Lakia Brown's children would like to hang out at West Willow Park in Ypsilanti Township, just two blocks from their home in the West Willow neighborhood, every day from dawn to dusk. But she doesn't let them go to the park anymore after an incident at her 10-year-old son's outdoor birthday party in May.
"There were two cars of people going back and forth, up and down the street, fighting with each other," Brown says. "And then one gentleman jumped out of the car with a gun and went walking through the park."
She says it felt surreal as she began rounding up a dozen children to leave.
"That's like something you see in a movie, but those kids will be safe when the director yells, 'Cut!'" she says. "My six-year-old still doesn't understand that you're not safe at the park."
However, a new community initiative to clean up and improve the park is giving Brown and other West Willow residents hope for a safer park and neighborhood for all.
Addressing quality of life
The new initiative spun out of multiple community organizations' ongoing efforts to improve West Willow. Earlier this year, a grant allowed the New West Willow Neighborhood Association
(NWWNA) and partners to kick off the Community Gardens Earn and Learn Program
. A key component to that program involved forming teams of older adults and youth, called "Generations Together," to address quality of life problems in the neighborhood.
Odindi Youth Action Village
is an Ypsilanti Township nonprofit founded earlier this year by father and son Akinbambo and Akintunde Oluwadare. The organization's mission is to support youth in the 48197 and 48198 ZIP codes by engaging a support network of parents, schools, and community members. When the younger Oluwadare met NWWNA members, he realized that his organization's goals and that of the "Generations Together" portion of the community gardens program were aligned.
Odindi means "whole" in Yoruba, and the nonprofit's mission is to support youth holistically by building and engaging their whole community. But the co-founders of Odindi were hearing that both youth and elders had complaints about the generational divide.
Akinbambo and Akintunde Oluwadare.
"The kids were saying, 'These older folks don't really get us,' while the elders were saying, 'We don't get what they're doing, and they don't listen,'" Akintunde Oluwadare says. "This felt like the perfect opportunity to have the youth and our elders in the neighborhood come together and use storytelling as a way to bridge that mistrust."
Odindi offered to partner with the NWWNA and the nonprofit Healthy Together West Willow
to run that intergenerational programming. Brown, along with five other elders and 13 youth, met weekly at the neighborhood resource center throughout the summer to talk about community needs.
One exercise prompted both youth and elders to talk about the messages they receive from others about their neighborhood versus the way they personally feel about West Willow.
Elders had a mix of good and bad things to say about their neighborhood, but Akintunde Oluwadare says the messages youth reported both internally and externally were almost all negative.
Tavon Allen, 19, is one of the young people participating in the neighborhood intergenerational programming. He says he's heard people talk about crime in West Willow, calling the neighborhood "the ghetto."
"In the past, there was crime here. We had the fight club and all that," he says, referring to an underground teenage fight club busted in 2012
. "But now, it's not bad like it was before. Now, I feel like it's a good place to live."
Both youth and elders talked about wanting a safe place to gather, so improvements at the neighborhood park were identified as a priority.
"From those conversations, we decided the park was ideal, to rehab that central piece for people to come together, build community, and have a safe place to go to," Akintunde Oluwadare says.
A vision for a community hub
Akintunde Oluwadare says that many young people in the neighborhood report not feeling safe at the park. One youth participant reports having been "jumped" multiple times at the park, and Akintunde Oluwadare says inebriated adults have wandered by when he was there with young people in the intergenerational program.
Akintunde Oluwadare brought some of the youth to a recent NWWNA meeting to gain support for their plans to improve the park. Allen was one of the young people who spoke to those gathered.
"We talked about how to improve the park, and how to help out our elders, and just making the West Willow neighborhood a better place," Allen says.
Community Gardens Earn and Learn Program meeting at the New West Willow Neighborhood Association.
Allen says the group split up into smaller groups and brainstormed ideas for improvements to the park. Their ideas included adding more grills, improving the parking area, adding a path, and improving the basketball court, including adding new, sturdier metal nets.
The group will present its plan to the Ypsilanti Township Board of Trustees this week. In the meantime, the youth have already started their improvement plan by picking up trash during a park cleanup day Sept. 30.
Brown says she feels the park currently isn't "fun and inviting" for little kids. She thinks the trees provide too much cover for illicit activity and that the park's layout could be improved.
"With West Willow being as big as it is, they could use two pavilions," she says. "It needs a restructure, and they could add a splash pad. Right now, it's not inviting enough to make you want to clean it up. It looks like nobody cares about that park."
Akintunde Oluwadare replacing a basketball net at West Willow Park.
Brown says that, before joining the group planning park improvements, she had planned to move out of West Willow altogether.
"After coming to the meeting a few weeks ago, I felt like there really is a community here, and that's something I've been looking for for my children," she says. "I have faith in this program to bring about change and bridge the gap between age groups so it's possible for people to live in the neighborhood and have it become a community."
For more information about Odindi Youth Action Village, visit oyavillage.org
or email email@example.com.
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.
All photos by Doug Coombe.