Ypsi-based youth program addresses housing justice through the arts

Young participants from the Ypsi area are talking, writing, and creating a podcast together about local issues including gentrification.
Most young people have barely heard of the concept of gentrification. But a group of 13- to 21-year-olds in Ypsilanti are not only talking about it, but doing something about it, through an arts advocacy program called Staying Power.

"I had to deal with gentrification my whole life," says Lai Pasha, an 18-year-old freshman at Washtenaw Community College (WCC). 

They say that over and over, white people have moved into neighborhoods where Pasha's family had been living, driving up prices and forcing them to move.

"I had to move from place to place since I was 8 years old. Most adults don't understand gentrification and don't want to get to understand it. But you've got no choice when it's in your face," Pasha says. "What keeps me coming back to Staying Power is that I want to raise awareness of these issues people face. A lot of people want to stay ignorant, especially white people who benefit from gentrification."

Beginnings: From California to Ypsilanti

Staying Power's roots stem from advocacy work around housing affordability in Richmond, Calif. In 2008, poet and activist Donté Clark and Michigan native Molly Raynor co-founded RAW Talent, a youth performing arts program, there.
Staying Power Program Coordinator Molly Raynor.
Raynor moved back to Michigan in 2017 and began coordinating the Literary Arts program for Ann Arbor's Neutral Zone. At the same time, a group of residents in Richmond created a coalition called Staying Power, focused on defending affordable housing.

In 2017 the University of Michigan (U-M) invited Clark to visit and host "talk-back" sessions about a 2015 documentary he was featured in called "Romeo is Bleeding." The film is about poetry's power to address social issues like gun violence, and it features Clark's effort to stage an "urban adaptation" of "Romeo and Juliet." 

While Clark was visiting Michigan, screenings and discussion sessions took place at several high schools around Washtenaw County, including Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti Community High School. 

"The teens were really drawn to Donté, and he was drawn to Ypsilanti and said it felt almost like home," Raynor says. 

With help from grants and partnerships with organizations including Ozone House and the RYSE Center in Richmond, Raynor and Clark created a "cultural exchange" program bringing together youth from Richmond and Ypsilanti.
Staying Power participant Malik Henry.
Several Ypsilanti youth flew out to Richmond in 2018, and youth from Richmond came to Ypsilanti in 2019 for a joint production they performed to a sold-out audience at Ypsi High.

The program was originally under Neutral Zone's umbrella, but with a more recent emphasis on youth from Ypsilanti, it has become a program of Engage@EMU, Eastern Michigan University's community engagement department.

Vision for 2021 and beyond

Malik Henry, an 18-year-old WCC student, was one of the youth who participated in the cultural exchange between Richmond and Ypsi, saying that it was "a great experience." He noted that the similarities between the two working-class, historically Black cities was striking, right down to each having a Rosie the Riveter connection

"Some parts of California looked like Detroit with palm trees," Henry says. "We met a bunch of the kids, and the kids from Richmond came here, and it was almost seamless. We're not that different."

Staying Power had to go virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the youth are still focused on "pushing for change," Henry says.
Staying Power participant Naima Peterson.
In the program's current incarnation, teens talk and write with each other via Zoom workshops every Tuesday. The topic alternates every other week between poetry and podcast preparations, says Staying Power participant Naima Peterson, a 17-year-old high school senior.

"We tried to put on our poetry event last year, but you know how COVID be," she says. 

Peterson says she found out about Staying Power through Ozone House. 

"I really liked it and just kept going," she says.

This year, youth participants are working with U-M guest teaching artists Carlina Duan and Bryan Byrdlong to discuss gentrification's history and effects in Ypsilanti, and to document those stories through poetry. The young people are also working with Ypsilanti Township community advocate Alex Thomas to launch a youth-driven podcast with a variety of themes and guest appearances by community leaders.

Youth also gain paid experience in leadership through Staying Power. Raynor says that three or four young people who have been in the program for several years and shown leadership skills are encouraged to apply for paid internships and the title of Young Leader. Once they go on a leadership retreat, they plan meetings and facilitate workshops.
Staying Power participant Anika Love.
Anika Love, a 21-year-old senior at U-M, is a newer participant who joined Staying Power just last November. 

"I've only been in Staying Power since COVID-19 started, so I've only experienced the digital workshops," Love says. "But it's been a really nice space, especially since I have not been engaging with a lot of poetry spaces at this time."

Love says the group's efforts to document Ypsi-area history and housing justice issues is in line with the theme of "the experience of place and personhood" that she had already been incorporating in her poetry before getting involved with the program. 

"We're looking at a lot of different styles, how to capture scenes [and] voices, and how to narrate and do storytelling," Love says. "It's very cool to be a part of that digital community."

The next opportunity for the public to engage with Staying Power is a virtual event called "Odes to Home: A Celebration" on May 25 from 4:30-6 p.m. The event features the nationally known memoirist Kiese Laymon as well as youth and adult poets from Staying Power. 
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 sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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