Despite ubiquitous messaging about social distancing, wearing masks, and washing hands frequently, some young people in Washtenaw County still aren't taking COVID-19 precautions seriously.
Young participants in one Ypsilanti-based nonprofit, Educate Youth, have been working to change that by creating videos aimed at their peers, concerning COVID-19 and other current topics that affect young people. To help reinforce safety messages about staying home and washing your hands, the group recently recorded a hip-hop video with help from Ypsilanti's Grove Studios, called "Stuck in the Crib."
The song was inspired in part by alarming local statistics about COVID-19 and young people. In mid-July, the Washtenaw County Health Department reported that the majority of new COVID-19 cases in the county are among those ages 15 to 25. Many, but not all, can be traced to a large house party in early July in the Saline area. The health department identified 43 cases and 66 exposed close contacts, not including family members in patients' immediate households, in that incident.
"You're supposed to be on lockdown, but you still have friends going out and doing stuff," says Mike Horn, a senior at Ypsilanti charter school WSC Academy and an Educate Youth participant. "It's hard, and makes you want to go out too."
"A lot of kids my age are going to parties with no masks," adds Reese Weatherspoon, a sophomore in the Ypsilanti Community Schools and Educate Youth participant.
Educate Youth founder Gail Wolkoff says she and the young people she serves set out to "make messaging for students, by students about staying safe." Wolkoff is a lifelong educator who began offering students after-school academic help in 2011 through a limited liability company called Dedicated to Make a Change, transforming it into the nonprofit Educate Youth in 2017. Youth meet after school at the nonprofit's headquarters, though its clubhouse went virtual via Zoom for about three months after Gov. Whitmer's "Stay Home, Stay Safe" order.
Wolkoff says several of the Educate Youth participants were already rapping together regularly. Participants Quincy Moore, Howard Williams, and Donovan Flemon met virtually several times, and Horn contributed some of the lyrics.
The song's chorus goes: "Stuck in the crib / Trying to go out / Mom says 'no' / I'm finna shout." It also encourages youth to "cough in your arm, not in your hands," and the video includes footage of a person using proper hand-washing technique.
Morgan Horgrow, a Huron High School sophomore and regular participant in Educate Youth, says she gets "frustrated" that her peers don't seem to understand that they aren't just putting their own lives at risk when they don't follow safety protocols.
"It concerns me a lot, knowing that I have older relatives in my family," she says. "They were used to going out and doing stuff on their own, and now they can't leave because they're at higher risk."
Some youth don't take COVID-19 precautions seriously because they don't know anyone who has had it, but that's not true for the students who come to the Educate Youth clubhouse. Moore, a 2020 high school graduate and regular at Educate Youth, says his best friend's mom was very ill with COVID-19. Horn says he knows someone who has it and is still feeling "really weak."
Williams is employed at Educate Youth as a mentor, but at age 23 he also relates to them as a peer. He encourages young people to find safer ways to beat boredom, like exercising outdoors.
"Find things you enjoy, [virtual] activities that involve friends in other places. Text, call, try to find alternatives, and stay positive," he says.
Lehanna Mayers, a ninth-grader at Washtenaw International High School and Middle Academy, says it's important for safety messages targeting youth to come from other young people.
"Teens don't like listening to adults," she says. "It's important that the message comes from friends, close family, and other people we look up to, whether that's celebrities or teachers."
Educate Youth participants made another video addressing gun violence, called "Together as One."
"That song came out of a shooting on the Southside [of Ypsilanti] on Jefferson," Wolfkoff says. "Several students either saw it or knew the people."
She says the students commented that they were on lockdown due to a pandemic that is disproportionately affecting brown and Black people, and then there was a shooting on top of that.
Wolkoff says the pandemic has "been really hard on students" but the strength of Educate Youth is that "we stay current with what the students need." If schools stick with a virtual option in the fall, Educate Youth participants should still be able to gather in groups of 10 for academic work and tutoring, she says.
"The bottom line is that kids need to be educated, and they still need to learn critical thinking skills," she says. "We talk every day about what's happening, what they hear, what's true and what's false, the science of COVID, and the decisions they have to make to be safe or not."
For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos courtesy of Educate Youth.