Bringing education and enrichment to Southwest Detroit youthQ&A with Alejandra Gomez: Nonprofit Journal Project

Alejandra Gomez is the education initiatives director for Urban Neighborhood Initiatives (UNI), a community development organization based in Southwest Detroit. Much of her work involves supervising afterschool and out-of-school activities for the youth UNI serves.

What can you tell us about the need for supplemental educational initiatives in Southwest Detroit?

It is definitely crucial. We've heard from parents and even from youth about the need for having a space where youth can learn and have fun while being able to connect. Many of the youth of Southwest Detroit speak two languages. Connecting with staff that also speak two languages in the afterschool space is something that we try to incorporate. We also partner with organizations that offer different types of programming, from art to music to cooking and gymnastics. Our programs also take into consideration the work schedule for parents. It's a lot easier for parents to pick up their kids later – instead of having to leave work at 2:00 or 2:30.

What afterschool and out-of-school programming do you supervise?

I currently oversee all of our afterschool and out-of-school type programs for youth who are 14 and younger. We currently have programming at different DPS community schools. I also oversee an Americorps program that does mentorship at five charter schools in Detroit. We work with mostly K through 8th grade students. Our K through 5th grade programming includes support with homework and reading. We also have icebreakers, reflection, and things like that.

With our middle school students, we use the 9th Grade Counts curriculum that goes into community development as well as a five-year plan for school. Our 6th to 8th grade students are asked about what they want to do past high school. With that, they're able to plan backwards and say, "OK. What do I need to know as a [middle schooler and in high school] to be able to get to that point?" It helps them to plan for their education past their current grade and past high school, to be able to persist during college.

You participated in UNI's programming when you were younger? What kind of perspective has that brought to your current work with the nonprofit?

When I started at UNI, I was 12 years old. I started in one of the programs that I currently oversee, the afterschool program. As a participant, I enjoyed it so much. However, I didn't really know everything that had to take place to prepare and ensure that everything is in place. Now that I'm at the other end, it's really opened up my eyes to a deeper level of gratitude and appreciation for the staff who were there when I was a youth. And [that experience helps] to ensure that I do my part to ensure that the youth have what I had and even more.

You’re also a member of the Every School Day Counts Detroit core leadership team, which is focused on reducing chronic absences in local schools. What can you tell us about that issue and how UNI and its partners are addressing it?

I've been part of Every School Day Counts Detroit since 2016. I personally have realized that chronic absence is a very hard issue to fix. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It's helpful being able to work with other organizations to share the stories of families in their communities and to steer families in our community to be able to understand a bigger picture of the issue. We continue to learn and evolve. Having Detroit PEER through Wayne State evaluating the work has helped us with perspective. Since the moment that Every School Day Counts Detroit started, the group has always been open to learning and having the community at the center of conversations and work.

You mentioned Wayne State and PEER. Could you talk a little more about the work they're doing?

Detroit PEER is a research team at Wayne State who do community surveys and evaluation with the DPS Community District. They interview families, students, staff, and school partners one-on-one to understand the bigger picture. They research ideas as well. For example, research they were doing about homelessness and transit for students related to chronic absence. I see them doing research to inform the work on the ground. They definitely want the research to be utilized by the school district partners and not just done and put away on the shelf. The research being done assists with advocacy for policy changes, practice changes, and things like that.

Another project you’re involved with is a child savings account initiative called SEEDing for College. What can you tell us about that?

With SEEDing for College, we're working with different partners, but the main partner is Wayne Metro Community Action Agency. We're working with them to partner with children who are between the ages of zero and five to open up a savings account and support parents in learn more about what these savings accounts can do for their children long term. This is a way we can help with some of the financial disparities that we've seen in our community. As we've worked with high school students, we have noticed a lot of gaps in financial literacy knowledge. Having these conversations with families for their children has been very important for helping parents save money, so by the time their children get to an age when they can go to college, they have funds that can be used for that.

What kind of challenges has the pandemic brought to the work you're doing and how has UNI responded?

As soon as the pandemic hit in 2020, families needed a lot of support with medicine, cleaning supplies and food. UNI worked with partners and advocated for those items to be provided to families. We worked with Gleaners in providing food for families. We also partner with CHASS Center to provide vaccines and COVID testing. Initially when families reached out for cleaning supplies and other resources, we did porch drop-offs.

For afterschool programs, we dropped off activity kits to the kids and connected with them virtually. That connection was necessary, but really hard for students because they really needed a space to connect with others in person. In the beginning, we thought, "Oh, the students will love it. They'll love to be in front of a computer." It was actually not the case. It was completely opposite.

One of the biggest things that we've also learned from the pandemic is the need for mental health support for the entire community. Parents, students, teachers, staff, everyone going through the pandemic was obviously experiencing a very similar situation, but in their own unique way. So, mental health is something that we've noticed has been a very big challenge in the community. And we do have a mental health specialist coordinator at the organization, so she's been able to coordinate and do sessions with some youth one-on-one.

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.