By Jack Kresnak
Even as Michigan’s Children staff helped 40 young people find their voices that Sunday afternoon, a massive storm of sleet, freezing rain and heavy snow rolled up from the Ohio Valley threatening to shut down Detroit KidSpeak on February 21, President’s Day, 2011.
This KidSpeak – called A President’s Recipe for Success: Prioritizing Education – would come at a time when lawmakers in Lansing and in Washington are proposing severe cuts to education that lead to eliminating many vocational and alternative education programs, as well as high-quality pre-school programs. Our KidSpeak events help bring the voices of the people most directly affected by cuts to public schools, alternative education and early childhood learning programs – youths themselves.
Those voices needed to be heard now. But would these teens get the chance to speak up, and would there be anyone there to listen?
The storm began as the training session ended Sunday afternoon, complicating travel home for the youths and our staff. Eventually, it dumped a good 10 inches of snow on Detroit, making it nearly impossible for many people to get out of their driveways, much less find their way downtown to hear what young people say about how to improve education outcomes for urban school children.
We expected 37 adults for the listening panel – legislators, public leaders and policymakers had been confirmed. But when I got to the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center at 8:30 a.m. on President’s Day, I wondered how many of those adult volunteers – and how many of the 100 youths who told us they were coming – would actually get there.
As it went, we had a respectable listening panel of 15 adults, including former Supreme Court Justice Maura Corrigan who is now the new Michigan Department of Human Services Director, Skillman Foundation President Carol Goss, who also is a member of the Michigan’s Children Board of Directors, and Detroit City Council Members JoAnn Watson, Kenneth Cockrel, Jr., Saunteel Jenkins and James Tate.
And there were a dozen youths, including three young journalists from Michigan’s Children’s Our Life in the D project in Detroit, who had the determination to brave the storm and the courage to speak in a public forum about how to better educate urban youths.
“I believe what you guys need to change is this weather,” began 18-year-old Abraham Aiyosh, of Hamtramck High School and the Generation of Promise project. Everyone laughed, and Aiyosh went on to share his thoughts on how to help young people succeed in school.
“Build on the student’s natural drive to learn and (rely) less on artificial goals like Grade Point Averages and standardized tests,” Aiyosh said. “The students need to be prepared for the real world. The real world isn’t a multiple-choice test. People, events, places, interactions – all these come together to form what we call experience. Through our choices, our experiences come to life. … I don’t believe I’ve been equipped with the right experiences to make all those important real world choices that you guys make.”
Kinita McDaniel, a 20-year-old mother of two children, was passionate about the need for schools and others to help students with babies.
“My problem is helping us, helping the young girls like me who have been through a lot stay in school and stay focused; I graduated, but it was not easy,” said McDaniel. She cried as she described the sexual abuse she endured by a step-father who is now in prison.
“I just appreciate you guys being here,” McDaniel told the Listening Panel as she wiped away her tears. “We need more resources for teen parents.”
Richa Jordan, a 17-year-old Osborn High School student, offered a list of changes she’d like to see, including what is available to students to eat.
“Lunch should be buffet style. We should have a variety of foods to choose from. We need to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables so we can all be healthy,” Richa said.
When she finished, Goss asked Richa, “Do you feel safe and secure in your high school and your community?”
“Do I feel safe? No,” Richa said. “I cannot walk alone on any street.”
China Johnson, a 17-year-old Detroiter who attends Taft Education Center in Ferndale and is a writer for the Our Life in the D project, told the listening panel: “The main reason kids drop out of school right now is the lack of support. Many get bullied because they’re gay or because they don’t have the right clothes or boots, or if you ain’t wearing Prada.”
Despite a lower-than-expected turnout, the energy and excitement at the Detroit KidSpeak was palpable. Members of the Detroit City Council suggested that Michigan’s Children arrange for several youths to talk to the entire Council at a special session to be scheduled later.
This successful KidSpeak was made possible by the collaborative work of Michigan’s Children, the University of Michigan School of Social Work’s youth and Community Program, and the Detroit Parent Network.
Special thanks for this successful KidSpeak event go to the Skillman and Kresge Foundations, and the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. We also are grateful to City Councilwoman JoAnn Watson for hosting the event and for being a longtime supporter of Michigan’s Children