Trades for Teens program offers skills training for youth
By Steve Furay
Special to the Michigan Citizen
Detroit’s east side is a high-risk area for teens. With few jobs and a failing education system, many east-side youth are exposed to the dangers of the streets. Trades for Teens is a new program giving young people from this area a new hope for their future.
Kwasi Akwamu is the founder of Trades for Teens, a project he says is motivated by a desire to give “at-risk” youth an opportunity to make a living for themselves in a community where crime is often seen as the easiest option to earn money.
“Our whole philosophy is picking up (trades),” says Akwamu, “as soon as you learn it, you can make some money doing it. That’s the key thing.”
Trades for Teens matches youth with professional mentors, giving them real-world training in skilled trades for an opportunity to earn a professional living with their hands. Trades and skills include plumbing, welding, graphic design and screen-printing, along with additional skills introduced by other professional mentors. “Each One Teach One” is a guiding philosophy.
“We’re going to be promoting that we’re teaching young brothers to do these things,” Akwamu says. “Instead of being afraid of them, help put some money in their pocket.
“It’s really getting everybody involved in this whole dynamic. The ones you’re afraid of, all you’ve got to do is show them some love.”
In May, Black Male Engagement (BMe), a national organization that offers grants through The Knight Foundation and the Open Society Foundation, awarded 15 grantees in Detroit $15,000 for their programs at a Leadership Awards ceremony, including Akwamu for his Trades for Teens program.
Akwamu is using the granted money to buy supplies and equipment necessary to teach these trades, as well as fixing up a local garage to be used as workstation. He is currently operating the program out of the basement of his house located near Connor and Gratiot, recruiting youth that live in this neighborhood.
He explains that he has no difficulties recruiting the proper amount of youth for Trades for Teens, having reached out to young men that have already dropped out of school and have few other opportunities to learn new skills. Roughly a dozen youth are currently involved in these early stages of the program.
“We’re trying to get guys that are already out in the streets,” says Akwamu. “We’re trying to get guys at the highest risk.”
Marco Garrison is one teen that has become involved after hearing about the program from word of mouth. He understands the program can help him learn valuable new skills to build a career.
Garrison says he will use the program to “try to learn something new, get off the streets. There’s too much murder going on in the D, just trying to take a different way out. Trying to be different from everybody.”
Sean Jones is a professional mentor with the program, who teaches youth about screen-printing for T-shirts and other products.
“Teach them something basic that they can do with their hands, and I feel they can survive,” says Jones. “But it’s on them to take it to another level. All we can do is show them and teach them.”
The program also offers the mentors themselves an opportunity to learn new skills with the different trade professional participating and sharing their knowledge. Jones says he is looking forward to learning welding alongside the teens.
“I’m still learning, I want to learn new things too,” says Jones. “I’m teaching them to do something, but I’m learning at the same time.”
Akwamu notes that many schools are working hard to improve their liberal arts curriculum for their students, but a lot of young people are better off learning trade skills for their future. He knows that it is best to have a balance, but his role is to offer these hands-on skills for those who need employment.
“They’ve got schools for kids who are already studying, I’m trying to figure out the ones who dropped out, the ones who are at a risk of dropping out, or those who really are in the most desperation,” says Akwamu. “And it’s easy to find them, all you’ve got to do is walk down the street. You can look at them, it’s all on their face, like ‘something’s got to give’. And something does has to give.”
Trades for Teens is designed to be an introductory program for learning these trade skills to allow the youth to take the next step towards their future career.
“My thing is at least get their feet wet, and let them take it to the next level,” says Akwamu. “That would make me proud, I would really feel I did good work if I saw somebody go onto a higher level of training.”
For information about supporting Trades for Teens, contact Kwasi Akwamu at 313.285.8450.