The perspectives of youth in the city of Battle Creek will be lifted up and supported through a program beginning this month that will give them opportunities to showcase their talents and create a different view of the city as seen through their own lens.
The three-month pilot program known as “Voices of Youth in Battle Creek” is sponsored by On the Ground Battle Creek, part of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave, financially supported through coalition underwriting.
Jeff Cotton, Voices of Youth program facilitator and Community Engagement Manager for On the Ground Battle Creek, says he thinks youth need to be represented in all areas of the community, especially those where decisions are being made that will impact them in the future.
“I believe old ideas and old concepts will always be replaced by new ones, which is why we need to give the youth a voice. It’s a good thing that they come into conflict because we learn new things and we get a new and different way of doing things, rather than forcing our kids to rely on our ancient ways of doing things or looking at things.”
Through Cotton’s work with Big Homies
, of which he is founder and CEO, Cotton says he already knows each of the Voices of Youth participants and has formed strong relationships with them. NahV’eir King has been involved with Big Homies since he was a child and says he looks forward to continued mentoring from Cotton.
King, 13, says his project will focus on photographing scenes and areas of Battle Creek that residents may not know about. His previous photographic skills have resulted in images of the Statue of Liberty in New York, mountains, and boats and ships floating on the water in Pittsburgh, Penn.
“I want to show people things here that they may not know about,” says NahV’eir, who will be in 8th grade this school year at the Battle Creek Public Schools STEM Innovation Center. “I want to educate them and make them aware of what they may not know is here.”
Anyah Watson, 13, says her project also will highlight little-known areas of significance in Battle Creek. She cites statues and monuments that honor the lives and work of historical figures such as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth.
“They did important work in other communities and I think it’s important for people in Battle Creek to understand why they are honored here,” says Anyah, who will be in 8th grade this school year at the STEM Innovation Center. “I want to write about this as a way to educate people. Being involved in this project will open my mind to other opportunities out there.”
Cotton says the VOY program will use a solutions-based journalism model that focuses on people, organizations and activities in communities that address issues and seek out solutions to challenges.
“The kids in our program will be presenting the positive things that are going on in Battle Creek and creating a new narrative,” he says.
Paul Schutt, co-founder of Issue Media Group, Second Wave's parent company, says the idea of the program arose in the southeast Michigan and Detroit area, pre-pandemic. In "conversations among community members, there was a concern that young folks, youth, are disconnected from local news; that they have a pretty good handle of what's going on at a national level, but they just don't really track what's going on in the local news as well."
The concern was, Schutt says, "could this lack of connection lead to a lack of civic engagement on really important issues in the community?"
Soon after these conversations, a global pandemic hit, then the world saw a police officer killing George Floyd. It became clear that young people were engaged and working in their own way to record history as it happened. For example, the journalism world recently recognized Darnella Frazier, who at 17 videoed Floyd's murder, with an honorary Pulitzer Prize
Elliott Behrendt, 16, says he will incorporate the graphic design skills he became interested in as a child into his photography to capture stories of people in his neighborhood and in the community. He lives on the northside of Battle Creek and says there are a lot of “cool people” who aren’t always showcased for what they bring to the community.
“I know a lot of cool people with interesting stories and I will be taking pictures of them and writing about them for this project,” says Behrendt, a 2021 graduate of Lakeview High School who will be a freshman this fall at Kellogg Community College. “I think this program is important because it gives young people like me opportunities to focus on our art and the possibility of making a career out of it.”
Elliott says the arts have been marginalized in schools and students with an interest in it often had to join an arts club because so much of the focus during the school day has been placed on academics such as mathematics and science.
“The arts aren’t really a focus in schools anymore and I think this program gives us an opportunity to focus on the arts and gives our work exposure to a wider audience,” he says.
In addition to Anyah, Elliott and NahV’eir, Geordn Kendall, age 17, and Jamaiya Nowling, age 16, will be among the participants in the inaugural Voices of Youth program in Battle Creek.
Their photographs, videos and writing during the three-month program will be featured on all social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram and Tik Tok, in addition to On the Ground Battle Creek and Southwest Michigan's Second Wave, the umbrella organization for On the Ground Battle Creek.
Cotton says each participant will be paid, something he says will encourage them to take pride in their work and likely be something they will always remember as they continue on with their education and their career paths.
“Their energy gives them a voice and will lead to more progressive ways of thinking in this community. We need to encourage them because they are our future leaders and change-makers,” Cotton says. “They already have the support of their parents in this work and their parents are very engaged and have been very responsive anytime I have reached out to them. Kids get excited when they know their parents are invested in what they’re doing.
“It’s important to push forward a culture of empowering our youth. How else are we going to change things unless we involve those who have the most invested in the future if we don’t empower youth?”