After going to prison at 18, Ypsi man launches nonprofit to prevent local kids from doing the same

Deshawn Leeth's passion for providing mentorship, guidance, and hope to youth comes directly from his lived experience in the juvenile justice system.
A series of homicides this summer in the township and city of Ypsilanti, many either committed by or taking the lives of young people, have left community members shaken and seeking ways to protect local youth. One of those community members is Deshawn Leeth, director of the Ypsilanti youth empowerment nonprofit Underdawg Nation.

"There is a dire need in our community to support the young people," Leeth says. "Young people feel forgotten. We put all these biases on them. I know how hard it is when you don't have any hope, and I want to be that hope for them."

Leeth's passion for providing mentorship, guidance, and hope to youth comes directly from his lived experience in the juvenile justice system. He says he began stealing food from grocery stores at age 11, operating from a "survival mindset" to feed his family while his mother struggled with addiction. He says at that age he was a "have-to-have-it-now individual, because there was nothing at home." 

"Instead of going to college, I was on my way to prison at age 18," he says. "After three years, I came home, and I came home to nothing. When you send someone back into an environment with no structure after prison, they go back to what's comfortable."
11-year-old Deshawn Leeth in Washtenaw County Juvenile Detention in 2007.
Leeth's experience is not unusual in Washtenaw County, which has one of the highest recidivism rates in the state of Michigan. Various reentry initiatives through the Washtenaw County Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage, programs developed by local nonprofits such as A Brighter Way, and other efforts have sought to improve that situation. While many of those initiatives have been successful, deep systemic change is still needed in order to appropriately address the root issues behind reoffending, such as mental health, substance use disorders, and housing insecurity.

During his incarceration from 2015 to 2021, Leeth says he realized that he needed to break free of the cycle he'd been thrust into, and that he wanted to help young people in his community once he completed his sentence. But he was able to start even sooner than he expected when he was transferred to Muskegon Correctional Facility in 2020. There he was placed in a faith-based unit where he got an opportunity to run a workshop showing young people that change is possible, regardless of where you come from.

"God told me I had to go to the young people," he says. "When you've got youth coming from the outside, you can walk them through your story not in a 'scared straight' way, but to help them and guide them."

Leeth describes his journey from the start of his parole in 2021 to the conception of Underdawg Nation as his "comeback story." He was released into a community still struggling with the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to the personal struggles he was facing.

"I was in a parole house. I had bedbugs. I had no ID," he says. "Those first four months were a real test."
18-year-old Deshawn Leeth serving his first prison term in 2012.
After he found work at a 7-Eleven in Ann Arbor, Leeth began the process of starting Underdawg Nation. 

"I had no idea how broad I wanted to be, or how to write a mission statement, or how to run a nonprofit," Leeth says. "I just knew I wanted to work with the kids in the street."

What started in 2021 as a social media effort to provide young people guidance and mentorship is now a massive undertaking, hosting seasonal events with several community partners in addition to offering one-on-one mentoring for teens and young adults. Currently, Leeth says he has around 20 active mentees from age 12 to 23, who are "entangled in a criminal lifestyle and not in school due to a lack of structure or poverty." 

"Some of these kids don't have a voice, or have been told they're going to prison for the rest of their lives already," Leeth says. "They're the underdogs. The resources are just not provided to them to meet the basic needs of the society that they live in."

Because Leeth currently is acting as director and sole mentor at Underdawg Nation, he attributes some of the organization's rapid success to the many local organizations he's partnered with for various events. Those include Ozone House, Washtenaw County My Brother's Keeper, and Mentor2Youth.

Leeth seeks out partners who share Underdawg Nation's mission of providing safe spaces to keep children and young adults out of violent situations. One of these groups is Community Leadership Revolution (CLR), a free pop-up sports program that launched at Sycamore Meadows Apartments in Superior Township in the summer of 2021. CLR Director Justin Harper explains that he wanted to provide safe spaces and "positive energy" for local children who were experiencing a lack of social opportunities during the pandemic.

"We wanted to bring a different example out for kids in the area," Harper says. "We wanted to keep them engaged and away from violence, and we look at sports as a way to bring the community together."

Harper and Leeth, along with Ozone House and My Brother's Keeper, collaborated on a three-on-three basketball tournament over the summer, as well as kickball tournaments at Sycamore Meadows. The basketball tournament drew hundreds of attendees. Harper says these events not only provide an outlet for local kids to engage in physical and social activity, but also help them and their families access local resources they may not have known about. 
CLR Director Justin Harper.
"Our thing is to work as a community and help out where we can," Harper says. "Deshawn has done a phenomenal job at gathering kids to come together and enjoy themselves and build strong relationships."

While sports are a great opportunity to teach skills like collaboration and uplifting others, Leeth says Underdawg Nation also wants to meet all kids where they are – and not every kid is interested in sports. So Leeth has also worked alongside Ypsilanti nonprofit Our Community Reads (OCR). OCR founder Kallista Walker says her organization's focus on youth empowerment through reading and mentoring aligns directly with Underdawg's mission of creating safer spaces for children where they can "feel seen, celebrated, and valued."

"The whole idea that joy is your birthright, a lot of our kids don't live that," Walker says. "The world we live in too often doesn't make them feel that way. They get bombarded with ugly messages and have to grow up so fast."

Walker was present throughout the summer at basketball and kickball events where Leeth was present both to read to attendants and provide free books to families. She says Leeth's passion and dedication to his work is "undeniable," and his desire to build a strong and safe community for Ypsi's young people works well with OCR's mission to empower and uplift local Black children.
Our Community Reads founder Kallista Walker.
"I'm really proud of the fact that Deshawn comes to serve and empower our young people with such a pure heart," Walker says. "He does not want any child to go through what he's gone through, and he's very committed."

Harper expresses similar sentiments about Leeth's work. He says Leeth's commitment to providing positive examples for kids is admirable and relatable.

"We both want to make a difference, and we're all about real change," Harper says. "It's important for us to reach out to kids who are often underserved, and to be an example for them by bringing the community together."

Leeth says he's creating a "foundation of love" with "no hidden agenda." 

"We need to take our young people seriously," he says. "We have older people displaying power but not love, and our kids see that, suffer from it, and we need to change it. I'm trying. I'm not perfect, but I know my value. That's the whole point of being an underdog."

For more information on Underdawg Nation, visit the organization's website. Upcoming events and volunteer opportunities will be shared through the Underdawg Nation Facebook page.

Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.