Detroit youth help peers heal from trauma, rising amid the pandemicThe Nonprofit Journal Project

Our mission at Detroit Heals Detroit is to foster healing justice for Detroit youth in which they are able to transform their pain into power. As a former high school English teacher in the city, I saw how trauma was manifesting in the classroom and community in which I taught and lived. It became clear to me that young people need opportunities to heal. 

In my classroom, I created weekly circles with my young people where we could talk about our trauma. We learned to listen, trust and heal together. Those circles led to us writing and publishing a book called, “Forbidden Tears: Stories, Poems & Essays of Trauma from The Imprisoned Voices of Unapologetic Black Youth.” That book led to my students being invited to host healing circles at neighboring schools. They told me, “Ms. Darby, we want to create a bigger program out of this.” And that’s how Detroit Heals Detroit happened. 

About 20 young people serve in leadership roles at our organization, created by and for Detroit youth between the ages of 12-21. They lead our work, our decision making, our organizing and our healing. This means as executive director, I’m often just the facilitator or the strategic organizer. Whatever my youth want to do, I bring the strategy to make sure it happens. 

When COVID-19 hit, we quickly shifted our healing circles to a virtual format. We focused on combating the negative mental health impacts of the pandemic on our young people, and doubled our gatherings. The need for healing was greater than ever, as our youth were grieving so many things, whether it be the loss of a family member, a friend, or a milestone they'd looked forward to, like prom or graduation. 

It was definitely a challenge to reach youth early in the pandemic because of the technology divide. Some people who normally attended our healing circles now weren't always able. At the same time, our community helped us connect to local organizations and offer support to young people we hadn't reached before. We've hosted circles on racial healing, youth-led activism, education justice, healthy minds/healthy relationships, and Black joy as resistance. Online, we've seen many youth joining us from outside of Detroit, which has been amazing.

A big thing we're working on is a curriculum, created and led by our young people, that we hope to make available nationwide next summer. Many community members, teachers and educators have asked for help to do this kind of healing in their own classrooms. Last October, we started piloting our curriculum at two Detroit schools. It focuses a lot on what it means to be youth-led, and why letting youth facilitate their own healing is so important.

A large campaign we’ve collaborated on this year has centered on making schools police-free. Many of our students have had traumatizing experiences with police at their schools. If we want to prioritize healing, we have to remove issues that cause pain and trauma. We’ve connected with community members who’ve helped develop what alternatives to policing look like and done research around the pros and cons of having police in schools.

We sent out 100 care kits to students who shared with us the negative impact having police in their school has had on them. What we heard motivates us to make sure this change happens for our community. The kits contained social justice reading, information about our work and self-care items to support their physical and mental health through art, writing and relaxation.

To foster greater healing in our city's youth, we've recently launched a healing hub project on the eastside of Detroit. This space will be a safe place for young people to heal from trauma, lead healing, organize and just have a youth-led space in the city, which we don't see a lot. 

This project's possible because of our supportive community in Detroit, and around the country. At the beginning of 2020, we had zero dollars in our bank account, and yet, we ended the year with six figures. Only 30 percent of our funding comes from grants, and the rest is from people we serve. This is so important to us because we say a Detroit Heals Detroit project is the community’s project. We want to be funded by those who believe in a vision as much as we do.

As someone who helps to lead a grassroots nonprofit, I'm asking myself, how do we scale this impact? How can we leverage community voice and community resources to continue this work? And what does the community want out of this organization in the years to come?

The need for healing continues to grow. The pandemic has negatively affected the communities we serve more than a lot of other communities. The need to combat trauma has been amplified. Yet, the young people here are giving me hope. We're big on "making a way, finding a way." We've been doing this since we started healing together, and we'll continue to. 

Sirrita Darby is the executive director of Detroit Heals Detroit, a nonprofit focused on combating trauma in Detroit's youth. This story is part of the Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Southeast Michigan to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, vaccinations, a heightened sense of racial justice and equity, issues of climate change and more are impacting the nonprofit sector--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.