Protests, activism, and community service: Students at Detroit's Western International take a stand

When students of Western International High School in southwest Detroit set out to create a mural in their school for beautification and inspiration, they hadn't actually realized how many cultures make up their peer group. The final product, with its diverse representation and landmarks, inspired them more than they anticipated. 

"Unity Mural" includes various places of worship, like Latin-American temples and sacred Muslim sites, as well as seminal historical figures from different backgrounds, like Cesar Chavez, Malala Yousafzai, and Detroit's own Grace Lee Boggs, to name a few. 

The mural's creation was coordinated by the school's VIBE Dream Team, a group of over 50 students brought together by The Future Project, a national organization that works to inspire through student-led projects, and guided by celebrated Detroit poet jessica Care moore

It took the students several months to create the mural, pitching in after-school and working with Detroit artist Sabrina Nelson. Nelson explains that the students wanted to show that artists don't just make "pretty things," but are "visual problem solvers." She says a lot of research went into the artwork, and that it brought students of different ethnicities and backgrounds together. 

"When you are standing next to somebody who is holding a paintbrush, just like you are, you find there’s more in common than not," she says. "It's a collective. If we can paint together, we can live together."

The students are quick to point out that while immigration debates and racial divides are causing rifts across the United States, the friction within their cohort is minimal. "People try to talk to each other, even if they’re different," says Dayana Juarez, 17. "Even if our backgrounds are different, we still try to talk to each other, and try to connect.

"It should be a model for the rest of the country," Johnson adds.

As nation-defining events and debates consume our country, students at Western International don't believe in sitting back and watching the world go by. With a serious drive for activism in their communities, teenagers at the school are leading and participating in campaigns to raise awareness of social issues, from racial divisions to Flint's water crisis to gun violence.

Students at Western International with mentors Sabrina Nelson (left) and jessica Care moore (second from right)

Part of the "Unity Mural"

Donell Johnson, 17, joined the Dream Team group because he saw it giving a voice to people of color. "They showed me that people of all cultures could come together and deal with each other inside the inner cities," he says. 

For Juarez, the project gave her confidence to express her beliefs. She recently earned a full scholarship to study fine art at the College for Creative Studies, and says she's proud that the first mural at her school portrays diversity. "It shows the structures that unite us all."

The Unity Mural isn’t the only imagery the students have designed. A second painting displaying the 16 different athletic teams at the school is underway and targets a much larger student group. Using athletes' silhouettes, the sports mural aims to involve students outside the school's art community to generate a feeling of solidarity within the wider student body.

The students point out that their activism can be a potent tool as an example to other youth. "I think that it shows that youth still have a voice," Jose Nava, 17, says. "That they are powerful in numbers."

Juarez agrees, suggesting that they are the future and should be playing an active role in social change. "I think it's amazing that we are doing something now, and we're thinking of what we want," she says.

This attitude was what led fellow students Alondra Alvarez, 18, and Darryl Ervin, 17, to stage a walk-out against gun violence on March 14 this year. As part of a national campaign launched by Women's March Youth EMPOWER, approximately 900 students left the campus at 10 a.m. in response to recent school shootings.

Alvarez, who received an award from the NAACP for her role in the walk-out, insists that protests should be inclusive of all cultures. She arranged for her school's demonstration to be a tri-lingual event (in English, Spanish, and Arabic) to emphasize how the issue affects all students.

Alondra Alvarez

And she thinks the movement is especially important here. "We normalize gun violence so much in Detroit," Alvarez explains. "It's just something you don't talk about, and I feel like you can never solve a problem if you're too scared to talk about it or you just don't even know it's a problem."

In Michigan, 36 percent of gun-related deaths between 2008 and 2013 were of youth between 15 and 24 years of age, and 51 children were injured or killed in 2016 due to gun violence. It's something Ervin says has to stop. "Even though there are not a lot of school shootings, we are all affected by guns," he says. "So it was good for us to come together."

Alvarez refuses to be part of a generation that puts up with gun violence. She says youth can make adults more cognizant. "It raises awareness because we're kids," Ervin adds. "No one expects us to organize something this big or have this much influence."

Tabitha St. Bernard-Jacobs leads Women's March Youth EMPOWER and says the students rallied a Detroit youth demographic that was otherwise feeling ignored in the national conversation. "During the walkouts, we saw seasoned youth activists and first-time activists alike coming together to unify their student bodies around the need for gun control," St. Bernard-Jacobs says.

As if impressive artwork and protests weren't enough, the students are part of several other initiatives. Some are involved with buildOn, where students join with other schools to empower urban youth through community service. Juarez, as part of a buildOn project, travelled to Malawi last year, an experience that opened her eyes to education issues around the world. "I still can’t believe I went," she says.

Johnson helped with a water drive in Flint organized through the black-empowerment organization New Era Detroit. He says being hands on is important in social activism. "Once you get down there you can see how the lack of water and leaded water affected the community."

Ervin is part of a mentorship program, called SLS Detroit, where students tutor at local elementary schools. "Our goal is to help prepare these kids," he says. "We want to encourage students to go to high school and go to university, to have that attitude."

Do the students plan to slow down anytime soon? Not a chance, says Alvarez. "Seeing someone like Darryl [Ervin], who sees an issue or a lack of resource and actually makes something out of it, is something I feel more people need to do."

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

Photos by Nick Hagen
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