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Fostering Youth Leadership in Urban Places

Originally appears in the Summer 2016 issue

In place-based education (PBE), youth have the opportunity to shape their realities and determine the course of their learning as they build their capacities as community leaders. Our team of Youth Ambassador students and teachers at the Detroit Institute of Technology (DIT) at Cody H.S., work together with staff from the Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition to build community and infuse place-based education into the school curriculum. Students are engaged in a number of leadership roles as they engage with the community to identify its needs. They help decide the direction of class projects, mentor new students, and co-facilitate stewardship activities with adults.

In this article we aim to share the ideas, tools, and processes that we’ve found useful. This article was written by both youth and adults as part of a year-long intergenerational dialogue on youth voices. In it we purposefully highlight when youth speak so that their voices ring loud and clear. We are continually inspired by the belief that youth have a lot to teach us and together we have a lot to learn. At DIT, students speak from a lived experience that many educators across North America do not have, but would be wise to better understand.

When you approach DIT, a public school on the city’s west side, you immediately notice the juxtaposition. The school’s eye-catching, hand painted murals adorn a wellloved school yard equipped with hand-made benches, a stage, and raised garden beds, are seen against the overall degradation of the building and abandoned houses of the surrounding area. The Cody Rouge neighborhood and DIT face serious social and ecological challenges. However, student leaders at DIT will tell you that they consider themselves to be typical high school students in all but one respect—they are working exceptionally hard for positive change in their community as part of a group called the Cody Youth Ambassadors (YAs).

We, the Cody Youth Ambassadors
We (Jonice, Aniya, and Kianna) describe the Cody Youth Ambassadors as a group of students who are looking for stability at school and a supportive group of friends. The youth who become ambassadors want to see a change not only in their own lives, but in the lives of the people they care about, as well as in their school community. The YAs are the voice of the students at the school, and for the greater community. To become a YA, you have to have good grades and receive three recommendations from your teachers. When people have a higher expectation for us, it makes us have a higher expectation for ourselves. For many YAs that is our favorite part of being an Ambassador. One of our roles as YAs is to lead other students in the school and community on the right path so that they can have something to look forward to in life. Being a part of the Ambassador program has taught all of us to become better leaders.

We (the YAs) describe “voice” in a different way than the adults did when we started working together. Much of the benefit we see from being a YA is from the friendships and peer support we experience through this program. This social support pushes us to open up and be open to growth. This is a powerful aspect of having voice. For us, school often seems pointless, but being a YA makes us want to show up. The program offers friendship, a safe space to form deep and caring relationships with each other, and time with teachers and other adults who care about us and can make things happen. These experiences give us “voice” and create an openness to grow into the people we want to be. A new, 9th grade YA recently told us that he joined because he had a “spark in his mind” about community change that was so strong he wanted to “shout out.” He said he was “lonely, had nothing else to do, and no one to listen.” When he saw the Ambassadors he only had one thought, “how do I get in?”

“Shouting out” often comes in the form of presentations where we share our work with others in the community and at Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition conferences and forums. We enjoy the presentations, but often feel our voice gets heard most in the conversations that follow. For example, I (Kianna) felt heard when two Eastern Michigan University professors and Coalition members came up to me after the annual Great Lakes Place-Based Education conference, and told me that we were famous. He said that they showcase the YAs’ work in their teacher preparation courses as examples of a powerful student group. I was really happy to know that my impact would last beyond the time that I was presenting. When I (Jonice) presented at the same conference, a new Coalition member came up to me after our presentation and told me that he was proud of me and that he saw himself in me. That really.stuck with me.

Although we have had many positive interactions with adults, one thing that really makes us angry is when adults give lip service to student voice. Students are told to speak up, but some adults don’t feel they should have to take the seat as a student and let the students step up to be teachers. Furthermore, as we develop power as leaders, we feel that some school staff don’t give us the respect we deserve.

Building on student strengths
The YAs (like many other urban youth) bring tremendous strengths to all aspects of authentic community engagement. Many of these attributes come from their willingness to be open, to trust their teacher (Chad Segrist) and the people he brings into the school, and a deep desire to be heard and to show their value. One could imagine that a child growing up in a tough neighborhood in Detroit may have a limited supply of trust, but the opposite is true here. YAs not only demonstrate trust, but can also tell when adults don’t trust them in turn. Their desire to be heard cannot be quenched through shallow attempts to include student voice, and they consistently push for more authentic opportunities.

One way to build on students’ strengths is to use the arts to help youth express their ideas. I (Lisa) worked with a small group of YAs on an “I Am” poem, designed to spark thinking on “youth voice” and represent this thinking to other youth (see box below). One of the things we did was to watch the Brave New Voices Poetry finals. Two poems representing the serious realities that youth in this country face brought us
to tears. The students shared how much they identified with lines of these poem “Shots Fired” and “Somewhere in America.” This led to serious questions about their own neighborhoods and how the value of life is different depending on where you live. It became clear in this engagement that urban youth find this connection to their lived experiences critical to the place-based educational process. This meaningful content inspires students to deeply connect to issues that impact them and their community.

Challenges and barriers
YAs present regionally on the work they do at and around the school, and this expectation has grown with their success. It has sometimes been difficult to deal with transportation and travel—getting to the places they are invited can be challenging and costly. These youth are still expected to give their best presentation despite the stressors of travel that students in affluent communities may not face. We once watched the students work until almost midnight to finish preparing their roles for the presentation after arriving at a conference late in the day. Although exhausted, they were patient and tolerant of one another in order to collaborate on their work.

These students love the experiences that comes with being YAs. However, they face barriers related to institutionalized poverty and racism that can make place-based learning challenging and exhausting. It is especially frustrating for the youth that many teachers, administrators, and policy makers don’t see these barriers or effectively help the students to overcome them. Urban place-based educators can build trust with youth and sustain their efforts when they name, discuss, and collectively address the barriers and stressors that students voice. These barriers have been identified in YA discussions:

• Social and environmental safety in the neighborhood creates stress every day as students get to and from school. Bus stops are not safe. Students walk past abandoned houses and worry about fights on their way to school. Youth their age who are not in school can be bad influences.
• The lack of a reliable public transportation system in Detroit is problematic.
• Students miss school or events because they have to take care of siblings.
• Parents work, are busy, and are sometimes unsupportive of students’ leadership work.
• Acquiring needed income from part-time jobs creates stress. Sometimes basic human needs like food, water and electricity are not met.

Teachers in urban schools involve students in activities that they hope will meet their needs. However, this can lead to communication issues where students see expectations as unclear or don’t know how to prioritize their involvement. For students, there can be such a thing as too many choices, too many events. Students will over commit themselves just to overcome the odds.

A place can be a teacher. And urban places can teach powerful lessons about power and community transformation. Working closely with the YAs makes it impossible for adult educators to ignore the need for a more engaging and relevant teaching pedagogy. This can make doing powerful place-based education emotionally intense work. The more powerful the PBE experience, the deeper one sees and understands issues of power, poverty, and race as well as possibilities for transformation. We have learned that place-based education gives everyone involved the freedom to be both teacher and learner no matter what age, label, or role they have. If you are an adult guide, trust the power of your place, trust the power of partnership, and most importantly trust the youth and let them be your teachers.


Reflections on community collaboration

By Chad Segrist

One of the ways that I set high expectations for students is to provide as many opportunities as I can for them to have meaningful interactions with adult community partners. Additionally, I coach them hundreds of times a day on the interpersonal skills that these situations require. I always ask myself: what are the micro-skills that students need to be successful in forming community partnerships? Of course these are life skills which can be carried on in college and in work. When youth interact with adults I ask:

• “Did you make eye contact?”
• “Did you shake their hand”
• “Did you introduce yourself?”
• “Did you thank them?”
• “Did you ask them how they are doing today?”

Teaching youth how to effectively regulate their emotions is also important. If they are in public, YAs have to step up and handle the situation. We have repeatedly seen change in withdrawn students who had a lot of anger because of the stresses they face.

Coordination of partners is crucial. Having lots of partners and volunteers can be harmful to place-based efforts if they are not coordinated and focused. At DIT, a Partnership Advisory Council provides a space for the YAs and their teachers to channel the energy of community partners in the right directions. These monthly meetings make it easier to transition partners into the school and use their skills, time, and resources in a focused way. Every meeting consists of an update about current projects, a YAs discussion on powerful learning experiences, and a report from partners on what they can contribute to student project goals. That every meeting follows the same format, and that a partner relieves the teacher from the job of organizing the meetings, are critical.

Student voice at the table. Student participation in Advisory Council meetings is powerful. Members appreciate that youth participate in the decision-making, and students take this responsibility seriously. The Advisory Council has brought a powerful human element and made partnerships more purposeful and invigorating! Meetings allow for critical conversations to happen regularly, openly, and with representation from the students who are most affected by the outcome of these partnerships.

A matter of survival. The Youth Ambassador program is not only about giving youth access to adult interactions, it’s about getting resources to create and support projects that make the community a better place. Place-based educators in many urban schools often start with few resources, have to raise many funds, and because they are often short staffed, have to involve lots of volunteers. In this respect, place-based education and the role it plays in engaging the community is about survival. It also creates a circle of support that can help students get a quality education and transform their community into a healthy and safe place.

Lesson learned. Don’t hesitate to get started—jump in, and work through the mess—it doesn’t have to be refined to begin! Find people who are willing to work with you, embrace the relationships and lean on them to be a part of the creation of placebased experiences at your school. Our first Re-Creation Day started just this way, with several partners wanting to revitalize the parks and the environment around the school after learning that these surroundings made students feel unsafe. As part of this day community gardens, artwork on abandoned buildings across the street, and an outdoor learning space with benches were installed with the help of students, teachers, community partners, parents and people from the community.

The Youth Ambassadors led the effort to get as many community members out to work that day as they could and will continue this tradition annually. The structure and function of the Advisory Council allowed other partners to join in on this effort in a quick and effective way. To see everyone come together to work for increased safety, beautification of the building, and care for the environment is really moving.


The Youth Ambassadors ‘I Am Poem’

Youth Ambassadors are leaders.
Youth Ambassadors wonder why it’s so hard to make a change?
We hear ‘sirens’ in our hallways…
We see barricades – they tell us yes, tell us no…
Youth Ambassadors want diversity, difference, innovation, transformation!
Youth Ambassadors are the student voice.
Youth Ambassadors pretend we can handle it all.
We feel youth should have a REAL voice!
Youth Ambassadors touch the hearts and minds of others.
We worry about not filling a role that you think we should…
We cry about the pressure and the lack of acknowledgement.
Youth Ambassadors are just like everybody else – we are human too.
Youth Ambassadors understand the importance of positive change.
Youth Ambassadors say we want to make a change/make a difference/
make a difference in others’ lives and that our voice can make a difference.
We dream of a world where youth voice is more valued and we are acknowledged.
We try to realize our part.
Youth Ambassadors hope we inspire and have great influence on other youth.
Youth Ambassadors are the future!


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Ethan Lowenstein is a Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Eastern Michigan University, and Director of the Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition (SEMIS). Rebecca Nielsen is the Programming Director for the SEMIS Coalition and owns and operates Nielsen Education Consulting, a professional development organization for teachers. A former K-12 Visual Arts teacher, Lisa Voelker is the Assistant Director for the SEMIS Coalition. Chad Segrist is the STEaM Coordinator and Lead Science Teacher at Cody DIT. Jonice Sylvester is a 12th grade student at Cody DIT with plans to enter the bioengineering field. Kianna Harris is an 11th grade student at Cody DIT with plans to enter the civil engineering field. Aniya Roundtree is an 11th grade student at Cody DIT. Find out more about the SEMIS Coalition and the work they do with students and teachers at