'Imagine Your Neighborhood' summit allows youth to take charge and have a voice in their community

This story was written by Conner McBride, a participant in the Kalamazoo Voices of Youth Program. The program is a collaboration between Southwest Michigan's Second Wave and KYD Network.

Who runs your city? It could be a city manager, a mayor, or a committee of officials. On Saturday, Aug. 20, it was seven youths and two city commissioners who met at the “Imagine Your Neighborhood Youth Summit.”

The goal of the summit, hosted by the City of Kalamazoo and the Kalamazoo Youth Development Network, was to create an environment where young people ages 14 to 22 could discuss ways to make their neighborhoods better and brighter places. Their perspectives and ideas will be added to neighborhood plans that have been created or that are being created for the Stuart, West Main Hill, Westwood, and Westnedge Hill neighborhoods.

All of that is part of Imagine Kalamazoo, an effort started in 2016-17 as the city shapes its Master Plan for 2025.

“Imagine Kalamazoo” is dedicated to giving people a say in how their city is designed through plans that highlight subjects in their neighborhoods like how to make public places more inviting, or how to create a safer community. For example, in their plan for the Vine Neighborhood, residents of that neighborhood asked for bike lane walls to help prevent accidents between drivers and bicycle riders in the neighborhood. Work on the project has been started, with the city, for now, installing large, highly visible, plastic “bike waves” to help drivers see bike lanes on a few downtown streets. The “waves”  were installed in August and will be removed in late September.

Young people who gathered for the recent Imagine Your Neighborhood Youth Summit liked the idea that work is being done to safeguard cyclists from motorists as requested in the neighborhood plan of Vine area residents.“The pilot bike lanes will be temporary and will help inform permanent installations (lane divisions) on the streets when they are resurfaced and repainted in 2023 and 2024,” city officials announced in an Aug. 9, 2022 press release. “The bike symbols and signage will remain in place through spring 2023.”

Since the plans have been written, the City of Kalamazoo has not only started construction on the bike lanes, but also started on many other projects such as calming down the traffic on Westnedge and Park, planting more trees on the streets, and planning to redesign major streets to make the city more connected.

During the “Imagine Your Neighborhood” summit, young people were challenged to come up with ideas for such things as fixing sidewalks, improving parks, supporting local businesses, and creating more places to have fun.
During the six-hour meeting at the Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine in downtown Kalamazoo, youths discussed issues that concern their communities, as well as things they like, and things they want to see in their neighborhoods. Those included more youth-friendly areas and having potholes repaired in their streets. 

Along with that, Jennifer Heymoss, a former high school teacher and now vice president of Initiatives and Public Policy at the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, spoke about the resolution the Kalamazoo City Commission passed that decreed gun violence as a public health crisis. That led to a discussion between Heymoss and the youths on situations involving gun violence, ways they think gun violence could be de-escalated, and ways they think gun violence could be eradicated. 

After having lunch, the young people had the opportunity to socialize with each other more. But the group got back to planning and discussed topics such as what leadership looked like to them, as well as improvements they would like to see in or around their neighborhoods.

The meeting concluded with a group circle discussion where participants wrote on a poster things they enjoyed doing during the meeting, plans they had to grow their ideas they discussed during the meeting, and actions that were going to take once the meeting concluded. 

The group also made plans to try to make such meetings weekly and then monthly. During the first few sessions, they said they may want to have workshops to work on skills that can be utilized in projects around the neighborhood. Those could include event planning, social media managing, and project management.

“As we invest in our youth to empower them to be successful as adults, we also want them to know their voices are important and can make a difference now,” Jae Slaby said in announcing the event. As Neighborhood Activator for the City of Kalamazoo, Slaby helps neighborhood associations create plans that are to mesh with the city’s master plan for new projects and development. 

She said she expected the  youth summit to be “a great opportunity to develop leadership skills and have a positive impact on our community.”

Conner McBride is a rising Senior at Loy Norrix High School. She liked the inaugural 2021 Voices of Youth Kalamazoo program so much that she returned to write a story for this year’s program. And Second Wave asked her to write this story since it was all about youth imagining the Kalamazoo of the future. Her interests include reading, music, baking and cooking, photography, hiking, and traveling. Sleep makes her the happiest and spoilers for a book she is reading make her the saddest. Her career interest is Executive Chef.
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