Youth take the lead in fighting traumaQ&A with Sirrita Darby: Nonprofit Journal Project

Sirrita Darby is the executive director of Detroit Heals Detroit, a nonprofit that combats trauma in youth. It fosters healing justice so that youth can transform their pain into power.

I understand that Detroit Heals Detroit now has a healing hub on the East Side. What is the healing hub, exactly?

It’s youth-led, and it’s a space where we can live out our programming. We hold our healing circles there, and we have some therapists who come in for those who want more one-on-one support. We also have different community programs that live inside the hub, like our community fridge program and biweekly community dinners. We also have initiatives that help youth in general, like tutoring and a computer lab.

Also, we’re building tiny homes on the lot next door that we bought, as kind of a makerspace but also a safe house for teens. We know that Detroit has a hustle entrepreneur spirit, so we want to we create makerspaces for our youth to tap into the entrepreneur spirit as well.

Can you explain how the healing takes shape?

With our healing justice programming in general, healing is clinical, but there are very real political systems in place in schools and communities that prevent our youth from healing, especially students of color. It’s healing individuals collectively but also healing systems. We’re big on combating social justice issues that lead to harm for our young people in the first place. So while we’re healing collectively, we’re making sure that when people go home, they’re able to heal through the nutrition that they’re eating, and things like that. When you walk in, you may see us in a circle, and there’s always food involved, because we are modeled after Indigenous practices where food builds community. And we always end with a positive activity, so people are leaving the circle on a positive note.

Why is the youth-led approach so important?

We feel that youth should be deciding as a community what healing looks like—it shouldn’t be decided for them. I think a lot of the curriculum that we may see in schools or in other programs is already a set curriculum that says, “this is what you need to heal,” instead of you coming together and deciding with each other, “this is what we use to heal.” Especially just after traumatic incidents, our youth know what they use to heal, and they’re creating that space and creating activities as needed to do that.

For instance, with the news of Tyre Nichols, and that trauma of just seeing another Black body die on national television like it’s a major blockbuster hit, it was coming together and having a healing circle. They talked about it and, as a collective, decided not to watch the video, because it was just more trauma for them. They decided what is needed and what the action steps are, and they came up with their own organizing on: How can we prevent this from continuing to happen?

You also partner with schools and other organizations, and you offer services on a consulting basis. Can you share an example of this work?

The City of Detroit was doing some grassroots work in the Gratiot and 7 Mile neighborhoods, and they were kind of struggling with their youth engagement. They reached out to us. We were able to host focus groups for them and get a wide variety of young people from those neighborhoods to give some feedback on what they want to see when it comes to youth and youth development. Our approach was bringing engagement to the youth instead of telling them: Hey, can you come fill out this survey? We had movie night at a park, where we watched the movie, but we also had a QR code so they could get on their phone and take the survey right before or right after they watched the movie.

You received a Thriving Neighborhoods Fund grant of $25,000 from the Gilbert Family Foundation and Strategic Community Partners last fall. How is Detroit Heals Detroit using that?

We are using it for our spring programming. We have a landscaping program for formerly incarcerated Detroit youth where they will actually run a landscaping business, and it will also help to beautify the community. We pay them to go and give vouchers to families for things like snow removal and getting grass cut, and our youth come do that. But we’re also making sure that our community is taken care of, especially our elders and people who are not physically able to get out there and do their own landscaping. We’re also doing a mural and a couple other activities that beautify the outdoor space that lives within our communities.

What are you looking forward to in the coming months?

We’ve been open and doing this work, but the official grand opening for the healing hub is in May, and we’re excited for our community to come and see the space and just say thank you, as they helped make the space what it is. And we have a lot of programming in the summer—we’ll have our first official summer camp.

How would you say the organization has evolved since it was founded in 2018?

We started off as a place-based organization, in the classroom doing the work. And then we had a vision of: How can we really scale this work beyond the classroom? Then, during the pandemic, we went virtual, and we saw a lot of people coming to our circles from all over the United States. How can we scale this beyond just Detroit? To do that, we created our youth-led healing justice curriculum that we show people, especially practitioners and other youth across the nation, how to do this healing work.

This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change, and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.
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