if not completely solve the problems, work toward that end.

The students complained to the city about a dangerous vacant and open two-story apartment directly across from the school. When the students returned from their weeklong break in April, the building was gone. The students now plan to redevelop that land into a living science garden with different plants and flowers that can be studied.

The students will work on the issues of poverty and hunger by developing 66 raised beds in their urban garden. They will then sell the produce to the community at a low cost, while reinvesting the money into their garden program. The students will learn a usable trade, handling finances, and entrepreneurship. Most importantly they will provide access to fresh fruits and vegetables to community members.

The students have taken on a legacy program to redevelop the unused six-acre Skinner playground next to the school. Skinner has been revisioned by the students as a community space.

The space will include a play area for the younger children, a sports area for the older children, a flower garden with benches for community residents, an arts and culture stage (with a storm water catchment roof for the gardens) for community events, an area for residents to grill, newly planted trees, recycling containers, and rain barrels. The students will assist in the building and planting involved in making their vision a reality.

On May 29, the students will be celebrated for taking the steps to do what many residents have yet to do, which is utilize the framework as an outline of what one can do in their community to raise the quality of life. T

he graduating seniors will each decorate bricks, which will be placed at the entrance to the Skinner play field. This bricklaying will begin the students’ “Pathway to Transformation.” The last brick will be laid by a member of the 11th grade to begin the work for the upcoming school year.

The greatest thing the students have accomplished is getting people to discuss the issues and to develop ideas of what would make their community better.

Civic engagement has been the students’ number one priority. That engagement began with the teachers and administrative staff at Denby wanting to not only teach the 3Rs, but create a community that would work with the students to bring about a positive change.

Bringing the residents together with the youth and using Denby High School as the community hub is the vision motivating the work the students have done up to this point. All the students ask is to be heard and taken seriously.

The challenge to get involved and engaged around concerns of the community has been issued to us adults as many of these high school seniors go off to their respective colleges and universities.

As a resident, I have taken on the challenge and will gather my strength from the positive energy put out by our young people as I work alongside them as they plant, build, and advocate for a brighter future in the city of Detroit.

Sandra Turner-Handy is the community outreach director for the Michigan Environmental Council and a member of the Detroit Food Policy Council.


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