At age 16, MaKayla McKinney is learning about gentrification, the county prosecutor's role in local law enforcement, and how to promote Black businesses — concepts that even many adults have a hard time mastering. She's getting this education in civics through a social justice summer camp started by local artist Gina Danene Thompson and offered to participants in Ypsilanti-based nonprofit Mentor 2 Youth.
"We're learning how to deal with politics, collaborate with other groups, and we're learning about gentrification within the city of Ypsilanti," McKinney says. The youth have also started making a map to show "the landscape of Black-owned businesses" in Washtenaw County, she says.
The summer camp, a texting campaign to keep participants informed, and a program to empower parents of at-risk youth are just a few of the new initiatives at Mentor 2 Youth, whose focus is positively impacting the lives of disadvantaged youth in southeast Michigan.
Empowering through a Parent Village program
While Mentor 2 Youth has been providing academic support as well as social-emotional learning opportunities for young people for more than nine years, supporting participants' parents through a program called Parent Village is a newer initiative.
"With these elementary kids, I pour everything I have into them, but what if I send them back into a bad home situation?" says Darryl Johnson, Mentor 2 Youth's executive director.
He says he and his wife have been married 28 years and raised five kids, but he still thinks about how much he didn't know or what he could have done better as a parent. He says the nonprofit has adopted a values statement from the Search Institute that emphasizes expressing care, sharing power, challenging growth, providing support, and expanding possibilities, all values he wishes he'd modeled better for his own children.
He says teaching those values to Black families who have already experienced trauma is "revolutionary."
"You can't talk to parents about change and trying different approaches until you've first created a community of safety where those conversations can be had," Johnson says. "That's what the Parent Village is about."
Ypsilanti resident Kallista Walker is Mentor 2 Youth's Parent Village coordinator. She says touring her own children's school made her realize that "we need more Black representation for these little brown children to see."
"I'm seeing these young people starting out so early with so much anger and starting to compare themselves to others. They need positive representation," she says.
Walker notes that parents also need encouragement to speak up and to change the narrative that nobody cares or will listen to their concerns. She says that when parents don't have support for virtual distance learning, it increases the chances that children who are already at risk will fall even further behind.
Mentor 2 Youth has endeavored to address these and other needs through Parent Village's first meetings. Walker says the program's initial Zoom meetings have focused on finding out what concerns parents, and how their kids are doing in school has been a top discussion topic.
The Parent Village meetings encourage parents to advocate for their children by talking to administrators and showing up at school board meetings. Walker says some parents either don't understand the value of attending school board meetings or don't think they'd know what to say.
"We tell them to just show up. You don't need to have a special speech prepared or a degree," Walker says. "Just come and listen and speak from the heart because you love your kids and want the best for them. We'll help you walk through the rest."
She says that rather than sitting around the kitchen table complaining about how upset they are and being unable to make a change, they can "get together and learn what it takes to get that needle to move."
"At the Parent Village, we're strategizing how to get parents involved and to realize we can do this and kids can prosper even in this season, if we do it together," Walker says.
Connecting through a Good Neighbor Texting Campaign
Johnson says that while many local families are having a hard time with virtual education during the COVID-19 pandemic, there's also an upside.
"I was reading a book where the author talked about how opportunities are going to present themselves, and you need to be mindful and paying attention," Johnson says. "With the virtual nature of education and what it's going to do to your youth and family and single parents who are already struggling to educate their children, this is a gold mine of an opportunity. But we have to prepare ourselves for it."
He says his motto for Mentor 2 Youth is "Bridge the opportunity gap," and the current moment is providing an opportunity to use technology to close some of those gaps.
"Our Good Neighbor Texting Campaign really sets us apart as we try to build it out," he says. "That and the Parent Village are going to create a community space where parents can always feel attached to resources."
With a grant from United Way of Washtenaw County, Mentor 2 Youth was able to not only launch a texting campaign but to incentivize participation by offering gift certificates for people who signed up.
Anyone interested in getting updates from the nonprofit can text NEIGHBOR to 57838 to join the largest general group. Youth can text TABI (short for Talk About It) to the same number to be in contact with Mentor 2 Youth's youth council. Businesses who would like to partner with the nonprofit can text BIZ to that number.
Walker, who was also involved in getting the texting campaign going, says it's "all about informing people in the community about what's going on," whether that's new programs Mentor 2 Youth is offering or when and where to attend a pivotal school board meeting.
"Once they register, we send out texts to everybody about new things going on, or what's critical knowledge in our community," Johnson says. "You can get it out to a mass of people with one send."
About 100 participants have signed up so far, and Johnson hopes to see 2,000 enrolled in the texting campaign by the end of the year.
A number of new partnerships are also allowing for even more dynamic growth at Mentor 2 Youth. The Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation helped connect Mentor 2 Youth with Catchafire, a program that provides professionals to work with nonprofits for free. Catchafire volunteers have helped set up Google Classroom for Mentor 2 Youth academic programs. They've also updated the nonprofit's website and software for tracking volunteers and funding and generating impact reports.
The social justice summer camp that McKinney attends also came from a partnership with several community members. The camp was Thompson's brainchild, organized in partnership with area residents Matt Hamilton, Molly Raynor, Alex Thomas, and Lynne Settles.
Two sessions included meeting with a Black engineer from Michigan Aerospace, learning about what a career as an engineer entails, and discussing environmental issues and how they impact Black communities. The students also discussed gentrification in the city of Ypsilanti and identified Black-owned businesses in Washtenaw County, discussing how to promote and support them.
Mentor 2 Youth has also partnered with Michigan Works! Southeast to provide paid internships to several students who will help the nonprofit update its technology while also giving the students insights into different aspects of business. Johnson also recently initiated a collaboration with Junior Achievement to improve youth participants' financial literacy.
"It doesn't make sense to come out of [Mentor 2 Youth's programming] educated and then go into debt and not understand how to make money work," Johnson says.
Mentor 2 Youth's current website address is mentor2youth.com, but by the third week of August, the nonprofit will switch to an updated, more versatile website at mentor2youth.org. Those interested in the texting campaign, Parent Village, or other Mentor 2 Youth programs can also follow the nonprofit's Facebook page.
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 Mentor 2 Youth.